A quick search for “on-line CME” on Google (www.google.com), the Web's most popular search engine, reveals that many on-line activities are little more than straight text with a few hyperlinks and a Web-based post-test. Even worse are the PowerPoint presentations that have been converted to HTML, forcing the user to click through poorly designed slides with meaningless notes (if any), print off a post-test, complete it, and mail it in with a check to receive credit.

Few online activities take advantage of the Web's interactivity and multimedia capabilities. Still fewer incorporate basic adult learning principles like self-directed learning. As educators, CME providers have a responsibility to make the chosen method of instruction as effective as possible for their target audience of adult learners.

Soufflé or Meatloaf?

Web-based CME activities can be designed as nonlinear, highly effective learning experiences. For example, a set of questions answered by the user before the course begins or as it progresses can allow the online course to be customized to that learner's individual needs.

At the basic level, designing such an activity is little more than a few “if … then” statements, some HTML code, and a database. Turning these ingredients into gourmet CME can, however, be a complicated and costly venture. Inexperienced or incompetent team members can turn a magnificent soufflé into mystery-meat casserole.

Designers of online CME must consider faculty selection (are they capable?), programmers (can they communicate?), hardware (is it adequate?), bandwidth (will it bottleneck?), and technical support (is it available?), to name a few items. With every component of an effective online activity costing something, it is little wonder that the “Save as HTML” feature of PowerPoint is so popular.

More Effective, Less Expensive

Can a CME provider use the Web as an educational tool without providing online education? Absolutely! The Internet encourages the incorporation of adult learning principles. For a CME provider, perhaps it can be more effectively (and relatively less expensively) used to enhance live educational offerings, which is still the preferred learning method of health professionals.

For example, when a physician attends a traditional conference, he or she receives a password that allows access to a restricted site that provides supplemental information for all the presentations, videos of procedures, handouts, references, etc. The physician also can e-mail faculty questions that he or she has developed during self-directed learning.

Such a site reinforces ideas conveyed at the live activity and provides a forum for virtual collaboration. This type of site is easier and less expensive to develop than an elaborate online course and can be updated with new information as it becomes available. Additionally, a simple, Web-based interface allows a CME staff member with basic computer skills to set up a site for each live activity, creating a value-added service to attendees.

CME providers have several options when using the Web to educate health professionals but must focus on providing quality content and effective learning, and not just high-tech wizardry, to truly fulfill the promise of online education. Thoughtful planning and incorporating adult learning principles will help make the educational experience successful for the provider and meaningful for the learner.

Andrew Crim is assistant director of CME, University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. Contact him at acrim@hsc.unt.edu.

This is the first in a series of columns written by CME professionals, focusing on their particular area of expertise. If you would like to contribute a column, please contact Medical Meetings editor Tamar Hosansky at (978) 466-6358, or send e-mail to thosansky@primediabusiness.com.