Female doctor using laptop while working from home.

When online learning went mainstream: are we ever going back?

  • Education

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, online education was somewhat niche in continuous professional development. Many learners were wary, and relatively few educators had the specialist expertise to deliver it. 

When lockdowns kicked in across the world, however, almost all learning moved online.

This was a massive shift. It shot online learning into the mainstream. Advancements that may have taken a decade or so happened within months. And more than a few learners realised that online learning suited them better.

Not for all learners, however, for there were also those that missed the personalised touch, networking opportunities and even discipline offered by in-person learning.

In a paper published in the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 'Are We Ever Going Back? Exploring the Views of Health Professionals on Postpandemic Continuing Professional Development Modalities', Dr Dara Cassidy, head of online education at RCSI, has worked with colleagues to get a sense of the future of learning in the CPD space.

Using survey tools, my colleagues and I contacted healthcare professionals across the world including doctors, nurses, surgeons, physiotherapists, pharmacists and fellows and members of a health-care focused professional organisation affiliated to RCSI. They asked two questions:

  • What conditions inform [your] preferences for in-person and online CPD?
  • What is the optimum length and type of online and in-person CPD events, including industry-sponsored CPD?

The research aimed to answer a crucial question for educational providers – not just RCSI and universities, but for any company or healthcare provider that may need to provide CPD for its staff.

Conducted as the world was slowly emerging from the pandemic, it provides a valuable insight into whether the future will still be online, whether people preferred to learn in-person or whether they wanted a mix of both.

Course design

Together with my co-researchers, we found that while there is no going back – healthcare professionals still valued the opportunity to mix with their colleagues.

They were generally willing to travel to in-person events such as conferences or larger events where they would have those valuable networking opportunities that open the door to collaborations, grant and funding opportunities, and new ideas.

But they preferred that shorter learning opportunities, that may only take one to three hours, were online, allowing busy professionals to have that learning opportunity without taking away from their other work and life commitments. The researchers also point out the environmental costs associated with travel for CPD might be mitigated by online formats.

Perhaps surprisingly, the research found that engagement online could, in some instances, be higher, as people who may have been reluctant to raise their hand in-person could pop a question into the chatbox. But, otherwise, longer online events could be difficult for learners to commit to and focus on, particularly when it can be easy to check email, be called away or otherwise distracted at home.

The findings have implications for course design. They point to a need for online learning to be structured, engaging and innovative, incorporating elements such as virtual reality, short interactive group exercises and escape rooms, as well as new technologies that will emerge in the coming years.

As regards in-person learning, meanwhile, the research highlights the importance of ensuring that this CPD is focused on the outcomes that learners want, including those all-important networking opportunities and the personal connection with educators that can, for many, enhance the depth of their learning.

The ultimate challenge for educators, the paper suggests, is to achieve a balance between the convenience of online and the need for personal interaction and engagement. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but when providers and organisers of CPD events consider the main goals and purpose of the engagement, and whether that is best-served by in-person or virtual events, they can find the right approach.

Dara Cassidy headshotDr Dara Cassidy is Head of Online Education at RCSI’s Health Professions' Education Centre (HPEC).


RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.