Virtual Learning Environments In Response To COVID-19

Vikram Savkar

Responses from Vikram Savkar,  vice president and general manager, medical segment, Wolters Kluwer’s Health Learning, Research, and Practice business.

Because most schools have moved to virtual learning environments in response to COVID-19, what are the likely long-term outcomes of this?

Time in the classroom, small group interactions, labs, and so on will always remain an important part of the medical school experience. But medical school faculty have long employed an online component to their classes by capturing their lectures and posting them online and recording narrated PowerPoints for students to consult. And the current crisis is significantly expanding the demand for digital tools.  Many students left campus in such a hurry that they did not take textbooks home with them. As a result, we have had many schools that had not already subscribed to our digital learning tools inquire about how they can quickly get access. Wolters Kluwer responded by offering 90-day free access to these collections to help medical schools and students navigate through unprecedented and painful disruptions.

What faculty and students alike are discovering during this disruption, out of necessity, is that online medical education can be surprisingly effective. They are realizing that illustrated textbooks, quizzes and exams, medical board preparation, case studies and so on are all available through online tools, and in many cases these tools can open up new educational benefits.

Some products, for instance, allow instructors to assess how students are performing, and to zero in on students who may be struggling to grasp a subject, so that quick remediation can be employed. Even anatomy classes – which one might suppose could not possibly be virtualized – are being transitioned rapidly during the disruption to powerful visualization digital tools, and the instructors we are speaking to are surprised and delighted by how effective they can be.

When this disruption is past, and med students return to their classrooms in the fall, I doubt classrooms will fully return to “the way things were.”  My assumption is that, in the wake of COVID-19, medical schools will have begun a path of willing transition toward robust integration of digital learning tools into the curriculum, a path that will play out over several years but constantly accelerate.

Will more schools embrace distance learning once we’re beyond the pandemic? If so, what will that look like? Will some educational entities move beyond physical classrooms altogether?

The medical school curriculum has already undergone significant changes in recent years, incorporating team-based activities, problem-based learning and a flipped classroom approach. And as mentioned above, I do envision that uptake of online tools will now advance gradually beyond online lecture and narrated PowerPoint to encompass digital textbooks, assessment solutions, test prep tools, visualization platforms and so on, all of which will push some of the basal learning elements of medical school out of the classrooms and into the students’ private study time.

This transition will enable time in the classroom to be used even more than today as a forum for discussion and assessment, and a place to learn by doing in order facilitate mastery of advanced content. It may even free up more time for early-stage students to get practical, hands-on experience with patients, which is an increasing area of focus across the medical school community.  But all of this simply represents an evolution toward balancing the timeless strengths of classroom education (direct contact with expert instructors, peer learning and so on) with the benefits of digital tools (personalization, self-paced learning, immersive study).

As for pure distance learning, that is a more complicated question. I do think most medical schools will set up digital webcasting capabilities moving forward, so that if there are further disruptions and periods of social distancing, they will be able to rapidly and effectively transition classes to a distance mode. But I don’t envision many medical schools making a significant move toward pure distance education in the near future except during periods of massive disruption like the one we are experiencing now.  As I’ll cover in more detail below, the classroom and campus aspect of the medical school experience is core to what medical students learn and how they learn.

Could in-classroom learning go the way of the dinosaur or is that panic-stricken hype?

Classroom learning and the campus experience are quite central to medical schools’ mission.  In the classroom, students learn to think critically and quickly through direct, back-and-forth interaction with expert instructors and practitioners.  They also learn quite a lot from their peer group, including how to be a part of a functioning team and how to collaborate with people of different learning styles, social backgrounds and personalities.  All of this is essential preparation for clinical care environments.

So, I think that in-classroom on-campus learning is extremely fruitful and will continue to be at the heart of the medical school experience when the COVID-19 disruption has passed.

But I think that “blended learning,” i.e., a balanced combination of in-classroom teaching and activities and self-guided digital learning experiences, will certainly grow in popularity rapidly among the medical school community after the Covid-19 crisis.  The fundamental driver of this, I believe, will simply be that as medical schools incorporate digital learning tools in their classes out of necessity during this period of disruption, they will experience the clear and tangible benefits of these tools.

At Wolters Kluwer, for instance, we’ve had more than 400 institutions reach out to us for access to online learning tools, which we are making available for free to support schools during the crisis, and the feedback we’ve received has been uniformly positive: faculty and students alike are able to not only keep their classwork moving forward, but are able to do so powerfully.

In essence, what is the future of classroom-based learning and the technology that plays a role in providing instruction?

The classroom will become the launch-pad for a rich and broad learning experience for the medical student, designed to prepare him/her to be the best and most complete possible practitioner.  The classroom will be where students root themselves in fundamental techniques and knowledge through direct interaction with their instructors and where they develop greater collaboration skills with their peer set.

Outside of the classroom, using powerful suites of digital tools, students will firm up mastery of key disciplines, identify and address their learning gaps, prepare for qualifying exams, and immerse themselves in specialties that interest them deeply.  In essence, I think we will see the resources that students have access to grow and expand, combining the best of what is traditional with the best of what is new.

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