Head of Acute Care Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) and Senior Lecturer in Surgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr Juan Klopper, explains why open eLearning platforms are a valuable resource for medical students.

After eight years in private practice as a specialist surgeon in Johannesburg, in 2010 I made the conscious decision to return to academia at UCT to focus on my passion of surgical and statistical education.

As long time creator of online educational resources – I’ve created over 1,000 free online lectures related to mathematics and physics on my YouTube channel, and winner of the Open Education Consortium Educator of the Year Award in 2014, I am an avid supporter of the use of online and electronic healthcare educational resources.

In my professional capacity as Supervisor to the UCT Registrars’ Master’s Degree Programme, I was determined to use my interest in eLearning to help develop an online educational programme to help trainees with their research.

A real issue requires an innovative solution

In 2010 the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) introduced a new requirement which requires registrars in all medical fields to complete a research project and obtain a master’s degree from their local training institution before registering as a specialist. This is to ensure that future specialists are equipped with the basic analytical skills required to stay abreast with evidence-based advances in medicine.

Although the idea is sound, there has never been any plan to implement a programme to teach registrars how to conduct clinical research. As a supervisor to many registrars in surgery at UCT, I am especially aware of the shortcoming in statistical analyses and data science. A paper which I co-authored, which was recently published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ), highlights the problems that our trainees have in the mandatory completion of research projects. These issues include lack of time, lack of supervisors and lack of training in research methodology.

In the paper we suggest mandating the completion of a validated formal research methodology course for all surgical registrars within the first year of their registrar training. This is a perfect example of where a credited eLearning course could be beneficial.

The validity of eLearning

The drive to extend tertiary education beyond the walls of universities has now gained strong momentum through the success of massive open online course (MOOC) platforms such as Coursera and EdX, which offer courses at a reasonable fee and award the student a verified certificate from the University as opposed to just a certificate of completion. Many leading universities in the world have opened their courses online, including the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Courseware programme, and their founding contributions to EdX. Coursera has now even evolved to a stage where complete master’s degree courses can be taken on their online platform at a much lower cost compared to conventional methods.

While these efforts have up until now been driven solely by leading universities in the developed world, in December 2015 UCT became a Coursera Partner, allowing a first entry into this new era of eLearning for the African continent.

Harnessing eLearning for the future of healthcare

The partnership with Coursera provided an ideal opportunity to extend my teaching efforts to a wider audience. My course on Understanding Clinical Research was the first course to launch on Coursera and has now been taken by more than 6,000 learners across the globe.

The course requires active participation from students for only two to three hours a week over a six week period, and features pre-recorded videos, quizzes and projects and covers everything from descriptive statistics to hypothesis testing, confidence intervals, p-values, Student’s t-test, chi-square tests and much more. This course solves the problem of teaching South African trainees, and already many have taken the course and benefited.

I personally get no financial compensation for this work, and as instructor I have to support the course in my own time, using my own equipment. For me, as for many involved in this change taking place in education, it is about getting academic education to everyone.

I am in negotiation with Coursera and UCT to add new courses, both in teaching research and data science, as well as surgery. The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery recently found that the provision of timely access to urgent surgical care is not available for 5 billion people, which is a global health crisis more serious than many epidemics. It is my belief that the provision of our teaching materials to a world audience can go a long way to bringing surgical care to the developing world.

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