Insights into E-Learning in Complementary Medicine

Notes from the 2020 ATMS Education Provider Symposium “The Online Symposium for Online Learning” on Friday 22nd November 2020 hosted by Peter Berryman

A must read if you’re an online Complementary Medicine (CM) student, or considering studying natural medicine online

In late November I attended an informative discussion on education standards including online learning in herbalism and natural medicine in Australia hosted by Peter Berryman (ATMS Board of Directors). The presenters were Alastair Gray (Academy of Homeopathy Education NYC | World), Sandra Grace (School of Health, Southern Cross University), Martin Stone (Switch on Health), Serryn O’Regan (Evolve College). Here is a summary of the key points.

Online learning is not new to complementary medicine in Australia. It’s existed in both distance learning and e-learning formats for decades, and where I could see it really evolving at a whole new level was with the online training offered by the Australian College of Natural Therapies many years ago (now part of Think Education and Torrens University). When I was a student with ACNT I was lucky enough to have Martin Stone as one of my distance tutors, and so I was delighted to see Martin has created his own online school, and he was here on the panel. I have also recently written a couple of courses (Botany & Manufacture, Herbal Pharmacy) for his school Switch on Health earlier this year.

This forum initiated by the ATMS (Australian Traditional Medicine Society) delved into many important facets of learning herbs online, too many to discuss here so I will focus on a few, namely:

  • What challenges and benefits does a switch to elearning present for students in complementary medicine (CM)? There was a bit of myth busting going on here as well in relation to the quality of online courses. 
  • The role of digital technologies not only for CM students but for practising clinicians and how they are shaping public perceptions of natural medicine. This entailed also considering how open CM therapists are to the digital realm. Very insightful.

  • What qualities and innovations on the part of the teaching institution make for the best student outcomes and experiences. Lots of great ideas circulated here and this is all fodder for anybody who is considering signing up for formal training in Australia in the future.

elearning: Challenges & Benefits

The focus of the forum in general was the online learning arena in complementary medicine and the distinction between CM student bodies and other types of student bodies was made quite early on by Alaistar Gray:

While many student bodies are dominated by high school graduates or those in the 18-21 yrs of age bracket, this demographic makes up a mere quarter of the CM student body which is actually dominated by adult learners moving into their second or third career change. Thus, what is required of online education for CM students is specific, and markedly different to online education in general.

The focus of the forum in general was the online learning arena in complementary medicine and the distinction between CM student bodies and other types of student bodies was made quite early on by Alaistar Gray:

While many student bodies are dominated by high school graduates or those in the 18-21 yrs of age bracket, this demographic makes up a mere quarter of the CM student body which is dominated by adult learners. Thus what is required of online education for CM students is specific, and markedly different to online education in general.

Among the challenges posed by eLearning in CM:

  • Academic Integrity is a massive concern and in this age of mass media, passing of information in forums and social media, …google!…this poses a challenge for students in online learning. Sandra Grace spoke of the need for additional support for students in this area. Methods of detecting plagiarism and cheating in exams can be implemented in the online realm to reduce the risk of these things occurring including text matching softwares like Turnitin. I recently did extra training with Think/Torrens on this subject as they are certainly forward thinking in this regard and have been working on a structured approach to assisting students with their academic standards, maintaining academic integrity and avoiding plagiarism.
  • Similarly on this theme of the digital age, student attention spans are reducing and flexible delivery is becoming essential.
  • Australian CM graduate numbers are decreasing and thus new membership numbers with professional associations have fallen as well. Strength in numbers! This is certainly a result of the creation of the ‘Bachelor’ minimum requirement for courses such as naturopathy and herbal medicine. For better or for worse. That’s a separate discussion… If it intrigues you though, see this video here. 
  • There does exist a long-held prejudice against online learning in CM which should not sway the discussion of online CM education anymore. Rather we should continue to focus on meeting the needs of CM students and evolving and improving the quality of online learning (not just the content, but the delivery, the interface, accessibility and many other factors involved in elearning environments).

It was acknowledged that educational institutions need to be mobile and accessible online while retaining their campus culture, retaining student numbers and keeping to association requirements. Those with a strategy and leadership approach which also engages academic staff in the process are moving in the right direction. Something to look out for if you’re planning to study CM online.

Among the benefits of online learning mentioned were:

Alaistar Gray provided encouraging observations about how we’ve tackled the challenges of COVID-19 in the CM sector and spoke about his experiences in online education in Australia, USA and Europe. He has co-created the Academy of Homeopathy Education NYC | World, an online educational institution with a student-focused approach and the motto “Full Time. Part Time. Real Time. Your Time.”

  • Flexibility & Community: In the face of adversity this year we’ve seen creativity, courage and innovation in CM online learning. Nature Care College for instance, has transformed their distance learning model in the wake of COVID-19 and ended up with a sound proportion of students preferring the online delivery with greater flexibility, teacher engagement and student community going strong. There is a unique opportunity to bond with students online simply because you’re all the same size on the screen. You all have microphones, contributions to discussion are dynamic and chat feeds stream in more readily than say, a student asking questions in a face to face environment. There are still a lot of laughs and smiles!

Essentially, the flexibility and accessibility of online learning content may be just what you need to start a new career where previously you would not have been able to commit to the travel, hours and timetables of face to face classes, and the online platform doesn’t mean you can’t build community.

The Torrens online platform is geared to the student experience with constant teacher training in online education to continually improve the standard of delivery and learning. Switch on Health focus on flexibility of learning (self-paced, start anytime) which is so important to those seeking to study online, and follow this up with the structure required to help a student navigate their training once they commence studies such as check-ins from staff, community building with forums and group activities so that students feel that they are not isolated, and gradually cultivate a sense of belonging in the online space. This is not a comparison of different educational institutions, they are all remarkable for different reasons… I’m just providing some insight into the evolving face of online CM education here. 

  • Engagement & Learning: Martin Stone spoke about a long held perception that online courses are inferior to on-campus courses which was important to address. Serryn O’Regon of Evolve College also spoke at length about quality in online learning and student engagement in CM education. It’s been my personal experience that for theory subjects, the online learning experience may actually be better than on campus learning, and the student engagement stronger. Martin noted that those studying online are more engaged and self-directed in their studies and may actually ingest more content than others who learn in a classroom environment as result of that self-directorship.

Other interesting insights were:

  • Digital technologies are dominating peoples perceptions and ‘knowledge’ of health, healing and medicines
  • Androgogy (methods and practices in adult education) factor heavily into the development of CM online education in contrast to other sectors
  • Endeavour College will not offer face to face classes from 2021

In summary:

Learning online is well established, well before COVID-19, and moving forwards the question is not “is it online or F2F” but “whether its online or hybrid, how do we make it amazing?”

If you find yourself deliberating between studying online or face to face, work out what your priorities are such as flexibility, time, rigour of training, evidence based or more holistic? Perhaps you seek community and you have a pre-conceived idea of how that ‘community’ looks.

Think about the values of the school and staff and whether they match your own. According to Gray, in the future it will be  likely that you could use a combination of training environments to complete different subjects of a qualification which will revolutionise study in CM. Imagine being able to study anatomy and physiology, phytochemistry and evidence-based medicine with one institution known for their scientific rigour  (or even based upon the teacher you want), iridology and holistic diagnosis with another, counselling, materia medica and supervised clinic, all with a range of institutions based upon their strengths and delivering to you, the consumer, the best education out there with a mix of online and face to face. That’s worth working towards.

Comments below are welcome. How was your experience of online learning? What were the pros and cons. We’d love to hear from you!

Note: Those of you who know me, know that I’ve taught and often written for many colleges in CM in Sydney. They are all wonderful learning institutions for many reasons. I don’t favour one over the other as choosing where you study is such a personal decision.

To reference this article: Sze, S. (2020). Insights into E-Learning in Complementary Medicine. Wild Medicine Academy [website] Available at:

Imagery by Daria Shevtsova, Vlada Karpovich & Ekaterina Bolovtsova

Gray AC, Steel A, Adams J. A critical integrative review of complementary medicine education research: key issues and empirical gaps. BMC complementary and alternative medicine. 2019 Dec 1;19(1):73.

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