OPINION: A year ago we put up a modest web page outlining our project to build a new, technology-enabled model for medical education. Those few paragraphs elicited inquiries from the American Medical Association, Harvard University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among many others.

This week we officially launch this initiative, the Biomedical Education Skills and Training Network, or aptly, the BEST Network. In doing so, we are cementing a global lead for Australia in technology-led innovation in medical education and introducing a new model that will not only revolutionise how we teach and learn in medicine, but has similar potential across higher education.

At the heart of Australia’s $4.5 million BEST Network is technology-enabled collaboration that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. The BEST network’s shared vision is that every teacher and student, no matter where they are, should have access to the best health care education.

Traditionally, medical schools across Australia, and all over the world, have competed to attract high achieving local and international students and have, consequently, been keen to foster their distinct, individual ‘brands’.  Each medical faculty has maintained its own core teaching resources and facilities – at considerable cost – and with much replication across foundation curriculum areas.

Through BEST, however, the Network’s founding members – the University of New South Wales, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, James Cook University and a number of professional peak bodies in medicine and nursing – are, instead, creating pooled digital education resources to enable us to offer all of our students our ‘collective’ best.

We are doing this is by building a suite of next-generation digital tools and resources common to medical education that are based in the cloud and accessible from any internet connection.

These include an ever growing medical image bank, rich, interactive virtual laboratories, virtual patients, online scenario-based training modules and new digital tools to annotate medical images for teaching.

The BEST resources are built on top of the Smart Sparrow Adaptive eLearning platform – invented at UNSW, and now in use in hundreds of university courses in Australia and the US and due to be introduced into science education across Australian high schools.

A recent independent report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, concluded: “Adaptive learning promises to make a significant contribution to improved retention, measuring student learning, aiding the achievement of better outcomes and improving pedagogy.

Adaptive eLearning is the future of online education. Unlike the first generation of online learning tools which limited students to one-way videos or lectures, PDFs and multiple choice questions, adaptive eLearning enables students to work in rich, virtual worlds and to receive feedback based on their individual capabilities as they progress.  For teachers, adaptive eLearning technology offers back-end analytics which reveal exactly how students are learning by identifying what they are getting right and what they don’t understand. Teaching and learning can be constantly refined to improve student outcomes.

Over the past seven years, UNSW’s faculties of Medicine, Science, Engineering and Computer Science, have been working with Smart Sparrow, and its predecessor, the Adaptive eLearning Research group, to improve teaching and learning. We are, for example, using a virtual oxygen electrode laboratory which was developed to replace a ‘wet lab’ that was too expensive for a single institution to maintain. The virtual tools can be used to teach the scientific principles more effectively at a fraction of the cost.       

Until recently it has been reasonable to argue that online learning offers little to medical education. Medicine is ‘mission critical’. It requires ‘learning by doing’, so it cannot be taught using limited online learning tools such as multiple choice quizzes, power points and videos. However, times are changing, fast.

Next-generation, interactive tools have overcome that barrier and we believe that much of the knowledge base of medical education will, in the very near future, be delivered online.

Why? Partly, because today’s and tomorrow’s medical students demand these types of rich, interactive adaptive learning experiences and, partly, because clinical practice itself is rapidly being transformed by new digital technologies and communication tools. However, the real push factor is the advances in digital eLearning technology that now offer unprecedented opportunities to do things better by working together.

In the real world of medical education, faculties everywhere are facing budgetary pressures to do more with less.

Access to high quality medical images, for example, is critical to teaching, research and clinical practice. However, maintaining separate medical image banks at each university is expensive and impractical. Through BEST, we are building a vast medical image bank in the cloud that will give all Network members access to far greater wealth of images that any one organisation can hold -- and will give teachers the ability to annotate and use those images to improve learning.

But, if universities combine forces to develop new next-generation teaching resources can they maintain their individual identities in a highly competitive global higher education sector?

We think so. Digital teaching and learning resources enable us to collaborate to deliver core curriculum content at scale. We have long used common text books. Now we have the technology to build far superior common resources.  

Medical faculties will continue to carve out their distinct identifies through the clinical experiences they offer, their research environments and areas of research excellence, the quality and approach of the teachers using digital online resources and other distinct course components. High achieving students will still be able to choose the course that best suits them. Meanwhile, we can make BEST accessible to more educators, students and health care professionals.

We expect membership of BEST to expand beyond Australia and, ultimately, we hope the Network will serve to improve health care globally.

We believe we have a moral imperative to share knowledge beyond our own students. BEST – and the internet -- make is possible for trainee and practicing doctors, nurses and health professionals from Cambodia to New York and from Melbourne to the outback to have equal access to quality medical resources and tools to save lives and alleviate suffering.

Professor Peter Smith is Dean of UNSW Medicine, the lead faculty in the BEST Network. Dr Dror Ben-Naim, chief executive of Smart Sparrow, will speak at the Melbourne University launch of the BEST Network on Friday.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.