Covid-19 Summer Term 2020

Summer term 2020 was special. Most universities start their summer term in April and thus, with the onset of the Corona outbreak in March, their preparation time given the circumstances was reduced drastically. One of the major challenges was that face-to-face lectures had to be planned online. In a very short amount of time, new online conference systems were established, and the necessary technical support was partially organized with the help of student tutors. Even though people who work on international projects are already used to video conferencing solutions, the amount of potential technical difficulties is still high and bandwidth issues can destroy all previous efforts.

Instruct, as an e-learning provider, observed a strong increase in online lectures and virtual patient usage in our system. Even institutions that already use our system CASUS and offer numerous online courses outperformed their previous numbers (Graphic 1).

Graphic 1: Comparison of completed virtual patient cases by students from one exemplary university from April to July 2019 and April to July 2020.

The peak in July is the result of exam preparation. We also registered slightly more support requests, however, these were still easily manageable.

In the media, both researchers and newspapers made online learning one of their central themes, especially regarding possibilities on how the current circumstances will impact e-learning in the future. Their findings are not necessarily novel, as can be seen in an article from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/13/health/school-learning-online-education.html?smid=em-share), “[…] students tend to learn less efficiently than usual in online courses […]. But if they have a facilitator or mentor on hand, someone to help with the technology and focus their attention — an approach sometimes called blended learning — they perform about as well in many virtual classes, and sometimes better.”

In an article from the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, called „Schluss mit dem Digitalgejammer!“ (“Stop complaining about Digitalization!”) (https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bildung/hochschulen-und-corona-schluss-mit-dem-digitalgejammer-1.4985116 ), the author highlights the discrepancy between educators moaning about a lack of personal interaction, exchange and dialogue in e-learning, while in reality seminars and lectures are quite often overcrowded permitting no interactivity whatsoever, not to mention dialogues and conversations are rarely feasible. The author states that students might miss pre-Corona campus life, but educators believe and hope that various other reasons also play into this.

It’s exciting to see how this transformation will shape the future, and it seems as though we have a special winter term in store for us, too – this time we will have slightly longer to prepare. One thing is for sure: it’s time for more and better blended learning solutions.

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How to teach synchronously in a virtual setting

  • You need a reliable camera, microphone, and virtual platform and be familiar with its features, such as whiteboard, chat, polling, breakout rooms, etc.
  • At the beginning establish communication rules, e.g. whether participants should raise their (virtual) hand, use the chat, and/or just speak. Also, we recommend asking participants to turn on their camera
  • For small group work break out rooms work very well, just be clear about the tasks the groups should work on prior to dividing them into the groups.
  • For collaboration the use of integrated virtual whiteboards or other platforms such as Padlet are very useful. Just make sure prior to the session that you have everything setup and the links at hand, e.g. to post them in the chat.
  • Allow a bit more time for starting the session and the group works as there might be participants who are not familiar with the platform or technical problems might occur.

How to motivate unprepared participants

  • Make clear that the asynchronous assignments are a core part of the course and that its content will not be repeated. Even if it is difficult, stick to that when starting the synchronous teaching session.
  • If you expect unprepared participants, you can start the session with a student-centered group exercise mixing prepared and unprepared students to increase peer-pressure and make them realize that being unprepared does not feel good.  
  • Use the introductory or closing quizzes / tests so that participants can self- assess whether they have the required knowledge and you as a facilitator can see the level of knowledge and preparation of your participants.

Further recommended reading:

How to involve participants with different levels of experience

  • To account for such different levels, we recommend making use of the asynchronous preparatory phases which also include introductory quizzes in which participants can self-assess their prior knowledge and you as a facilitator can assess the differences within your group. Participants with less prior experience can also be guided to additional preparatory resources.
  • Encourage participants to work in pairs or small groups when preparing so that they can help and learn from each other. You could even facilitate this by dividing them into groups with different levels of experience.
  • Similarly, during the synchronous phases, we recommend forming groups with participants different levels of experience and emphasize the peer support aspects of such group activities.
  • We also recommend starting with rather smaller groups and allow more time than stated in the course outlines, if you expect a heterogenous level of experience. This way you can better manage this challenge.
  • Encourage your participants to ask questions, emphasizing that nobody knows everything and that it is important for learning to ask questions.  
  • Especially in the train-the-trainer course you might have to deal with over-confident participants, who especially in an interprofessional setting can dominate the group. This is a complex cultural challenge, but you could try to establish (and follow) communication rules at the beginning of a session.  

How to address potential overlaps or redundancies

  • Identify what is already included and what is missing in your curriculum related to clinical reasoning outcomes and compare it to the DID-ACT blueprint. Prioritize learning outcomes that are not yet covered but regarded as important.
  • Identify activities, resources, or teaching sessions with similar learning outcomes that might be in need for change anyway because of low evaluation results, teachers or students struggle with it. These could be suitable for adding or replacing parts with DID-ACT activities.
  • Ask teachers and students about overlaps and gaps they see in their teaching / learning of clinical reasoning and where they struggle. This could also be done by a reflection round after related teaching activities in the curriculum
  • Although ideally a longitudinal integration is aimed at, we recommend to starting small with a pilot implementation to gain experience and develop a show case.

How to teach in an interprofessional setting

  • Allow for enough time prior to the teaching for the organization and motivation / encouragement of stakeholders and participants
  • Allow for enough time and guidance during the course so that the participants from the different professions can get to know each other and their professions and discuss their different perspectives. This might mean that you need to calculate some extra time in addition to the suggested duration of the learning unit.
  • There may be a different understanding of clinical reasoning in the different health professions, so we recommend making participants aware of this. You could for example use and adapt activities from the learning units on the health profession roles to facilitate this.
  • Courses in an interprofessional setting should not come too early in the curriculum (not before professions have formed their own professional identity - however, this also depends on the aim of the course). 
  • Make sure you have enough participants from different professions. If possible, the facilitator could divide the participants in smaller groups with an equal distribution of professions. 
  • Similarly, you need an equal distribution of facilitators / facilitators from different professions.
  • Develop customized learning materials considering the different professions. If needed you can adapt the material and activities provided in the DID-ACT curriculum.

Further recommended reading:

van Diggele, C., Roberts, C., Burgess, A. et al. Interprofessional education: tips for design and implementation. BMC Med Educ 20, 455 (2020). (Link)

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