The future of e-learning technology in continuing medical education

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Published: 17 Dec 2014
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Prof Peter Henning - Karlsruhe University, Karlsruhe, Germany

Prof Henning describes the role of e-learning technology in continuing medical education (CME) for ecancertv at the 2014 European CME Forum.

Increasingly, Prof Henning notes, young people use digital devices, internet searches and video tutorials to access information, solve problems, and acquire education.

He notes the changing demographic of young medical professionals - with a generational shift towards a more tech-savvy culture - and how that will affect the future planning of medical education.


If you look in the modern society we see that most of the people nowadays are using mobile phones, smart phones, to access the internet and, in particular, the young people still going to school, students, are using smart phones as their everyday way of communication and accessing information. This will change things dramatically because if you are used to a certain device to address any information and get help in any situation, why should you not do this for learning serious things like at school, like at university and also like in continuing education in other professions.

What changes do you see in the e-learning environment within medical education?

This is a very mixed thing because e-learning has come up in university research projects almost 40 years ago and then has progressed slowly. The part of the world which is now really used to e-learning are big industrial companies which really train all of their employees by computer games, by computer simulations and by self-paced learning programmes. In university the thing is still a little bit behind because if you want to transport this to broad university education you do not only have to convince the students, you also have to convince the professors and this is a difficult thing as everybody knows who has ever dealt with professors.

In some parts of society also e-learning has not yet progressed so much and one of these is, of course, medical education. Nowadays students, especially in Germany, are treated quite a lot with e-learning programmes to learn part of their trade but for professional doctors, so after they’ve left university, there is not much content delivered yet, there is not much e-learning actually in usage and this has to be changed in order to get more effective and in order to accommodate also the needs of those people who are now leaving university and then entering the profession. Because if you have been trained to access this information and access your learning needs over the internet, you will also demand this for your professional continuing education once you are in the trade.

What changes need to be made in order to provide this content?

First of all there has to be a change in the idea of the medical societies which are looking on continuing education because they should realise that in front of a computer, if you’re using the proper programmes and simulations and video clips you learn faster and more efficiently and even more cheaper, actually, than by traditional means. If this change in the attitude towards learning has found some footing I think it will progress very fast.

What is the future of e-learning within medical education?

If I look at the e-learning industry, so this is quite a big branch of educational industry nowadays, they always have growth rates which are in the order of 20%, 15%, 16% per year, so this is really taking off now. Of course this is due to the fact that more and more of those young people who are used to a different paradigm of accessing information grow into the professional area and then go into companies, go into academia and then they demand also to have more e-learning. So this will really come.

There’s a second reason, the second reason is, of course, that the knowledge that we have in the world is evolving faster and faster. A few years ago I spent some time giving talks and, as a professor, told the audience, “Look, we have created more information in the past two years than in the past five thousand years,” which was true a few years ago. But now, 2014, we are creating the same amount of information in the world within two days. So the growth rate of information is so tremendous that we cannot possibly get hold. Nobody ever, even in a very small field of knowledge, can have access to all that the world knows in this area. So it has simply gotten beyond our human dimensions. To accommodate this you really need to store this data and access this data with the help of digital devices. So using a computer for learning is not only a question of, well, this is cheaper, this is faster, this is more colourful and this is technology, it is a question of where is the relevant information in the world, the most part of this relevant information is accessible over the internet and how do we access this? So, using digital devices in learning is not a question of technology, it’s a question of culture. If we have created a culture which relies on information and has so much knowledge we need to use digital devices to access this. So that’s the point.

In terms of techniques and content, what are the next steps?

There has been a survey made by a large German industry association, I devised a few of those questions, and this has turned up now in October of 2014 that there is really a large demand, even among students at school, for educational video clips. So looking at video clips which teach you something very rapidly and also in tiny portions has become the new paradigm. You can follow this even if you are not at school and trying to learn to solve quadratic equations. For instance, what do you do if your dishwasher is broken? A few years ago you used to call a technician and the technician came and charged you even for coming and this was a trade. But nowadays the first thing you do, you look on the internet, you call up YouTube and enter the precise name of your dishwasher and with a very high probability you will find a video clip showing you exactly how this fault can be repaired by yourself. So small open education resources, learning by video clips which have been produced by somebody and can be excellent and are found for nothing, that is going to be a very dramatic thing which changes the future.