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Guest Perspective: eLearning In Dental Education

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By Dr. Elise S. Eisenberg, Senior Director of Informatics, New York University College of Dentistry 

Elise Eisenberg BigHow do we innovate for the education and practice of tomorrow? Employing digital technology has been and will continue to be a major answer to that question. As the Senior Director of Informatics at New York University College of Dentistry, I have seen numerous educational technologies come and go, and found myself tempted to try out countless others. The market for technological solutions to educational problems has exploded in recent years, and there is every reason to believe that educators will face even more choices about which technologies to employ in the coming decade.

Many factors influence how we currently teach. While our resources (both institution and human) sometimes limit what we can do, the availability of digital technologies and the preferences of the millennial generation of students have led most of our institutions to embrace at least some aspects of eLearning. The next generation of professional students will have an even greater impact on our use of digital learning. Born between 1995–2009, the members of Generation Z are true “digital natives” who have never known a world without digital communication tools.

Even in the current millennial generation, many students prefer to take a digital approach to learning. The Generation Z students are accustomed to learning from the Internet and find it easiest to learn using digital resources. They like to take in information in smaller bites and typically have shorter attention spans. They also have good critical thinking and problem solving skills. They are good visual learners, and they typically have experience taking part in collaborative online projects.

Contemporary students find instructional approaches such as the flipped classroom, which blends online and classroom learning, both engaging and flexible. Pedagogies that encourage students to learn independently also help prepare them to embrace evidenced-based health care and life-long learning, both of which rely on practitioners’ ability to access information as needed throughout their careers.

Unfortunately, employing teaching techniques that rely on digital tools can be challenging for faculty since many of us lack the digital and media literacy skills possessed by our students. Faculty development focused on digital literacy and the use of digital media is urgently needed—and not just in how digital media work but in how they can be used. Faculty need to appreciate the pedagogical value of eBooks, virtual patients, MOOCs and other innovations (see Glossary, below) before they will invest the time it takes to become comfortable using these new teaching tools.

Students have considerably less difficulty than faculty when it comes to using digital tools. Some students are creating self-help videos for their classmates that are used as study aids around the world. But even these students need help in understanding how to use digital tools well. Training in how to interpret and analyze the facts they gather and share is critical if they are to successfully treat patients in an environment that relies on electronic health records and other digital technologies to provide care.

What does this mean for our institutions? As we move forward, we will inevitably become more reliant on eLearning technologies to educate our students. As this occurs, schools must become savvy in evaluating their technological options. Will a given technology enable more efficient and effective pedagogies? Will it improve the economics of delivering education and the potential for student success? Will it help the institution achieve its strategic goals?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, schools still have many other factors to consider. Paramount is how much a school is able to invest. It’s not just a matter of purchasing the technology. Schools also need to provide training and release time for those who will use the technology. They need to ensure data security where patient and student records are involved. And schools must hire people who can maintain the technology and facilitate its use. Without these supports, the best innovations may become obsolete before they are widely adopted by faculty and end up benefitting no one.

As faculty get involved in creating educational content and delivery vehicles such as mobile apps that can be distributed via the Internet, another set of questions emerges. Should faculty receive release time to develop new technologies and courses? Who owns the material and the technology, the college or faculty? How do schools maintain brand separation as faculty collaborate across institutions?

Answering these questions should not become a barrier to innovation. We need look no farther than MedEdPORTAL to see the value of new technologies that allow us to share educational content, and to appreciate the value of working in a community that chooses to share its resources.

Educational technology can empower and inform. It facilitates critical thinking, self-directed learning and information literacy skills. It also helps educators refine how they teach by analyzing what their students learn. Mobile devices and apps provide the flexibility for personalized and “just in time” learning, which is also impacting how health professionals access information and deliver care.
Educational technology can—and should—play a part in good instructional design. While not every dental school currently has instructional technology experts on staff, the diversity of emerging technologies gives every school opportunities to enhance education through eLearning. As institutions gear up for major investments in educational technology, individual faculty members can innovate on their own or collaborate with others. A list of emerging technologies follows, some of which faculty can tap into and begin using today. 

Glossary of Emerging Technologies:

To join conversations about the items below, search on using the hash tags in the brackets. For example, you can search for the ADEA 2014 Annual Session using #ADEA2014.

Blended learning <#blendedlearning> is a mix of online education (sometimes called virtual education) and face-to-face instruction where students have greater control over the time, place and pace of their learning.

Crowdsourcing <#crowdsourcing> uses the Internet to engage a large group of independent individuals in a common purpose. Educators are using crowdsourcing as a less expensive way to share and discover best practices.

Digital Games/Gaming <#digitalgaming> are useful in motivating students as well as training them. Current trends include the creation of harder and more complex challenges and games that require players to work in teams.

Flipped Classroom <#FlippedClassroom> allows students to learn content any time they wish, and class time is devoted to activities like case-based clinical problems. Students access content through podcasts, videotaped lectures and collaboration with colleagues.

Flip the Clinic <#fliptheclinic> is a recent initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They are putting together concepts and ideas aimed at improving the health care provider–patient relationship.

Gesture-based computing allows the human body to interact with digital resources without using common input devices such as a mouse or stylus. 

Learning Analytics <#learninganalytics> refers to a collection of tools that are used to process and analyze data about how students learn. This hot topic is gaining interest in many educational environments. We leave a digital footprint as we use online resources, and this data can be mined to help modify learning goals and strategies and to create a personalized learning experience. Virtual and personalized learning using adaptive software provides for learning that is self-directed, self-initiated and accessible anytime and everywhere. 

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) <#mooc> are disrupting education as we know it. They enroll thousands of students from across the globe in courses that are generally offered for free. They also incorporate adaptive learning routines, which track everything a student does in a course. These may well be the most important outcome in the use of MOOCs because they help us understand how students are learning. 

Mobile Learning (mLearning) <#mlearning> allows students to connect to data and participate in learning opportunities anytime, anywhere. mLearning supports the learner at the point of need and can support the patient at the point of care.

Open Educational Resources (OER) <#oer> such as MedEdPORTAL <@mededportal> allow educators to share resources and content.

Open innovation <#openinnovation> refers to the use of sources outside of the department, group or school to generate, develop and implement ideas.

Social Media <#socialmedia> has tremendous possibilities for sharing of information and data. Guidelines are needed to support effective use of social media for academic, clinical and career success.

Twitter <#twitter> is a social media platform.

Wearable technology <#wearabletech> is becoming more prevalent. The term describes devices, such as Google glasses, that can assist in data acquisition.

3-D printing <#3dprinting> lets users create a three dimensional solid object from a digital model using a printer. This technology (along with the CAD/CAM technology in use in many dental schools) is currently being used in some dental labs and offices to fabricate crowns.  


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