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Feature Medical education

Are MOOCs the future of medical education?

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 26 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2666
  1. Ben Harder, General manager, Health Rankings, US News & World Report
  1. 11050 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Washington DC 20007, US
  1. benharder{at}

Ben Harder looks at Massive Open Online Courses and asks whether they will change the future of medical education

Carol Aschenbrener recently took Clinical Problem Solving, a course taught by a highly regarded professor at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine. Aschenbrener, who lives in the Washington, DC, area, didn’t attend lectures in person. In fact, the class had no lecture hall, even though some 28 000 students had enrolled. The teeming course was taught entirely online.

Clinical Problem Solving is one of a new breed of classes known as “massive open online courses” or MOOCs, which simultaneously promise and threaten to upend the way lecture courses are conducted across a range of academic disciplines. In the past few years, these free courses have attracted hundreds of thousands of students from every corner of the world and on nearly every conceivable subject. (The first MOOC that Aschenbrener took was on literature.) Online educational platforms such as Coursera,1 which offers Clinical Problem Solving, and EdX, an undertaking launched jointly by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have teamed up with leading universities to develop MOOCs. Enrolled students watch prerecorded lectures and use online quizzes and chat forums to assess their progress and collaborate remotely with classmates.

Game changer

For future doctors, the rise of MOOCs could be an educational game changer—or not. Medical educators are actively exploring how MOOCs and other online courseware could be incorporated into medical training. They agree that lecture based courses, whether online or in person, can provide only part of a doctor’s education. Yet some foresee an important role for online lectures within that context. “Online content delivery will be commonplace within about five years in medical school,” predicts Catherine R Lucey, who taught the 28 000-student MOOC and who, as vice dean of education …

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