Continuing Education

Options for Education

Published on

by Gail Reid, MEd; Staci Dale; and Russell Rosenberg, PhD, DABSM

Structured learning catered to your needs.

2012-04 03-01

A growing number of health care professionals—whether new to the field or seasoned individuals—are turning to sleep medicine for continued education. Physicians, technologists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and industry employees are now interested in joining the sleep medicine field through a combination of live and online education courses. Sleep medicine education providers throughout the country and abroad are working to meet the demand for courses that are both affordable and flexible enough to fit into the hectic schedules of health care professionals. Online courses offer both the affordability and flexibility required, but are they the best suited options for all types of learning? As the sleep medicine classroom moves out of the laboratory and into the laptop, what are the best methods of training for industry newcomers and professionals?


Currently, online education models can be broken down into three basic categories.

  • Online. The course content is delivered solely online. There are no supplemental live course days, face to face meetings with faculty, etc.
  • Blended. Blended courses function as a hybrid between traditional, live courses and online courses. For example, students could have minimal face to face meetings with the professor but might participate in weekly live group discussions in a chat-type online interface. In a blended setting, students might be asked to participate in live, hands-on training for a short period of time throughout the semester.
  • Web Facilitated. Essentially a live course with basic online offerings to assist the program. In a Web-facilitated course, students would typically have access to discussion boards, study guides, PowerPoint lectures, and assignment postings.

In the world of sleep medicine education, courses that would be defined as fitting into the online model are usually review or test preparation courses. Students are not required to attend any live portion of the course, and there is not a set start or end time signifying a semester. Depending on their decision at purchase, students select access to the course for a set time period. The student can complete the lessons entirely at a pace and in the style they set. There are also a variety of on-demand webinars offered by sleep medicine providers for Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits.

Current Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), offered by the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) and Northern Essex Community College (NECC), serve as two examples of the blended online course model. The Online Polysomnographic Technology course, offered at CCBC, comprises four modules. Modules 1, 2, and 3, covering general health education and sleep core courses, are completed online throughout a 1-year period. Module 4, comprising two, 60-hour clinical rotations and the review course, is completed live at one of CCBC’s three campuses.

The Online Sleep Technologist Certification program through NECC is a 9-month blended program. Students complete general theory and sleep courses online and are required to attend one 8-hour clinical lab each month on the Lawrence, Mass, campus. Students also complete clinical education experience requirements at sleep labs in their home area.

The Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine’s Essentials of Sleep Technology: An A-STEP Accredited Course currently functions as a Web-facilitated course. While 56 hours of this 80-hour course are dedicated to live learning at the Atlanta School classroom, the first 24 hours of the course are available online through interactive modules. The modules are completed prior to the 56 live hours, allowing students to arrive at the live course with a basic knowledge of sleep medicine.

Another example of a Web-facilitated course, the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) CAAHEP-accredited Polysomnographic Technology Certificate program, mixes online learning with clinical site participation. Students complete 26 credits of the program online, focusing on sleep disorders and medical terminology. For the remaining 18 credits, students select an accredited sleep disorder facility to participate in clinical site work. On-site preceptors work in conjunction with OIT faculty to give students a rewarding and useful first look into the sleep medicine field.


Live courses have both benefits and drawbacks.

  • Live Courses Keep Students Focused. The thought of remaining stationary and staring at a computer screen may be daunting to someone who has a hard time concentrating. A structured learning plan and live instructor keep students focused and alert.
  • Live Courses Must Cater to a Larger Audience. Traditional live courses must adhere to a type of “one size fits all” education model. With time constraints and a classroom full of both experienced sleep professionals and newcomers to the field, educators have to strike a balance to meet the demands of all the students. For the professionals, this can lead to boredom with information they already know. Newcomers without a sleep background might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they receive during a live course.
  • Live Courses Hold Students Accountable. During live sessions, students are automatically accountable for finishing assignments or quizzes. Technology is often closely guarded to prevent cheating, and they do not have the option of consulting with fellow classmates during an exam.

Like live courses, online courses also have disadvantages that come along with the perks.

  • Online Courses Allow for Flexible Learning. Online courses allow students to access their classroom from any location at any time. Students may feel more comfortable taking in information without the pressures of the traditional classroom, and may enjoy working in an environment they get to choose.
  • Online Courses Are More Susceptible to Cheating and Dropouts. While the flexibility of the online course is one of its most appealing points, that flexibility also leads to a higher than average number of dropouts.1 Some students need a structured learning plan to fully flourish. Also, online students may be able to “cheat the system” by rushing through assignments that test primarily for completion instead of actual knowledge retention.
  • Online Courses Are More Customizable. Providers of sleep medicine education now have the opportunity to release content specifically geared toward a variety of students, and allow the students to pick the learning level best for them. Educators can host webinars on topics as simple as the basics of sleep disorders to something as detailed and complex as exactly how REM sleep works from a neurological standpoint. Additionally, online courses allow sleep medicine professionals to tailor courses to their own need. No longer defined by an outline, online courses often offer students the chance to complete sections in any order they prefer. Online courses also can offer extra practice in the form of opt-in, end-of-chapter quizzes or printable handouts.

While both live and online courses have their pros and cons, a well-rounded educational model blends the two. A combination of live and online coursework functions as an ideal learning model. Live, on-the-job type training sessions keep students focused, while the core knowledge can be learned online at their own speed and style. While online courses do have a higher dropout rate, researchers suggest that online courses supplemented by live lectures or meetings decrease the number of dropouts and passive learners.2

Research also has shown that online learning can enhance the impact of live courses. In 2008, researchers tested a “spaced education” model on Harvard Medical School attendees enrolled in a CME course.3 The spaced education model functioned as a supplement to the live CME course, with researchers e-mailing participants clinically relevant case scenarios with two multiple-choice questions every 2 days throughout the course and after the course’s completion. After submitting an answer, participants received immediate feedback. For correct answers, participants would receive the same question again 24 days later. For incorrect answers, participants received the same question 12 days later. Of the 71 participants in the study, 90% reported the program enhanced the impact of the live CME course, and 98% requested to participate in further spaced education programs offered as supplements to live CME courses.

Online education is not the stand-alone answer to the future of sleep medicine education. As technology continues to surge ahead, sleep medicine education providers must find a way to blend both live and online courses to best suit the needs and demands of their ever-growing student population. For a successful blended course, providers should set accountability checks similar to those in a live course with the ease of use and mobility afforded an online course participant. While live learning will continue to provide sleep medicine students with practical approaches to clinical lab experience, a more blended approach between live and virtual learning will result in students who are well-rounded and prepared in both the theory and practical approaches needed to succeed in the sleep medicine field. SR

Gail Reid, MEd, program director; Staci Dale, business development coordinator; and Russell Rosenberg, PhD, DABSM, CEO, are with the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and Technology, Atlanta. The authors can be reached at

  1. Patterson B, McFadden C. (2009). Attrition in online and campus degree programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(2).
  2. Mossavar-Rahmani F, Larson-Daugherty C. Supporting the hybrid learning model: a new proposition. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 2007;3(1):1-12.
  3. Long A, Kerfoot BP, Chopra S, Shaw T. Online spaced education to supplement live courses. Med Educ. 2010;44:519-520.