Medical School

Online Learning: engaging content for medical students

The global coronavirus pandemic has caused massive disruption to everyone’s lives. Students around the world have had to adapt to a new normal of teaching over the last six months. Gone are the days of lectures and seminars, now replaced with Microsoft teams, zoom webinars and google drive PDFs. More educational content than ever is being delivered online.

University students from all courses have lost out on hours of face-to-face teaching. However, there are students who’s learning cannot so easily be moved online. One such group of students is medical students.

Most of their classes can be delivered online, and have been at many institutions. Most medical students will happily admit that they watched the recordings of their lectures, rather than attending them in person, anyway. Small group tutorial and seminars are easily swapped for same content over video-calls and webinars.

Online learning means we’ll all be spending a lot more time in front of our computer screens. The quality of learning may be dependent on the quality of your wifi connection and hardware. Will this increase the disparities between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds

There are, however, some teaching sessions that don’t lend themselves to remote learning. The main two are: anatomy dissection for preclinical students and clinical placements for clinical students.

The online alternatives to these sessions may not be obvious at first. However, modern digital technologies have made it possible to rethink how medical students receive this teaching. For the past decade, universities have been trying to adapt their curricula to the modern age. The number of lectures has been decreasing and wet-lab projects like anatomy dissection and histology are being replaced with tech-based alternatives.

What can be done to improve the delivery of online learning?

When designing online or remote learning for medical students, there are three key things to remember:

You need to engage students as partners in their education.

In recent years there has been a fantastic move towards involving students in the designing and steering of their education. This has been shown to improve their engagement, their confidence, their sense of agency and their self efficiency (1, 2).

HOW? Three suggestions: 1. Hold feedback and focus groups at the end of teaching block and regularly throughout the year. 2. Introduce ‘Flipped’ learning into the curriculum. This is where students learn the content through tasks or teaching that can be completed in their own time prior to the live teaching event, allowing students to repeat the content as many times as they wish (3). 3. Encourage students to become involved in designing content for the course, including delivering content for junior medical students.

Focus on the design and aesthetic of your online teaching

We have all been there – you sit down for a lecture (at home or in the lecture theatre). You’re interested in the content. You’re ready to learn! The lecturer steps up to the microphone. The powerpoint moves past the title slide… You’re confronted with small text, a blinding white screen, a million GIFs and clipart images… Then you just completely zone out.

The design of teaching resources has never been so important. It is so easy to become distracted from online learning, and poorly designed teaching resources are a big cause of this.

What can you do when designing content?

1. Try to keep text limited to bullet points and short sentences. 2. Use images of real people over cartoons, (you can use the online images feature in powerpoint to find free-to-use images). 3. Stick to at most two fonts in your slide show, and try to stick to three or four set text sizes. This will help highlight what is a title, a subtitle and general text.

Rethink assessments

Luckily, the majority of exams in UK medical schools are multiple choice questions – which are easily delivered remotely.

However, an exam sat at home is testing an entirely different set of skills and knowledge than an exam in an exam hall. Any exam sat at home is effectively an open-book exam, whether deliberate or not.

This is not an entirely bad thing on my opinion. Modern medical practice is not like an exam in an exam hall, where you only have your own memory to guide your treatment of a patient. You will have access to the internet, trust policies and national guidelines. Therefor, an exam that tests a student’s ability to access and use these systems is much needed in modern medical education.

The use of these systems during open-book exams should be encouraged. If students are discouraged or banned from using open book resources for their exam, then law-abiding students will be hugely disadvantaged compared to the inevitable group of students who use these resources regardless. It is still a skill to interpret and use these resources.

In Summary:

Online learning is an inevitably in medical education. Students and universities alike must embrace this move, and learn to love it.

Virtual teaching differs from in-person teaching in a number of ways, and educators must be aware of the additional challenges they may face.

Students too must be cognizant of these challenges, and do their best to be patient and forgiving when educators are slower to take up new technologies than students. Remember, new technologies and ideas may well be taken up by medical students well before they are integrated into the curriculum.

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Connor is a medical student at King’s College London. For the 19/20 academic year he is undertaking an intercalated iBSc in Imaging Sciences, also at King’s.

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