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Technical Degrees

Our classrooms leverage the latest educational technology to match the learning styles of today’s tech-savvy medical students

The New Physician April 2010

Classroom techA fortune might not be at stake, but the audience’s response could prove invaluable to a medical school professor. Using a hand-held “clicker,” students could answer the million-dollar question: whether the lecture is getting through to them or not. This level of interactivity is the hallmark of today’s classroom.

Classroom tech has moved beyond e-mail lists and PowerPoint presentations to advanced content management systems that are revolutionizing how courses are taught.

For students a decade ago, buying a PDA to store their textbooks would have been exotic. Or at least nerdy. Now, many students already have iPhones and BlackBerry smartphones that can do that and much more.

The Indiana University School of Medicine prioritizes educational technology because students have grown up with it.

“Today’s students are really digital learners,” says Julie McGowan, the school’s associate dean for information resources and education technology, who describes the school as being “on the bleeding edge” of adopting new technology.

With the use of technology in practicing medicine ever increasing, and as the health care industry moves toward ubiquitous electronic medical records, McGowan says, it would make sense to bring those tools to the medical school classroom.

Not all medical schools have the same emphasis on classroom technology, but those that are less devoted are lagging in comparison, says Carol Kamin, an associate professor in the department of medical education at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine.

“The schools that have invested in technology are really becoming the ‘haves’ instead of the ‘have-nots,’” Kamin says.

While medical school applicants may choose potential schools based on reputation or an emphasis on a particular specialty, they should also consider classroom technology as one of the important criteria, Kamin says.

The audience is live

The clicker-based audience response system can indicate to professors when to change the way they are teaching, literally at a moment’s notice. But audience response systems can go beyond simply gauging comprehension. The technology is useful to gather responses to questions students may be uncomfortable answering in front of their peers.

“If you are talking about a question of medical ethics, we pass the clickers around the room and the students click them to lock in their vote,” says Cathleen C. Pettepher, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine cancer biology professor who works extensively with the school’s classroom teaching technology.

“You can obviously make it anonymous, and they can answer and not necessarily feel stupid about it,” she adds. “It’s a great resource, and I think it’s something that is not very expensive and can be very beneficial.”

Twitter and Facebook have found their way into live classroom interaction, at least in undergraduate classrooms at Purdue University. The school has developed an online service called Hotseat that allows students to use their accounts on these sites to respond to questions and share ideas with professors as well as classmates on the fly. Students can also simply log into the Hotseat Web site without a social media account. They can access the service by bringing a laptop to class, or by using a smartphone. Students can respond through text messages as well.

The school tested the service in three classes last fall and eight this semester, and will officially roll out the service in the fall semester.

While using the system is not required, about 80 percent of students in these classes used the system, says Kyle Bowen, director of informatics in the information technology office at Purdue.

Sugato Chakravarty, professor and head of Purdue’s department of consumer sciences and retailing, has used the service in his personal finance class.

“Hotseat is turning out to be a nice innovation. I’m seeing students interact more with the course and ask relevant questions,” Chakravarty said in a news release. “The tool allows us to engage students using media they are already familiar with.”

Posts can also be set up to be anonymous to fellow students so everyone can comment and ask questions freely, but Hotseat identities are available to professors, which helps tamp down off-topic commentary.

Chakravarty says that although the tool has been successful, it does require an open-minded instructor.

“It does give students a lot of power,” Chakravarty stated. “In one class, I mentioned the wrong president during the 1929 depression and immediately about a dozen comments came in correcting me.

“I don’t have a problem with students correcting me or challenging me; this shows the students are engaged. But not every professor may embrace this aspect.”

The classroom is infinite

Online course management systems like Blackboard started by mainly posting documents such as course work and syllabi. But now, with some systems, students can watch video lectures, chat about course material and share information. Several schools record all their lectures, which students can download to audio players or watch as video streams.

Posting the lectures online allows students to review the material as many times as they want, listen to them at a slower pace, or catch up if they were away.

“The students love the ability to access documents in advance, and the medical school loves to get it to them in advance,” McGowan says. While there was a concern in the beginning that students may use the system to quit going to class, they’re still showing up.

The school has already developed its content management system to allow access from a variety of smartphones. But using Apple’s iPad might alleviate the problem of limited screen real estate.

Using cameras and videoconferencing in a classroom, students can take virtual classes where they can interact live with their instructors no matter where they are. This is especially valuable for schools where students may be away from the main campus. At Indiana University, medical students can take their first two years of school at a number of universities across the state before coming to Indianapolis.

Still, while there are many online schools that offer M.B.A. programs with much of the course work online, a similar approach by medical schools is unlikely, Kamin says. Medical schools are moving more toward patient-centered teaching, and Internet-only courses are unsuitable for this goal.

“If you consider the concept of medicine as a team-based thing, it is very difficult to foster team-building at home,” she says.

But the risks remain, for students and faculty

McGowan says technology can be abused if it is used as a substitute for teaching, rather than a tool. Like professors who read their PowerPoint slides verbatim, some may unfortunately use technology to replace the classroom interaction that it was meant to foster.

According to Kamin, technology “can teach concepts, but it might not necessarily be a great experience for the student—like getting the ‘Gettysburg Address’ on PowerPoint.”

But students can flat out abuse technology as well. While seemingly more prevalent at the undergraduate level, professors at an increasing number of universities nationwide have banned students from bringing laptops to class. Instead of listening, they often update their Facebook pages, shop or surf the Web. Plus, all those clicking keyboards disturb their classmates.

Laptops became such a distraction that a disgruntled University of Oklahoma physics professor appeared to pour liquid nitrogen on a student’s laptop, freezing it solid, and then smashed it on the floor. He then angrily told the class, “Don’t bring laptops to work on in class. Have I made that clear?” Although the incident was staged, the professor made his point to students worldwide—a video of the incident was viewed more than a million times on YouTube.

Other schools with some laptop restrictions include Georgetown University’s law school, the University of Virginia and American University.

But while schools can ban laptops, students can still get online using their BlackBerrys or iPhones, accessing the Web through their phone’s data plan, rather than using a wireless connection.

Wasting time in class on the Internet is not something McGowan has seen at the medical school, and there are no plans to cut off any access. But students there can choose to attend class or not, and use their time in class as they see fit, she says, including surfing the Web.

Yet when computers fail and instructors too reliant on technology lack a backup plan, McGowan says, everyone is in for a lesson.

“If you get to the point where you only talk from the slides, and they are all loaded, and for some reason the electronic podium doesn’t work, for some, they might not know how to give a didactic lecture,” she says.

In a real-world near-catastrophe, a computer-based test was underway at McGowan’s school when the fire department conducted a fire drill without notifying the faculty in advance. Students were forced to leave the building. They could have been forced to take the test all over again. Fortunately, it was not a high-stakes exam, she says. Otherwise, they could have had a real emergency on their hands.



Steve Woo is associate editor of The New Physician.

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