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Defining useful surrogates for user participation in online medical learning."School for Surgeons" is a web-based distance learning program which provides online clinical-based tutorials to surgical trainees. Our aim was to determine surrogates of active participation and to assess the efficacy of methods to improve usage. Server logs of the 82 participants in the "School for Surgeons" were assessed for the two terms of the first year of the program. Data collected included total time online, mean session time, page requests, numbers of sessions online and the total number of assignments. An intervention regarding comparative peer usage patterns was delivered to the cohort between terms one and two. Of the 82 trainees enrolled, 83% (85% second term) logged into the program. Of all participants 88% (97% second term) submitted at least one assignment. Median submissions were four (eight second term) per trainee. Assignment submission closely correlated with number of sessions, total time online, downloads and page requests. Peer-based comparative feedback resulted in a significant increase in the number of assignments submitted (p < 0.01). Despite its recent introduction, "School for Surgeons" has a good participation rate. Assignment submission is a valid surrogate for usage. Students can be encouraged to move from passive observation to active participation in a virtual learning environment by providing structured comparative feedback ranking their performance.