Going Online: A Pedagogical Assessment of Bioethics Distance Education Courses for Health Sciences Professionals

Going Online: A Pedagogical Assessment of Bioethics Distance Education Courses for Health Sciences Professionals

Shawneequa L. Callier (George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA), Attila Hertelendy (Florida International University, USA), Joan Butler (George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA), Thomas D. Harter (Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI and George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA), Marcia Firmani (George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA) and Melissa M. Goldstein (George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/IJOPCD.2017010105


Health sciences professionals work on diverse health care teams and often face ethical dilemmas. Bioethics education in a distance-learning environment is one way that such individuals can obtain relevant, easily accessible, and academically rigorous instruction on ethical decision-making and behavior. Drawing on our expertise as distance educators in George Washington University's Health Sciences Programs, we discuss our experiences teaching bioethics online for health sciences professionals, assess the existing evidence of best practices in online bioethics education, and provide recommendations for future pedagogical research relevant to diverse health care professionals.
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Bioethics is a field of study that addresses complex moral issues at the intersections of health care, medical research, technological advancement, and environmental studies. Access to bioethics training is important for all future and practicing health professionals regardless of their roles. The high demand for non-physician healthcare providers and research professionals in the United States to deliver medical care continues to grow (MacKinnon III, 2013; National Conference of State Legislators, 2013). Accordingly, nurses and health sciences professionals (HSPs) should be as versed in the ethical implications of their choices and actions as physicians (Purtilo & Doherty, 2011). Paramedics, sonographers, physical therapists, clinical research associates, and medical laboratory scientists are just a few examples of the broad categories of professionals in health sciences fields who can benefit from bioethics training.

In considering the need to develop bioethics competencies relevant to HSPs, it is also critically important to assess the status and availability of pedagogical tools for bioethics education in blended and online environments. Distance Education (DE) courses are academic offerings where the instructor and students are separated physically and the coursework is offered fully online through an internet-based platform. This model is different from blended course formats that may involve some face-to-face (F2F) interactions as part of the course in addition to online learning. DE course offerings can include a single session or a series of sessions throughout a semester or year.

Despite the lower overall enrollment trends in higher education, there has been an increase in the number of students who have enrolled in DE courses (Allen, Seaman, Poulin, & Straut, 2016). Several studies report enrollment growth among DE students compared to traditional, on-campus students (Allen et al., 2016; Bichsel, 2013), possibly due to the economic downturn over the last 10 years (Kimmel, Gaylor, Gruggs, & Hayes, 2012). Further, over 70% of postsecondary institutions are currently offering courses online (Bichsel, 2013).

As others have written, health care ethics is part of the standard curriculum in health sciences courses (Wong, Greenhalgh, & Pawson, 2010). DE and blended courses may be attractive to future and currently practicing HSPs seeking a flexible course schedule (Bichsel, 2013). Individuals may opt for DE opportunities to master a specific subject area, such as bioethics or research ethics, or for other personal reasons, such as health status or the affordability of DE courses (Newell & Debenham, 2009; Oswal & Meloncon, 2014). To gain a better understanding of the merits and drawbacks of distance bioethics education for HSPs, we conducted a literature review to assess the available empirical research evidence on such courses. The discussion below provides background on the challenges that may discourage bioethics educators from teaching online or in blended formats, describes empirical research on online interventions and outcomes in DE and blended bioethics courses, and evaluates our own experiences teaching bioethics in the health sciences programs offered at the George Washington University (GW).

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