A screen grab of the course introductory message by Lisa Harvey.

Thousands attracted by massive online course for physical therapists

The first online education course to be approved by WCPT for continuing education units attracted 3,500 participants – with 1,348 completing the final evaluation and picking up WCPT’s International Physical Therapy Continuing Education Units (IPT-CEUs).

The 6-week course on spinal cord injury (SCI) was conducted online via teleconferencing videos, Facebook discussions and written materials. It was tutored by clinical experts from the International Spinal Cord Society using course materials from the society’s e-learning website.

Physiopedia, the online knowledge resource for physical therapists, organised the course. According to its founder Rachael Lowe, it has already had an impact on international practice. 

“The Facebook discussion groups during the course showed that people were already changing their practice with patients with spinal injuries because of the evidence that had been presented to them,” she said. “Some expressed gratitude, because they had had patients with spinal cord injury coming in and now knew what to do. Everyone on the course was getting this education and access to experts free of charge, and that made a real difference for people from low-resourced countries.”

The participants came from 110 countries with most participants coming from the United States and Australia. However there were also 186 participants from India, 137 from Thailand and 118 from Pakistan. 

The course included introductory videos from course tutors Associate Professor Lisa Harvey and Joanne Glinsky from Sydney Medical School’s rehabilitation studies unit. Because of known problems with bandwidth in some countries, these were not integral to the course.

Lisa Harvey said there is huge potential in this type of accessible online education, known as massive open online courses or MOOCs. With Joanne Glinsky, she was involved in producing the interactive physical therapy modules for the International Spinal Cord Society, which had input from 40 senior physical therapists around the world and took four years to compile.

“We thought that perhaps 80 people would sign up for this MOOC, so you can imagine what we thought when we saw we had 3,500! The course was primarily intended for students and junior physiotherapists but quite a lot of very senior SCI physiotherapists also signed up – no doubt they wanted to see how others around the world thought and taught, and saw this as a good opportunity to connect up with like-minded people, which it was.” 

Discussion topics were posted on Facebook each week of the six-week course, and some discussion topics attracted over 1,000 posts.

“We think people’s involvement in the discussion created a really important sense of community and helped everyone learn from each other and stay motivated. We also think that people valued connecting up with colleagues from so many different and varied countries.”

Joanne Glinsky said she finished with a real sense of optimism about what could be done if MOOCs were expanded into other areas of PT. “They do however require a fair bit of planning,” she said.  “We were lucky to be able to base our MOOC on an existing online module.”

Lisa Harvey and Joanne Glinksy agree that not all MOOCs are the same – those which involve sitting down in front of computers and listening to lectures run the risk of losing people, particularly if English is not their first language. “These online lectures also require good internet connection so often rule out those from low income countries,” said Joanne Glinksky. “But certainly there is a lot of potential to globalise physiotherapy education.”

Those who completed the course assessment received 15 IPT-CEUs, awarded by WCPT. 

The course was the first to be recognised under a new WCPT scheme of approving continuing education events and awarding IPT-CEUs. These can be used by physical therapists to demonstrate they are meeting their continuing education needs.

“We’re delighted that the course has gone so well and shows how well-connected the global profession can be in advancing practice,” said Tracy Bury, WCPT’s Director of Professional Policy. “Also, that a new era in approving and recognising continuing education in physical therapy has begun.”