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The courses and speakers were set. The contracts for venues were signed. The brochures were printed and ready to send. UAB School of Dentistry’s continuing education program was geared up for a busy, yet normal spring. That is, until the pandemic changed everything.

CE program newsThe program, that provides opportunities for Alabama dentists to meet their annual continuing education requirements for licensure, quickly changed course and adapted to the new virtual world. Director Ann Marie Karaki said, “As difficult as it is for us in the dental community to not have live CE lectures, our program is continuing to support the state and our alumni by hosting our courses online.”

Going virtual meant calling off the entire slate of live events. In the early days of the pandemic, program staff scrambled to cancel or postpone speakers and venues, while seeing if they were able to continue working with sponsors who found themselves on tighter budgets. At the same time the school’s faculty, who are the foundation of continuing education programming, were busy staffing emergency clinic operations while transitioning to virtual pre- and post-doctoral curriculum in the middle of the spring term. “Everyone was experiencing a new work environment,” said Karaki. “We are grateful to the people who were willing to experiment and take a chance on us as we adjusted to a new format – and we are especially appreciative of our faculty who had a lot on their plate already.”

The staff had to test the waters to find the best times to hold virtual classes when they had no information on which to base decisions. They experimented with a mix of morning, afternoon, and evening classes. Karaki said they tested classes ranging from just a few participants to over one hundred, but the real learning experience was working with the software to determine the best way to manage each course.

There was a learning curve for participants, as well. The staff had to reach out to their attendees, especially those who are not tech savvy, to help them get comfortable with a new platform. Karaki shared, “Rachel [Steadham] and I have provided a lot of guidance along the way, including holding simulated Zoom meetings for some attendees so they could feel at ease with logging in and participating.”

Ultimately, the benefits of a virtual experience for attendees outweigh any hurdles. Participants can easily register for and attend webinars at the last-minute, without the need for travel or hotel accommodations. They can have the same experience on their phone or computer and since live webinars qualify as “Live CE,” attendees can participate in the comfort of their own homes while meeting their annual continuing education requirements. In addition to virtual courses held on Zoom, the program has a variety of pre-recorded self-instructional classes available for attendees to log in and earn credit hours at their own pace.

Program staff have hosted almost 60 virtual and self-instructional classes since mid-March, including courses on medical emergencies, oral radiology, and new ways of treating caries. Karaki shared that since the team wants to offer more multidisciplinary courses, virtual also provides an opportunity to attract speakers the program would not otherwise be able to secure. “Normally, it’s time- and cost-prohibitive to get a national speaker from across the country to give a few hours. But now, we can offer a larger variety of speakers and courses with virtual CE,” she said.

In the end, their two-day virtual programs have formed the cornerstone of their slate. These included a dental update symposium in October and the annual hygiene weekend in August.

“We feel fortunate to have been able to host the school’s 14th Dental Hygiene Symposium this year,” said Karaki. A virtual program of 13 hours over two days, the team tried to maintain the same mix of classes and choices in an online format that they would have offered in person. She shared, “We had good attendance. After all, everyone could participate and even ask questions while watching comfortably from home – in their sweat pants, coffee in hand.” She said they ended up getting lots of compliments on their speakers.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then COVID-19 set the stage for a virtual future for continuing education programming.

Save the Date

The 15th Annual Dental Hygiene Symposium will be held Aug. 20-21, 2021 as an in-person event, if the pandemic permits.

As quickly as possible, the program will return to in-person courses where people can gather together and interact, face-to-face, with their peers. But ultimately, virtual and in-person will go hand in hand. “Virtual courses will remain a part of what CE will look like in the future,” said Karaki. “Virtual fills an important void because it eliminates the constraints of location, travel and time. There is an opportunity for everyone to participate.”