Open online courses in health professions education: a scoping review

This research will be presented at the ER-WCPT conference in Liverpool, UK on 11 Nov 2016.

Despite increasing calls to integrate technology into health professions education, evidence to guide its effective implementation is lacking. Open online courses (OOCs) have emerged in the higher education space and may offer some potential for health professions education. However, the uncritical nature of the current discourse around OOCs means that informed choices around the pedagogical value of this approach are difficult to make.

The aim of this scoping review was to identify the current landscape of OOCs in health professions education, placing emphasis on issues regarding implementation and evaluation.  The study protocol followed the framework proposed by Arksey & O´Malley´s (2005). From 104 citations, 33 articles were included in the review and were analysed using the following themes: feasibility and acceptability, effectiveness, economic value, and pedagogy. Most of the articles reviewed simply accepted OOCs as an inherent good in HPE, with few adopting a critical stance. This was especially evident when looking for evidence of effectiveness and economic value of OOCs. In addition, health educators have varying interpretations of the meaning of ‘open’ in OOCs, with few mentioning licensing. Few of the articles described course design, and none reported on the use of learning theory to inform the design. In addition, there was almost no attempt by any of the authors to determine if any actual learning took place in the courses. There is an emerging acceptance of OOC in HPE, as seen by the increase in publications in this area in recent years. In general, findings were most often presented in the form of analytics that were gathered during participant engagement in the online environment.

There is a wide variety of interpretations among health professions educators on the meanings of “open” in the context of OOCs, with very few articles making any reference to the licensing issues inherent in the method. In addition, the lack of theoretical framework underpinning the OOCs considered in this review highlights significant pedagogical weaknesses limiting their application to the evidence-based clinical education setting. Most authors in this area seem to regard OOCs as having economic and pedogogical value, but few provide evidence to support the claim.  Health professions educators who want to integrate OOCs in their curricula should be wary of informing their decisions with the current research in the domain. We suggest that there is a need for more rigorous research into the use of OOC in HPE and recommend that educators using this approach pay particular attention to the effectiveness and pedagogical impact of OOCs.