Blog | Thursday, August 23, 2012

Massive online medical education coming to medical informatics

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the new development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and what disruptive innovation they might have on higher education. While noting that academic biomedical and health informatics sat at the intersection of the two industries having the least amount of disruptive innovation, health care and higher education, I did note that MOOCs could have an impact, if they ever came to our field.

Well now they have, and it turns out that one of my projects is playing a major role in their development. The Health Informatics Forum, an international blogging and social network site for informatics, has started to turn the entire ONC Health IT Curriculum into a MOOC. They recently posted Unit 1 of Component 1 on their site, with announcement of plans to add a new component every four weeks.

How successful will this effort be? There will certainly be value in providing learning materials to the entire world. But there are some caveats. First, as those of us in the ONC Health IT Curriculum project have noted, the materials are designed more for educators than learners. While they provide a rich amount of learning substrate, like all good education they require more, including a teacher, a structured learning process, and ideally fellow learners. In addition, any professional educational experience also requires a connection to the real world through practical opportunities, such as internships.

Furthermore, in any rapidly changing field, such as health IT and informatics, the curricular materials must be regularly updated and otherwise improved. It will be interesting to see how sites like The Health Informatics Forum address this latter challenge, particularly as the field evolves. (For example, the Stage 2 meaningful use rules as well as new HIPAA regulations are due out in the next few weeks. As of now, neither of these are covered in the ONC curriculum.)

One final caveat is that the total quantity of these materials represent about 20 college-level courses. This means that any one person will require a great deal of time and effort to work through all of them. By the same token, there are a number of advanced informatics topics that are not covered by the ONC curriculum, such as secondary use of data, natural language processing, and analytics, to name a few. Still, I will be eager to see how this all works out, and hope to lend my expertise to increase its likelihood of success.

It turns out that The Health Informatics Forum is not the only organization that has utilized the totality of the ONC materials as a large learning experience. Two other organizations have done this as well, one of which charges a fee, which is allowable under the Creative Commons license under which the materials have been released:

The discussion around MOOCs also continues to flourish in the press. The New York Times has run a series of articles, mostly focused on the two efforts led by Stanford (Coursera) and Harvard/MIT (edX) but now expanding to include other universities in their partnerships. This has included articles about the expansion of Coursera as well as the early experiences of Coursera and edX and one call for caution:
--Expansion of Coursera
--Early experience of Coursera
--Early experience of edX
--One professor's concern about the impersonal aspects of online learning I actually disagree that online courses need to be impersonal, but I do agree there is no better form of education that the close interaction between the teacher and learner.

It is still too early to tell how these efforts will fare, and what their impact will be on higher education. As one who has been teaching online for 13 years, I can say that learning is very possible, and often desirable, especially when the learner is separated from the learning experience by distance or time. We have many students in our distance learning program at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) who desire our education but live far from Oregon and/or work during the time that on-campus classes are offered. In fact, we have a number of "local distance" who live in the area but value the convenience of the online classes.

But our courses at OHSU are anything but MOOCs. They feature direct interaction from our faculty. Furthermore, students can participate in and get credit from structured practicum and internship experiences. This leads one to wonder whether MOOCs might become a means to deliver higher education rather than complete experience in and of themselves. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the outcome of this natural experiment in education.

This post by William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, appeared on his blog Informatics Professor, where he posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.