Digital technology and information have changed our lives. We order groceries in our pyjamas, choose our next favourite pair of shoes at midnight and video call friends around the world on a whim.

Historically, healthcare has been slow to adopt the technology. But as more digital natives become our next doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and allied health professionals should online learning replace more traditional classroom teaching in healthcare education?

In an article published in the Medical Education Online journal in 2019, researchers wanted to find out if online learning worked better than offline (traditional) learning in undergraduate medical education.

The researchers conducted a systemic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies of medical undergraduate articles which compared online and classroom-based learning in undergraduate medical programmes.

The online learning format ranged from lecture videos uploaded for students to view in their own time to interactive sessions with lecturers and other students.

Some studies found there was no significant difference between test scores and knowledge retention of students taught online or in a classroom. However, other studies showed student learning outcomes improved with online learning. No studies showed that traditional offline learning worked better than online.

The overall findings from the review and meta-analysis showed online learning was just as effective as offline learning and can potentially benefit undergraduate medical students.

Limitations of online-only learning

There are many challenges to ensure the success of online learning. Students must have access to robust technology and be able to engage in discussion forums, chats and online meetings.

Instructional design concepts need to be considered because effective online teaching requires more than uploading a lecture video for viewing online. Students’ motivation, learning style, level of engagement and the teaching institutions goals and their ability to manage online learning all need to be considered.

Flipped learning and blended learning

Traditional offline learning is often teacher-centred with minimal in-class activities. Using the flipped classroom model, students access to content before class which they can learn and process in their own time.

Class time with other students and teachers is used to consolidate knowledge through active learning, such as applying what they know to clinical or real-world scenarios.

The flipped classroom is a student-centred approach that can improve student’s knowledge of the content and test scores.

Evidence suggests the use of blended learning – a mix of online and offline learning – and the flipped classroom model helps to improve student’s engagement and satisfaction. Students also value the mix of online and offline learning, and both contribute to improved learning.

Blended learning can encourage our future healthcare professionals to become self-motivated and self-directed learners. Offline learning will remain an integral part of healthcare education, and nothing can replace traditional hands-on clinical skills and knowledge.

Finding the perfect mix of online and offline education may be a challenge for teaching institutions, but the research suggests embracing a new way of learning can benefit students. Studies have shown there’s scope for improved methods of learning and teaching in healthcare education with more research needed to quantify the advantages.