Undergraduate and graduate programs are routinely promoting online education. "Earn your degree in the comfort of your own home and in your pajamas!" Is this a model that could work for healthcare professionals? This question reminds me of one of my favorite childhood parables. To paraphrase; Johnny wanted to learn about the butterflies, so he read a book and learned all about the butterflies. Johnny wanted to learn how to swim, so he read a book and drowned. This could apply to learning the science and art of patient care in any healthcare profession, could it not?
The number of optometry schools had been relatively stable since the 1980s, when the year 2008 witnessed the addition of 3 new programs, along with rumors of 3-4 more programs on the verge of opening across the United States. With that growth came the realization that only a finite number of optometric educators would tackle the rigors of a start-up program, not to mention the development of the clinical population (ie, patients) that is needed in the training of the 50-100 students per class annually. The initial demand was met, but the pinch continues as more of our best trained, most knowledgeable educators retire or change their career emphasis. Add to this the ever-expanding job responsibilities of the clinical educators and the challenge of providing the excellence in education that we expect, and the challenge that we face is more evident than at any time in the history of optometric education.
A few programs have taken a less traditional approach to this challenge. One program launched a 36- to 40-month concentrated matriculation for selected candidates. Others have proposed a 3-year didactic/clinical program with a fourth-year, residency-like option. A program of decentralized didactic and clinical education has been suggested. Programs have used nontraditional approaches with varied success, but does this lead to inequality in the education of our graduates? Most certainly it does, as it always has. Each doctoral candidate has a unique clinical experience through his or her external rotation program, postdoctorate residency, and fellowship program. This has enriched and elevated our graduates over the years.
As to the future of optometric education, a shift to a decentralized, nonsynchronous curriculum could be wildly successful. Imagine accessing your lectures online during a specified timeframe. The material would be presented by a team of our most highly skilled, experienced educators. I see exponential synergies in this educational approach. The formation of an online or virtual community could also function as an on-call service to enhance the development of our newest educators and to retain the engagement of the most experienced in the ongoing development of optometric education as a specialty. The students would learn from the best of the best and develop a vast professional network early in their careers. Schools and colleges could model their curricula to benefit from reduced overhead, modest campus needs, virtual faculty, and possibly an increased student population. As for the clinical education, I see the external rotation system working very well in its present format. It provides a 1:1 ratio of skilled clinicians to students. In my mind this is akin to an intense residency experience for our students. Moreover, this model mirrors the learning style of the student in 2014. It is robust and interactive and has great potential. What do you think?