Launchpad for Success: An Onboarding Model for Distant Learners in Health Professions Education

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

Health Professions Education (HPE) programs are embracing online learning to accommodate learners’ diverse needs. USUHS’ HPE program has developed a 5-step onboarding process to address issues of isolation and unclear program expectations experienced by online learners. This process is replicable across institutions, programs, and disciplines.

Sponsored By


Anita Samuel, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in the Health Professions Education program at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. She received her doctorate in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she now teaches courses on distance learning, instructional technology, and organizational change. She has also worked, for more than a decade, in Malaysia serving an international student population. Her current research interests include faculty experiences in online learning, faculty development, online education in health professions, and instructional design.

Extended Abstract

Brief Overview

This session will present a case study of an online onboarding / orientation process that has been adopted by the Graduate Program in Health Professions Education (HPE) at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS). The onboarding process is framed by the adult learning principle of self-directed learning and Bandura’s theory of social learning.

Introduction/Problem statement

The field of Health Professions Education (HPE) is starting to slowly embrace the growing popularity in online education in order to better serve its learner population. Of the 127 global master’s programs in HPE, 71 are offered in fully online or blended (face-to-face and online) formats (Tekian & Harris, 2012). As online learning accelerates in this field, it is important to incorporate evidence based best practices of online teaching.

Learners pursuing degrees or certifications in HPE are surgeons, medical practitioners, residents, and nurse practitioners. They are a cadre of highly motivated professionals seeking to enhance their skills in the field of education. Their busy professional lives are further complicated in the case of military medical personnel who are stationed across the globe and who can be deployed at any time. To address the needs of this unique population, the Graduate Program in HPE at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS) offers part-time online HPE programs.

Learners in the USUHS part-time HPE programs do not have time for a traditional week-long or day-long orientation session. While orientations might provide practical information on logistics, stand-alone online orientation modules often lack a social element. Taking into account the unique needs of our learners, we developed an onboarding model that would best serve them as independent adult learners.

The Onboarding Process at USUHS

Ellaway et al. (2014) categorize orientation in medical schools as comprising of three dimensions: cultural, social, and practical. These three dimensions were incorporated into our onboarding process. The onboarding process creates a space for learners to learn about  program components and coursework and to connect with fellow learners and faculty.

The term “onboarding” was intentionally selected in lieu of the more familiar “orientation.” While orientation activities are limited to a week or a day, onboarding activities are more long term and imply an integration into an organization (Onboarding, n.d.). In our model, onboarding begins when a learner matriculates into the program and continues for their first 3 months. It consists of a series of online experiences that introduce the HPE program and connect new learners to faculty and current students thereby building a professional learning community.

The onboarding activities are scaffolded to provide more support in the beginning with the scaffolds slowly being removed as the learner progresses further in the program. In each step, learners are given control over the process and included as self-directed learners.

Step 1: Welcome Email

Once learners accept their offer to join a HPE program, an academic advisor sends a personal email to the new learners welcoming them to the program and inviting them to a one-on-one meeting with the advisor.

Step 2: One-on-one meeting

The one-on-one meeting provides a space to welcome the learner, to build trust, and to show the learner that they have a support network in the program.  In recognition of the time and distance restraints faced by our learners, the meetings are offered in a variety of formats: online via videoconferencing, over the phone, or face-to-face. This allows adult learners to have more agency over the process. At the practical dimension, these meetings provide a high-level overview of the program including how the program is designed, program requirements beyond coursework (e.g., portfolio) and timing of program completion. They also serve to establish a social connection with the learner while implicitly conveying the culture of the program.

Step 3: Online synchronous meeting with the HPE community

A synchronous meeting is set-up with the director of the HPE program, instructors, and current learners.  The session provides a space for learners to connect with one another, to hear from their upcoming instructors, to hear best practices from current learners, and to engage with the program director about long-term vision of the program. To ensure accessibility and flexibility, the videoconferencing session is set up to include access via the phone, attendance in person, and the session is recorded for the benefit of those unable to attend.

Step 4: Follow up Emails

The next couple of months include further email / online communications between the academic advisor and the learners to ensure that they are staying on track. The frequency of these emails are slowly tapered off while learners are constantly reminded that they should reach out at any point.

Step 5: Regular check-ins

With the completion of the primary onboarding activities, a “maintenance” phase is reached. The academic advisor routinely checks-in with learners via email, phone call or synchronous meeting prior to each term.  The check-ins serve as an opportunity to review upcoming course selections, to hear how current coursework is progressing, and to gauge progress in non-course related activities (e.g., practicum). Annually, a more robust check-in is scheduled to review the learner’s overall progress in the program and to identify next steps.  

Future Direction:

As more HPE programs move online collaboration of best practices across programs is crucial to enhance student experience and performance.  This session serves to share a best practice for onboarding new learners and to create a space for programs to share practices that have been successful for their online program.

Session Structure & Audience Participation

This session will be structured as an interactive Discovery session and the presenters will use a dialogic approach to the presentation. The presenters will involve the participants in conversation about the scenario and include the participants’ contexts in their presentation.

The 15 minute session will be formatted as follows:

2 mins: What online student orientation activities are you familiar with? What is the general student demographic?

2 mins: Context of USUHS HPE program

7 mins: Presentation of onboarding model

4 mins: Discussion with participants regarding the model and its replicability

Learning Outcomes & Key Takeaways

At the end of this presentation, participants will be able to describe USU’s  onboarding process Participants will be provided with a template designed to determine if the onboarding model can be modified to suit their institutions. Participants will be encouraged to share their individual educational scenarios and to brainstorm other onboarding strategies that could be used effectively.

Participants will be provided with the slides used in the presentation along with handouts of the model.