Looking to the Future of Continuing Education

With an ever-changing world spurned by the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing education continues to evolve in the online space.

The 1960s cartoon The Jetsons envisioned such futuristic advances as flying cars that folded into suitcases, floating cities, and working from home.While technology has advanced to the point where, like The Jetsons, we can work from home, one thing thatThe Jetsonsdidn’t envision is the notion of distance learning. For the record, Judy Jetson still had to show up every day at Orbit High School,but, as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know how distance learning has become anessential part of modern life, and it’s not just for children. Dental professionals muststill maintain continuing education (CE) hours, and they have come to rely on online learning.

Navigating Trying Times

There is no doubt that the pandemic threw a curveball into everyone’s daily lives. Suddenly, many things that were taken for granted had to bereconsidered. Many people found themselves working from home. The good news, however,is that technology was available to help make that possible.But, in a lot of ways, the pandemic just helped push CE in a direction it was already headed.

“Catapult was booking hundreds of courses annually for its speakers, meaning live educational events nationwide were still in high demand,” Lou Graham, DDS, founder of Catapult Education says. “Pre-pandemic, 2019, live courses were at their normal pace, but openly, we could see then, courses had to change.How so do you ask? Full-day programs often saw their ‘graying’ attendees leave after the lunch break, and routinely absent from these courses were the younger dentists.Organizations and meetings have been seeking out ways to bring these next generation of doctors to their meetings and this absolutely existed pre-pandemic.Even pre-pandemic, we did not see the crowds we had seen in the early 2000s at these large events – not on the floors and not in the lecture rooms.There is just no question, education is changing in our profession and gone are the days of 1 speaker lectures for an all-day event.The era of new dentists has made this loud and clear through their involvement in alternative ways of achieving ongoing advancement in the areas they want to pursue.To that point, one example of successful live education events has been those that focus on a specific field, such as aligners, implants, and sleep management, as examples.This is simply one example of the next trend, topic-focused events.”

He attributes that trend as being generationally driven. 

“The newer generation of dental professionals gravitate away from the ‘old,’ all-day, one-lecture events to far more alternative trends,” Dr Graham says. “Look at the trends in our offices. Patients of these same generations want to book online versus calling (the traditional way) and do so at times that are convenient for them. It will be the same in education. Are we seeing a shift in education that is 100% due to the pandemic, or are we seeing a shift in education, alongside the pandemic, with the ever-changing faces of dentists today? As the older dentists continue into retirement, there is no doubt we will have tremendous shifts in our continuing educational approaches. I don’t blame it on the pandemic. I think today’s dentists who are in their thirties and forties are going to really demand a different educational experience than one that we have had for the previous 50 years.”

Education providers have embraced the trend and seem to be happy to deliver what their clients want. State licensing boards, however, needed a pandemic to nudge the move in that direction.

“The State of Illinois has rules about the percentage of CE hours that could be taken online and in-person,” Ted Borris, DDS,Director of Scientific Programs at the Chicago Dental Society says. “Due to the pandemic, that rule was suspended for the licensure period that concluded in 2021.The number of hours required did not change (48 hours over a 3-year licensing period), but the mix of live and online did. In November 2020, the state removed the in-person requirement, and allowed all 48 CE hours required for the September 2021 renewal to be completed online by live, real-time presentations, or through pre-recorded video. In this way, online courses became a major factor in license renewal in 2021. Chicago Dental Society even provided 2 webinars on pandemic-relevant topics and had a virtual Regional Meeting, which offered CE credit for its programming. The Chicago Dental Society also hosted a virtual Midwinter Meeting in 2021, which offers significant CE opportunities for dentists and dental professionals.”

“CE requirements were not eased, however there was an extension granted to license renewals last year and there was greater ​accessibility and a quick shift of both our mindset and the availability of online CE,” Traci Portnoff, DMD adds. Dr Portnoff is a general dentist at Cornerstone Dental in Westborough, Massachusetts, and Program Chair of the Yankee Dental Congress. “It seemed as if every company and organization learned to adapt quickly, and speakers needed to refocus, as well. We made good use of our down time while our offices were closed.The other thing that changed, I think, was that deadlines for CE requirements were extended.”

A Variety of Delivery Systems

There are downsides, of course, to online instruction. But some of that, Dr Borris says, rests on the shoulders of the student.

“In my opinion, online CE depends to a great extent on the viewer,” Dr Borris says. “If a viewer puts the effort into watching an online course, they can absolutely get a lot of benefits. If they are distracted or are multi-tasking, the benefit will be diminished.”

For some clinicians, that learning model is not ideal, especially because they tend to thrive on interpersonal relationships.

“I would think that most dentists and dental professionals do best with in-person andhands-on learning,” Dr Portnoff says. “We were all forced to shift our thinking and learn a new skill– to pay attention to a computer screen.At first, it was relatively easy to focus on learning this way– early in 2020, while our offices were not open due to COVID, but now it can be quite distracting with all that goes on in our busy lives. I would go out on a limb and say that our learning at all levels has been limited– even for our school-aged kids!”

Online education is a good opportunity for convenience and efficiency.

“Online education may be, in many ways, the future of what we would call convenient education,” Dr Graham says. “You don’t have to leave your home – look at how people love working from home today. You can look at it online, learn online, take courses – whether our courses or curriculum – courses through modular systems. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. There’s a lot of dentistry that you can learn, without a doubt, online.”

There are some topics, of course, that are better-suited for in person instruction – at least for the time being.

“I would think that shorter, 1- to 2-hour courses would be best,” Dr Portnoffobserves. “I have taken some hands-on courses where the materials were sent ahead of time. This was interesting as a longer course, but I think it was ​difficult for the instructor to really provide constructive feedback to the participants.”

“Obviously, courses that require the participant to use equipment or technology that they do not have (lasers, microscopes, for example) do not lend themselves to online success,”Dr Borris adds. “The lecture format is easiest to convert to the online format because the presenter can speak and use media back-up to illustrate the points. Hands-on courses that do not make use of advanced technology & equipment are possible, but simply the nature of the online format makes it hard to recreate the same experience to some extent.”

But it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. A hybrid model can be employed to deliver the best outcome.

“I think the true concept will be blended learning,”Dr Graham observes. “Let’s say you’re taking an implant course and youget to the point where you want to not only know all the restorative aspects, but the surgical aspects. Well, I would tell you that much of the implant education could be learned online. You could have online modular systems. You could have some online restorative programs where they’re hands on, where the companies would send out their kits. You would start to understand how to make impressions, restorations. You can learn a lot of this online. I think the surgical aspects can be blended. You would learn the surgical aspects both online, but take live didactic courses – whether on jaw bones, let’s just say models, live patients, all that has to be live. I really see that as live, but that equates to blended learning.

“Blended learning really does give that opportunity, even for restorative dentistry,” he continues. “I think a lot can be learned online and then live learning could be working with the latest technologies andworking on them with live patients or models – head models, things like that, like they’re doing in dental schools. The future will absolutely be a blend of online and live learning.”

Even new, unfamiliar products can be distributed to dentists to learn remotely.

“Most dentists could learn how to use the majority of these products online,” Dr Graham says. “I know it’s a crazy, but I think we can be sending out samples. We can be showing them techniques, videos. Catapult is huge on YouTube, and we have millions of hits on YouTube. If we see these millions of hits on YouTube, where people want to go for quick learning, I think that’s where things continue to change, because a lot of this people want to learn faster and better, and not necessarily just sit in a room for 8 hours trying to get 10 pearls of wisdom. They want to get the pearls in 10 minutes, not eight hours.”

The Evolution of Online Learning

Online learning is ever-evolving. The model, which was already gaining traction prior to 2020 but got a boost from the pandemic, continues to be fine-tuned and improved.

“I think one of the biggest things is, as a meeting planner, I must realize that because a speaker is a good in-person presenter doesn’t mean that they will be a good webinar presenter,”Dr Borris says. “Some speakers absolutely need that interaction with an audience to shine as a presenter. Place them in front of a microphone in an empty room and they cannot generate the same kind of energy when speaking to their computer screen. The Virtual Midwinter Meeting demonstrated that speakers need to tighten up their material and rehearse their program to avoid running too long or too short in their presentation. You cannot count on audience participation to carry the day. The experience of 2020 and 2021 have forced speakers and planners to re-examine what they want to get out of online programs and led to some speakers to refuse to do online/webinar material because they were not satisfied with their product. Moving forward, I think we will likely see a mixture of online and in-person continuing education offerings, and hopefully this diversity of options will appeal to an even broader audience and make CE more interesting and accessible than ever before.”

“We’re learning and we’re evolving,” Dr Graham adds. “We’re now at the point where companies can do great hands-on learning programs. Those are already going out with products today. We didn’t do that 5 years ago and those education platforms will be the future. In other words, let’s say there’s a new technique. Can we do this on models at home? I think we’ll see more interaction online where we’ll be developing communities and learning together in those online in communities, where we’ll be able to have much more free access, be open to questions, Q and A sessions, panel discussions versus the dentist of the old generation, where the majority of them practiced alone. We’re not practicing alone anymore. I do see online education moving into communities,and also really directing dentists to participate in the fields of dentistry that they want to. Do you want to be in aligner therapy?Sleep therapy?Implants? I really see dentists customizing their own educational experience, and a lot of that will be both live and online.”

Utilizing an online format presents a challenge not only in terms of course material, but also in how it is learned and taught.

“​I have seen that instructors have gotten more comfortable in this format– often speaking to people with their ‘privacy screens’ up,” Dr Portnoff says. “This has got to be a huge challenge for our speakers. The technology, and our use of the technology, has improved and therefore offering a more seamless educational opportunity.”

Out with the Old?

Since online learning has become so prevalent does that mean in-person events are thing of the past? Not necessarily. Some things just lend themselves to face-to-face instruction.

“Since dentistry is such a tactile profession, there will always be demand for in-person CE,” Dr Borris says. “Dentists want to touch, feel, work with materials before they accept them into their practice. As dentists, weare cautious about investing capital or changing our procedures without experiencing the new technology firsthand. With regard to lectures, ultimately it is a personal decision whether someone wants to go the virtual or in-person route. In my opinion, the quality of online courses offered will need to improve greatly to become the main source of CE for all. This pandemic will end some day and, I believe, that people will yearn again for the in-person meeting not only for the CE but also for the camaraderie that is possible in person but not online.”

Like online education, expect in-person instruction to evolve, as well.

“Live learning is going to continue to change,” Dr Graham predicts. “The day of live learning, of a doctor going and getting an 8-hour course, that’s going to change. I see much more education with multiple speaker presentations, much more hands-on opportunities with live education. In other words, what we’re seeing is an evolution. How do we maximize a live course, given that you have so much opportunity online? Why would someone come and take a live course, because there’s so much access to online and video education.”

For better or worse, we don’t have those portable cars or floating cities of The Jetsons–but we do have the ability to work from home (also, for better or worse). And while The Jetsonsdidn’t predict online learning, it is a technological advancement that makes continuing education more convenient, and allows its delivery during trying times.