E-Learning and Health Science Education
E-learning has become a more common method of education as technology has grown increasingly commonplace. As technology has advanced and a greater focus has been placed on e-learning, it has become a rich, interactive pedagogical tool that can increase access to education. Virtual classrooms allow students to do more work from home, decreasing the need for transportation, childcare. It also decreases the effect of physical and mental health conditions that may prevent students from making it to campus every day. The COVID-19 pandemic made virtual learning more necessary than ever before as schools across the country transitioned to online learning. Health science education is no exception to all of these challenges and barriers; are virtual classrooms effective for health science programs, and how can they be implemented for optimal results?
Most health science programs are divided into didactic and clinical phases; the first half of the program will be spent focused on classroom instruction, while the second half focuses on supervised implementation of the learned skills. Virtual learning is generally used for the didactic phase, because the clinical phase will take place in real healthcare settings. For the didactic phase, virtual learning can be a highly effective tool. It is often preferred as a part of blended learning, i.e. a mix of in-person education and virtual learning. Technology can provide new methods of collaboration (discussion boards, blog posts, co-editing a wikipedia page, etc.), new ways of transmitting information (recorded lectures, video conferences with guests from another state or country), and a greater variety of assignment-types. It can also involve automated grading, which can lessen the administrative burden on instructors. Even during the clinical phase, e-learning can help remind students of skills they are working on or enhance their experience. Virtual learning allows for what is sometimes referred to as “just-for-me” learning or asynchronous learning, when students can complete work on their own time, and for synchronous learning, where, for example, students might have a virtual class via video conferencing. E-learning offers more variety and flexibility.
As mentioned above, e-learning is often implemented alongside in-person instruction for a “blended” learning environment. This is beneficial largely because of the variety and flexibility it can offer, and because it can streamline some of the work of instructors. When thinking about transitioning to a virtual classroom, it is important to consider what might be lost. Interactions between students and faculty are known to be important for student success (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/636338/summary; https://muse.jhu.edu/article/381964/summary). Such interactions occur less naturally in a virtual environment, so it is important for instructors to consider how they will incorporate them into their e-classroom. Of course, there are also benefits to virtual learning that are lost in an in-person classroom; in addition to the accessibility benefits mentioned above, technical competency is a more natural component of virtual learning because it involves more use of technology (for more pros and cons of online learning, see https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1385). This is why incorporating technology into the traditional classroom is often beneficial. For ideas on how to do this incorporation, such as virtual patients or virtual tutorial groups, check out https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2600032/.
Having an idea of effective virtual pedagogy is vital; when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many instructors were left scrambling to transition their classes online mid-semester without any experience teaching online. Familiarity with the basics of online teaching can not only help instructors be prepared for future crises, but can help add variety and flexibility to classes.