Every aspect of our lives – our jobs, the smart-gadgets that track our fitness, our healthcare, how we stay in touch with friends – is affected by the technological advances of the last 50 years. The industries in which we work are moving with the winds of change… whether reluctantly or not is irrelevant. Technology is changing the workforce, and not just through the introduction and diffusion of Artificial Intelligence and other technologies, but through people as well.
The skills and knowledge required for this year’s graduates is almost entirely different from what their older siblings, parents, and grandparents needed to know. Of course, well-developed communication skills, organization, and at least basic math are still necessities, but today’s graduates are being thrust into a digital-first world with an expanded set of “basic” skills for the current job market. This is true across every single field – from graphic design to medicine – and it also means that how people in all fields are educated is changing.
Online-focused education has never been as prevalent as it is today – global pandemic notwithstanding. Open education is not just about uploading content to the Internet for anyone to stumble upon; it actually creates many opportunities for traditional teaching institutions to broaden their students’ horizons and knowledge bases as well. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) were initially intended to provide university-level educational material to the masses via the Internet for free or at a low cost; now, you can learn about an unlimited number of topics from amateurs as well via YouTube tutorials. While MOOCs are no longer a new phenomenon, in recent months and years, the technology used to first bring higher education to the masses has been further developed and continues to be integrated into traditional academic environments as well. Even in pre-COVID-19 times, making use of disruptive technology to increase educational capacity was already part of the industry discourse. In the midst of a global pandemic, we’re seeing just how valuable and important having this flexibility and online-first education can be.
The benefits offered by MOOCs and other online-first teaching technologies and techniques are undeniable: flexibility for both students and educators, built-in performance tracking, information retention tools such as free PowerPoint templates, and perhaps most importantly, providing access to this information to students and educators who may be located in resource-deficient settings. For medical students particularly, this allows education to meet students where they are. In a geographic sense, shifting some elements of medical school – for example, foundational science courses – to an online-only or at least online-first setting immediately removes one barrier to entry for students who may come from cities, towns, or villages with substandard training programs or limited access to high-quality instruction. In an academic sense, this also removes the barrier of a one-track learning experience: with high-quality content available at their fingertips, students can broaden and deepen their knowledge base and learn from top-tier educators from around the world.
MOOCs, however, don’t just provide a well-needed educational resource to underserved populations. The widespread use of technology in traditional classroom settings is also worth noting. Teaching methodologies such as a “flipped classroom” approach, problem-based learning, and self-directed learning all utilize online tools and/or learning platforms in combination with traditional in-classroom instruction.
“Flipped classroom” approach
In a “flipped classroom” approach, students will typically learn and review material prior to an in-class session on the same topic. This way, they are able to figure out what questions they have and educators can either take time to answer them and clarify the complexities often found in medicine, or they can also dive deeper into the nuances of a certain topic.
The best way to understand human anatomy is to work with a cadaver… but as these are expensive to come by and are single-use, many medical schools include some sort of digitally-based training for students to get started. The 3D anatomy models now available are often based on healthy patients; but not all of them are. Susan Potter donated her body to science, after a long life, several illnesses, and several surgeries: she lives on as a virtual cadaver. Thanks to Ms. Potter and the other two bodies prepared as part of the Visual Human Project, students can now see, layer by layer, a virtual representation of the human body.
Case-based clinical questions
Patient-centered medical vignettes are a key component of medical exams around the world, whether an exam taken in a medical school course or a licensing exam. Most Question Banks (also called Qbanks) are full of these types of questions, but they’re also a useful teaching tool. Instead of talking more abstractly about a concept, educators can start the course with a clinical case question, and work through it with students. This works particularly well in a flipped classroom, as students would have already covered some of the information needed to know in order to answer the question; class time can thus be utilized to dive deeper into the concept or to help students better understand why the correct answer is correct in context.
Further enhancing medical curricula via the use of online-based patient simulations not only helps students become familiar with the human body, but does so in a risk-free environment in order to prepare students before they enter a hospital and start working with real patients for their internship or residency.
There’s no denying: technology has fundamentally changed the way medical students learn and medical educators teach. Embracing these modern solutions and techniques will only serve to improve medical education and training, and should be embraced and celebrated.