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Net gains: the rise and rise of the CPD webinar

How did you spend your lunch hour today? Shopping, walking in the park or sitting at a computer screen with a sandwich in one hand and mouse in the other?

For increasing numbers of veterinary practitioners, it is likely to be the latter. Not only are today’s vets probably busier than their predecessors, they now also have an obligation to keep up their commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) and, as a result, there has been rapid growth in the popularity of online learning. Webinars, a word not many vets would have recognised a couple of years ago, have become the most widely used form of online CPD.

Liverpool practitioner Anthony Chadwick is the founder of the Webinar Vet, which pioneered the concept of online clinical seminars for the profession. He says it is a format that can reach a far larger audience than more traditional forms of training. “We broadcast a webinar for one of the animal health companies based on a presentation it had given at a series of meetings around the country, and we had double the number of people logging on for that, than for all 10 roadshow sessions combined,” he reports.

The emergence of this form of online education justifies the RCVS’ decision to adopt a non-prescriptive approach to defining what activities may contribute to the minimum target of 35 hours’ CPD per year. Its guidance lists a wide range of different forms of CPD that are acceptable, the only instruction is stating that no more than 10 hours should be devoted to “undocumented private study”.

“The veterinary profession is very diverse, so it is necessary to give only broad guidance on what members should be doing. The range of appropriate activities is published on our website, but that isn’t meant to be a definitive list. New things come along, so we are happy to include anything that serves to maintain a veterinary surgeon’s competence in their chosen field, or to develop skills in new areas,” explains Freda Andrews, head of education at the RCVS.

There are many reasons why webinars and other forms of online CPD have become more popular, Anthony points out. “Practitioners do not have to spend time driving up and down motorways, and they save the cost of hotels for any face-to-face event that involves an overnight stay. Young mothers, of course, don’t have the worry and expense of arranging baby sitting and can avoid the cost of employing a locum,” he adds.

Conventional CPD courses can also be expensive with some meetings costing up to £500 for a full day session. Anthony Chadwick calculates that reaching the 35-hour target could cost a practitioner around £5,000 a year.

However, there are educational, as well as economic, reasons for the growth in online CPD provision. Unlike a formal lecture, the practitioner can skip over any parts of an online training session that he or she thinks is unimportant, and go back again to revise parts he or she doesn’t fully understand. Since the first webinars appeared, the number of CPD providers offering such services has grown rapidly, and the content is becoming ever more sophisticated.

The RVC’s CPD unit now offers three levels of webinar-based training: a basic pay-per-view series of recorded webinars; Webinar Plus, a series of webinars over a four-week period with online assessment activities; and the e-CPD format, which consists of a six-week (or nine weeks for VNs) programme of webinars, but with more opportunities for online interaction between the student and both the course tutors and other participants. The latter, in particular, is designed to provide a much richer learning experience, says Jill Maddison, the unit’s director.

Another sign of increasing sophistication in the online CPD market has been the emergence of a company providing ancillary services. Formed last year, Vetacademy doesn’t generate its own educational material, but provides clients with access to that produced by others. In many respects its service is analogous to that of a traditional academic library, suggests Vetacademy manager Jessica Debnam.

The latest initiative is to offer online access to around 200 videos, lasting from three minutes to two hours, and produced by CPD providers ranging from commercial companies like Improve CPD, through to public sector organisations such as the Veterinary Poisons Information Service.

Growing market

The market in CPD products that merge online learning methods with traditional didactic forms is growing. The BSAVA, a major provider of of both meetings-based and distance-learning CPD material, launched its postgraduate certificates in companion animal medicine and surgery to include a series of day courses mixed with online study.

“We had seen the growth in online learning and so when we set up these courses we did worry face-to-face might prove to be the less popular part of the training, but it doesn’t seem to be that way. People do still need the human interaction and we don’t fear online provision will ever replace traditional CPD. Rather, the two systems are complementary,” says Frances Barr, the association’s academic director.

Jill Maddison agrees electronic distance learning is not a threat to the major veterinary congresses, or, indeed, to the viability of smaller meetings. “For some subjects, like surgery, there is no substitute for being there in person because there is an important practical component. Face-toface lecture-based meetings are also best for those courses where we are bringing together a number of different speakers or we are flying them in from overseas,” she notes. There are, of course, those vets who prefer more traditional learning.

“Some people do prefer more passive CPD. They just want to listen to an expert who can tell them what they need to know. They like having the opportunity to get away from the practice for a few hours and meet different people,” she adds.

Frances Barr notes that while attendance at meetings organised centrally by the BSAVA fell around the time webinars took off, numbers have since begun to bounce back. Meanwhile, some locally organised meetings have produced a disappointing response from members, while others have done better than expected.

As well as the universities and veterinary organisations that have always produced a significant proportion of the available CPD, numerous other alternatives exist now, such animal health and pet food companies, charities including Animal Health Trust, big private referral practices and well-established commercial companies such as Improve International and CPD Solutions.

The message is that, technology-wise, CPD may have come on leaps and bounds, but those planning to hold a CPD event still cannot expect an audience to jump at the opportunity – it has to be planned, focused and highly relevant.