It's up to CME providers to help faculty adopt new technology teaching tools. An unusual conference showed them how.

"Our job as CME professionals is to coach faculty about how to use [technology] tools to make their educational presentations stronger," says Barbara Huffman, manager, CME Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana, Ill. "Oftentimes, we don't seize that opportunity. When they say they want to do a slide show, we nod our heads and say, `OK,' instead of suggesting an alternative that would boost the retention of information by the learner."

Improving the quality of physician education - and thus patient care - by combining new technologies with adult learning theory is one way CME providers can stand out in an increasingly competitive market, says Huffman. "If there are things we can do to enhance the quality of health care, then companies will start to channel their resources [to us]. That's a prime opportunity for CME."

To encourage CME providers in her area to take advantage of those opportunities, Huffman organized the Technology in Education Demonstration Day, held in September at The Forum at Carle, the hospital's one-year-old high-tech conference center. About 30 members of the Illinois Alliance for CME attended sessions on how to use e-microscopes, X-ray view boxes, cineviewers, electronic white boards, and other cool e-education tools. Attendees also learned about products that could help them, such as electronic registration systems.

E for Economical While some tech tools, such as cineviewers, cost thousands of dollars to purchase (though they can be rented from medical supply companies) sometimes providers can, with a minimal outlay, find tools to improve programs. Case-in-point: When Huffman planned an orthopedic course for primary care physicians, she knew the faculty needed a way to show, for example, where a hairline fracture was on an X-ray. At her local gas station, she bought laser pointers for $19 each, and gave one to each participant.

Initially, she says, attendees used the pointers to answer faculty questions, such as, "Where is an abnormality?" But as the session progressed, physicians started asking faculty questions and offering their own analyses. "People started chiming in, `I see that mini-fracture, but what about that thing over there?'" Huffman recalls. "We moved up the scale of difficulty to the point where they started to do some actual analyses. That's when the skilled practitioners go from good to great, where we move them from being consciously competent to unconsciously competent - to being able to do it in their sleep, almost. That's one of our goals."

No Evaluation? No Lunch Huffman put her message about interactive e-education into action when planning a session about the Scanmark 2500 Optical Mark Reader. "We asked ourselves, what would be the best way to demonstrate scanned evaluations?" she says. "We thought the best way would be to demonstrate it with relevant data. What could be more real than your learners' own information?"

Before lunch, she handed out an evaluation about the morning sessions, informing participants that if they did not turn in their questionnaire, they wouldn't get lunch. While she didn't actually enforce that penalty for shirkers, the tactic did motivate a high response. Based on the results, which Huffman shared with attendees, the conference was a success: 30 percent of respondents said their skill level about education technology was low before the course; that figure dropped to zero by lunch. Fifteen percent said their skills were high before the program - and that figure jumped to 35 percent. "It restores my faith that when you plan things a certain way," Huffman says, "and then ask the right evaluation questions, you do get helpful information."

When designing online CME programs, bear in mind that "directions should be simple," David L. Byers, education technology specialist, educational services, Carle Foundation Hospital, told attendees. "If it takes five minutes to figure out how to get into the program, chances are good the learner won't go forward. This is not school where the teacher says, `You're going to write this paper because I say so.' Adults need motivation to learn and have to do it on their own time. You don't want someone to be so frustrated they walk away saying, `I hate computers.' It's not the computer - it's how the program is designed."

Here are some more of his tips:

- Follow the tested principles of a good needs assessment. Consider your audience's learning needs and learning styles.

- Deliver education in short segments.

- Make programs interactive. After a two-to three-minute segment, for example, stop and ask the learner a question.

- Give learners a chance to practice and then give them immediate - and supportive - feedback. First, compliment them on what they did right, then tell them what they need to improve.

- Programs should encourage self-directed learning. Users should be able to skip segments that are not relevant to their practice. But, make sure to include assessment questions about those segments to ensure learners really do understand the skills or concepts.

- Include an "indefinite pause" feature, so that when physicians are interrupted by "real life," they can pick up where they left off.