Payman Nasr, PhD, MT(ASCP)

Distance learning is the result of progressive steps in the evolution of correspondence courses which had become popular in the first half of the 20th century. Over decades, as new technologies became commonplace, the correspondence courses adapted to the new technologies, until the 1990s at which time the internet became a regular feature of everyday life and propelled the prospect of distance learning to a whole new level. The recent advances in computer and internet technologies have broadened the prospect of the academic landscape, and today, one can be in remote parts of the world and access information about any topic through a cellphone. Indeed, online academic degrees and universities have become commonplace, and most secondary academic institutions offer online courses. This phenomenon has altered the concept of teaching throughout the academic scene and the clinical laboratory field is no different.

The most attractive advantages of online learning are location and time flexibilities, giving an opportunity to those in remote geographical regions or with busy schedules, to earn college credits. Compared to traditional teaching styles, such flexibilities are the primary advantage of online learning since other technological advancements may simply augment the traditional teaching styles and effectively enhance the students’ learning experience. New technologies are here to stay, and we should harness the power of new technology to improve our teaching rather than inadvertently replacing it.

Careers in Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) are dynamic, high-tech, and versatile, and require exceptional problem solving and critical thinking skills. In the MLS field, certain facts must be learned; however, it is not the knowledge of facts alone which makes a successful Medical Laboratory Scientist, but the ability to apply the acquired knowledge to real life situations. This is an important missing component in many online courses which fail to distinguish between “teaching” and “instructing” students. Simply providing the information for students in various online platforms does not constitute a comprehensive MLS education, and often results in unqualified graduates who struggle in the workplace to uphold the standards expected from well-trained MLS graduates.

One successful strategy to improve online learning is the application of case studies that are content driven and designed to serve specific learning objectives. Case studies strengthen the effectiveness of teaching by applying what is learned in course material to real life situations. By placing the students in a decision-making position as the primary investigators, students are encouraged to analyze the situation in greater depth to rationalize their decisions before reaching any conclusions. For MLS students, learning to think like a Medical Laboratory Scientist means learning to do both analysis and synthesis individually and with a group of co-workers. Hence, learning by means of group discussions to solve case studies encourages students to be active listeners and to incorporate their classmates’ ideas into their own before reaching conclusions. This fosters active participation of students in their own education and gives students a chance to acquire knowledge through facilitated dialogue. The applic tion of case studies is a practical strategy in online MLS courses, but of course, the role of the faculty is of utmost importance to have a successful integration of case studies in an online course. To integrate a successful application of case studies, the faculty should adhere to four simple principles: clarity, brevity, constructiveness, and diligence.

Clarity: The diversity of technologically savvy students in an online setting should be taken into consideration. At the beginning of each course, faculty should make clear what is expected from the students in discussion forums, how the students should participate in case analysis, and where to find meaningful resources to solve the cases. The faculty should be actively monitoring the discussion trends and intervene if there is inadequate participation by students.

Brevity: Lengthy explanations are often not as helpful as short but precise comments. While monitoring the discussion boards, frequent, specific, and punctual comments may be time consuming for the faculty but are the most essential component of a successful application of case studies in an online format.

Constructiveness: Faculty comments should not directly provide answers to students’ questions but act as a bridge to build upon what students have learned in the course and arrive at something they do not know. The faculty feedback should encourage students to analyze the cases through proper research and facilitated dialogue with other classmates.

Diligence: To succeed in case study application in an online format, one cannot overemphasize the importance of faculty diligence. Continuous monitoring of discussion boards keeps the students actively engaged in discussions. If the faculty is not engaged, the students will not effectively engage.

While there is no single method of teaching an effective online course, the rapidly changing nature of healthcare professionals’ education substantiate the application of effective teaching strategies as case studies, which regardless of the students’ backgrounds and level of experience, improves their level of comprehension and interest in the subject matter. In MLS, the application of case studies will be particularly beneficial for the students’ transition from an academic setting into the clinical setting and ultimately patient management. Hence, the MLS community needs to develop basic standards for MLS online education that combines the strength of the available technology with the traditional principles and standards of MLS to ensure the education of well-qualified MLS graduates.