What to Look for in Online Dental Continuing Education


Online education is everywhere and covers everything dental clinicians need to know. We cover why online education is attractive to many dental professionals and what to look for to find quality online education programs.

What to Look for in Online Dental Continuing Education. Image courtesy of Djavan Rodriguez/stock.adobe.com.

What to Look for in Online Dental Continuing Education. Image courtesy of Djavan Rodriguez/stock.adobe.com.

Online education is everywhere and covers everything dental clinicians need to know. But why is it so popular and how can you tell what a quality program is and what isn’t? Online education is attractive to many dental professionals, so it is vital to know what to look for to find quality online training programs.

William Lee, DDS, has a private practice in San Francisco and is chair of the California Dental Association's (CDA) Board of Managers, overseeing their dental conventions and continuing education (CE) opportunities for members. He says dentistry is a unique profession because dentists have many roles from clinician to human resources professional to small business owner, among others. He says the ease of online learning helps a swamped clinician get the CE they need while running a practice.

"So, as a professional, we're very busy trying to manage all of these different aspects of our career and profession. Online education helps us get the continuing education we need to maintain our license right now," Dr Lee says. “While CDA believes online learning cannot replace the experience of in-person learning at a dental convention like CDA Presents, we’ve embraced the opportunity to provide our members choice as their needs have evolved.”

Philip Klein, DMD, Founder and Chairman of the Board for Viva Learning, LLC., which offers free online dental CE, agrees that online education is an excellent resource for clinicians. Viva Learning started in 1999 before general internet bandwidth could handle video streaming. In time, bandwidth increased, and now Dr Klein jokes that his attendees can enjoy user-friendly content without "suffering with buffering."

Today, Viva Learning has over 1200 hours of dental content available online and enjoys 800,000 page views and monthly audiences of 35,000 for podcasts and 75,000 for webinars. Dr Klein thinks part of the appeal is that the nuances of dentistry allow for diversification in online programs, which range from dental hygiene topics to the latest and greatest with adhesive dentistry to techniques for implant dentistry, among dozens and dozens of other topics. This diversity of research-backed content is something Dr Klein has cultivated at Viva Learning over the past two decades along with a stable of established presenters.

"Viva Learning has an incredible editorial board of key opinion leaders that have proven themselves nationally and internationally as well-respected speakers," Dr Klein says.

There are also cultural changes that drive clinician preferences, too. The COVID-19 pandemic changed how many clinicians felt about online learning. Plus, generational differences account for some dentists’ choices.

"The last 2 years of the pandemic, with everything shut down, meant people needed to learn differently. The new dentists want online options; they're even learning things on TikTok," Dr Lee says. "Balancing in-person and online learning options is important to meet the expectations of this next generation of learners."

The Many Benefits of Online Learning

Sarah Gargani, Director of CDA's Learning & Development, agrees that online education has come a long way in the last decade. The improvements to accessibility and quality available today make it easier for clinicians to use online programs for their clinical education and professional development. Moreover, newly graduated clinicians expect online options.

"It's like the Google or Amazon effect," Gargani explains. "We want things to be easy, and it needs to be instant at our fingertips. Online learning offers flexibility because it's on-demand and self-paced."

Gargani says that it also serves those new graduates who are establishing their practices and working hard to pay off their student loan debt. Online learning reduces the costs of that critical clinical education by reducing travel expenses and time spent away from the practice. Moreover, online programs can increase collaborative opportunities with peers.

"While in-person networking continues to be incredibly valuable, online learning can also create connections. It could be peers from New York or Florida or Texas participating in online cohort learning together," Gargani says.

Gargani also sees a lot of benefits to online programs for all the other aspects of running a dental practice beyond clinical skills. For example, with the balancing act clinicians have every day managing multiple priorities, taking an hour to an hour and a half of training that enhances leadership or practice management provides excellent insight for clinicians. Working in learning and development, Gargani says CDA offers a robust library of free or nominally priced online content for its members and their dental teams.

The CDA is also exploring blended and hybrid learning programs that leverage the strengths of in-person and online delivery methods. In 2023, the CDA will launch a year-long continuum for their members that starts with virtual education, moves to hands-on application, and then to a study group followed by more hands-on learning.

"Blended learning increases retention through that experience because you're reading about it, hearing a lecture, working hands on and talking with peers," Gargani says. "You combine that entire experience to get the best from your education, which is holistic from all angles. So, it retains some of the cost savings and convenience of online education but then couples that idea with the strength of in-person learning, which is going somewhere to apply what you’ve learned."

Dr Klein says that most states require half of the online education to be live and the other self-study. However, he thinks that online education can handle most, if not all, of those requirements.

Plus, there are some advantages to online learning over in-person besides the travel savings. For example, presenters have access to all their materials during a presentation. Presenters can see all the questions attendees have where they might miss a raised hand at an in-person event. Also, the company usually records the presentation and makes it available to access the next day, so clinicians can review it again after and skip taking notes.

"A majority of the learning could be done better online than in person," Dr Klein says.

Common Features of a Superior Online Education Program

All online content is not created equal. When clinicians decide to sign up for online education, there are a few things to look for to ensure that the program will be beneficial, including:

  • ADA CERP (Continuing Education Recognition Program) and AGD (Academy of General Dentistry) PACE accreditation: Every state's dental board has requirements for continuing education (CE) relating to clinical care. Any online CE programs should have met the high standards for both ADA CERP and AGD PACE programs, Dr Klein says, which, among other requirements, have strict guidelines regarding commercialization. These organizations ensure that the content provider meets the regulations and stays within the defined boundaries of quality CE programming. Dr Klein says it also ensures that the clinician gets unbiased CE rather than an infomercial for a product.
  • Interaction: Gargani thinks attendee interaction is critical for online programs. If it lacks interaction, it is easy to get distracted and miss out on essential learning, especially when the topic is lengthy. Dr Klein adds that a good online company will also interact with attendees after the event, providing information about upcoming presentations on topics of interest for their user base.
  • Excellent User Experience: Dr Klein says that the company you use for online education must have superior and reliable technology. Also, the content should be easy to access without making users "jump through a lot of hoops." Moreover, if the event is live, it should start on time because the clinicians' time is valuable.
  • Timeliness: Content should be up-to-date and refreshed constantly, Gargani says. The CDA has a team that looks at regulations, compliance, and human resources law and then pulls outdated content to update it. They also change out content, hosting current programs for a period before they pull them down and replace them with something new. She says these habits for refreshing content tell clinicians a lot about the source where they access it.
  • Affordability: With so much complimentary CE content available online, clinicians should not pay a lot for an online program, Dr Klein says.

In addition to all these attributes, there is something to be said for experience, Dr Klein says. Companies that focus on providing online dental CE as their core business should know what works best, and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t.

"There's a tremendous advantage to working with a company that specializes in delivering CE, from the technology to the management to vetting the key opinion leaders to making sure these are the best speakers possible for the topic,” Dr Klein explains. “At Viva Learning, for the last 20 years—based on customer feedback and focus groups—we’ve continued to optimize user experience with new technologies and site design for our 350,000 dental professional subscribers worldwide.As a result, we’ve made it easy and enjoyable to learn and earn CE credit online at Viva Learning.”

Gargani says the demand for online content is high, fulfilling many needs for a dentist, from board-licensing requirements to state and federal employer-required training to clinical content. With 27,000 members, Gargani says CDA provides it to be responsive to their needs, constantly updating how and what CDA makes available, including some in-person content from its CDA Presents conferences that’s offered on-demand after the event.

“We've also been able to partner with the CDA Journal, our scientific publication, where someone can go online and read the digital publication, and then go into the on-demand platform to take a quiz to earn certificates that way, too," Gargani says.

Dr Lee says CDA is constantly refining its approach to education content and believes that the most critical element of any education offering is the quality ofcontent. CDA believe that as long as the content is good, any dental topic can have an online education component.

“We have a brand at CDA, and it’s a trusted brand,” Dr Lee agrees. “We want to make sure that we provide a product that is the best use to our members.”

“Our dentists are balancing seeing patients, practicing dentistry, running a small business, and managing a team. Plus, that patient management aspect is really difficult,” Gargani agrees. “So, for them to easily be able to take continuing education on leadership,practice management, clinical content, or something for their HR role is a great benefit for them.”

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