What You Need to Know About Online Learning for Allied HealthProfessionals

The health care industry is rapidly changing, and is one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for professionals in this field will grow by more than 36% over the next few years. Because of the rapid growth of this field, those interested in earning degrees in Allied Health have also changed. Not everyone is pursuing a career in an Allied Health field right out of high school; now students may also be mature, employed individuals who have complex family responsibilities. Or perhaps they live or work some distance from the colleges and universities where they'd like to study.

It's becoming harder than ever to advance your career while managing your already full life. Luckily, online learning has stepped in to fill this gap. Colleges, Community Colleges and Vocational and Technical School are all addressing these changing needs by using advanced technologies such as the Internet to help student earn their degrees. This enables institutions to reach beyond the traditional classrooms to deliver an education to students located in different, non-centralized locations.

So how, exactly, does one learn online? The various tools used for online education include the following:

o E-mail. Course papers and draft materials may be sent, commented on, and returned as attached documents.

o Listservs: This is a one-to-many communication exchange. People subscribe to listservs based on discussion topics that interest them.

o Discussion Groups. These groups are retained in a specified area on the Internet. You must go to the discussion group to post your comments and read and reply to the comments of others. All the comments can be viewed easily and in sequence.

o Chat Rooms. Chat is synchronous communication as the participants are online at the same time talking to each other.

o Streaming Video. Entire lectures can be delivered using streaming video technology.

o Desktop Videoconferencing. With a small camera mounted on top of the computer, students and faculty members are able to see and talk with each other using desktop videoconferencing software.

o Web Sites. Components of or the entire course content can be delivered through the creation of a Web site.

When deciding to take online courses, other factors must be considered. What you need to participate in online classes varies with the sophistication of the tools used by the course instructor. Sending and receiving e-mail, participating in discussion groups, and viewing online syllabi require fairly simple technology. You need a computer with a modem and Internet access. Video streaming and desktop video conferencing require additional software and systems. It is important to investigate any technology issues in your area before undertaking a course. Access to the campus bookstore and library is critical, and journal articles must be available online.

Some advantages of distance learning are:

o Student-Centered versus Instructor-Directed Learning. Students take an active role in their own learning experience.

o Flexibility. Students may work at their own computers on a weekend or the middle of the night, not having to worry about library hours or driving in bad weather.

o Accessibility. Geographic proximity or time constraints do not prohibit students from utilizing these courses.

o Student Interaction Increases. Students not only listen and take notes, but they also pose ideas to and ask questions of the instructor as well as other students in discussion groups.

o Collaboration and Team Problem Solving. Using asynchronous and synchronous communication tools, students can work together on projects much more easily.

o Increased Sharing of Knowledge. In the traditional classroom, the instructor is the primary source of information. In distance learning, students have a greater opportunity to share their knowledge and experience, allowing the members of the group to learn from each other.

o Immediate Access to Updated Material. Any material or announcements that have been changed can be distributed instantly.

o Developing Technology Skills. Students are learning technology skills that they can apply later in their work setting.

Some important factors should be considered when deciding if online learning is right for you. While it has been shown that students can learn course content online as well as in the traditional classroom setting, less information is available on socialization issues related to those working in health care. Happily, careful selection of clinical settings for experience, on-site preceptors, requirements for certain on-campus experiences, and group attendance of students and faculty members at regional or national meetings are some methods used to assist socialization.

When selecting your educational program, you should clearly define your goals for your educational experiences. If you want a degree from a particular institution but do not want to move or travel there, you need to explore the online opportunities offered. You need to remember that it is not an either/or proposition. You may be able to combine traditional classroom-based courses with online learning for selected courses to optimize your overall educational program.

Online learning is being used by more and more educational institutions to provide both degrees and continuing education. As noted above, the world is changing and so is the way we deliver health care education. Online education has opened a world of opportunities to students and faculty members.