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Be Optimistic

The Optimist Club, Part 1: Short-Term Perspective of the COVID-19 Challenge for Veterinary Education

Educational realities for veterinary schools have evolved very rapidly over the last few weeks of the expanding COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming that you have the luxury of seeing beyond life's current realities, I thought we might all be looking for a silver linings  out there.  Here is my two-part attempt to find some for veterinary education.

As I have talked to a few veterinary faculty and administrators over this period, you get a frazzled sense that they feel like they need to replicate prior face-to-face instruction, because that's what they are accustomed to and maybe because they believe that's what students expect. Surely, the institutions have had learning management systems to store Powerpoints for the student, and systems to record full 50+-minute lectures, but faculty have rarely envisioned these resources as stand-alone, and most have never tried to find out what the online lecturn pedestal looks like…until now.   For those instructors, I highly recommend the article series on this rapid transition recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I quote from 3 of those articles here.

The now totally online instructor must reshape how she/he relates to the students and vice versa. And that cultural shift is the hardest to make even when you have years to “pivot,” to borrow the term used by Kevin Gannon in the first article below. Of course, no one has the luxury of time right now.

The Short-Term Optimist

Some years ago, I served a stint as the local chapter president of the Optimist Club at the University of Georgia. Optimism and a university, together, you chuckle? OK, that wasn’t the club’s main function as a youth service club but for most of us, the irony didn’t escape us.  So, to strike an optimistic tone, as many are just trying to survive the rapid conversion to online instruction, I would like to address this transition first, and then in Part 2, I will look at the potential longer term impact on the way veterinary students are educated. In doing so, permit me to draw up about 30 years of experience with veterinary distance learning as both continuing education (early Veterinary Information Network (VIN) days), blended learning with veterinary students, and, most recently, solely online interactions with students on VetMedAcademy (https://vetmedacademy.org).

 

Joe Maddon: Try Not to Suck
Joe Maddon: Try Not to Suck

Credits: NBC Sports Chciago: https://www.instagram.com/p/BCnmbs5m3FH/

I first want to use elements suggested by Gannon’s article to remind us to chill out and, above all, “Try not to suck” (to borrow a phrase from Joe Maddon, recent Chicago Cubs baseball manager) and also the explicit theme of Gannon, who notes:

The stark reality is there’s not really a blueprint for any of this: "moving online" at such a scale, with breakneck speed, and often with merely hours’ worth of advance notice.1

To continue, let’s apply to veterinary education, the 5 general principles laid out by Gannon.1 Each numbered topic heading is a quote, followed by some ideas for veterinary education.

1. It’s OK to not know what you’re doing. 
He quotes the “Keep Teaching” community at Kansas State University, but most universities are evolving similar resources for online instruction.  I would refer you also to our veterinary-specific support page and forum on VetMedAcademy for resources we have collated there. 

2. Good teaching is good teaching. 
Indeed, he notes that the online instructor, just like when teaching face-to-face, needs to communicate regularly and effectively with students, being transparent with activities in the syllabus, particularly learning resources, assignments, activities and assessments (quizzes, tests and projects).

3. Keep it as simple, and accessible, as you can.
Some students may not have highspeed internet access, and regardless, many will interact with course materials via mobile devices, so be sure to address the needs of all of your students, not just those that are the most connected. VetMedAcademy, for example, knows that of its YouTube videos viewed around the world, over 2/3 are viewed on a mobile device, so it is important that its platforms are mobile-friendly and it is planning to encourage interaction with its Moodle learning management system with the Moodle mobile app.

4. Expect turbulence, change your flight plan accordingly 
Online instruction and assessment can and should be as rigorous as your face-to-face instruction.  We’ve noticed that some schools are suddenly moving to online proctoring programs to manage student quizzes and exams taken remotely.  As I’ll discuss in more detail in the second part of this series (Long-Term Perspective), perhaps it is time to consider evaluating students in a different way, not just because you need to do so, but because a more wholistic look at assessment might be the right thing to do. 

Some are calling for just dispensing with grades and moving to a pass/fail construct.2 Why have such anxiety when it isn’t necessary? You might be surprised at how students respond. When I went to vet school (University of Pennsylvania), we had a pass/fail/excellent construct to grades, and getting an “excellent” was limited to just a handful of students in a class.  The result? I thought there was less unhealthy competition and greater cooperation.  Why not start with that simple step.  It might even leave you not worrying about cheating or exam proctoring. In the next part, we’ll also talk about some of the affordances that a well-conceived online platform might bring to assessing student performance.

5. Online doesn’t have to mean impersonal 
Certainly, use tools that you know how to use.  Some of you will already have used an LMS, and most course materials will probably need to be delivered to students this way. However, if you are mainly used to email, or communication via a blog, then now is not the time to get fancy. And don’t forget that all students need to use the tools you choose. Students may be much better than the generally older instructors, so you might even lean on them to create a social media presence and interaction around the course in which you can learn how to engage with their help.  

When we first started online continuing education (CE) with Veterinary Information Network in 1990, the first observation we made was that, in fact, the interaction with learners, in that case, practicing veterinarians, could be even MORE granularly personal than typical interactions in a CE conference.  It was clear that we were hearing from a wider range of the participants, and the participants were, in realtime, bringing forward their attempts to apply what they were learning, for comment and sometimes clarification by the instructors. And it was in an era of 300 baud modems, mostly text interactions, and certainly no video!  It was a powerful experience that forever changed the way I looked at interactions in the face-to-face classroom or CE conference. Lectures were NOT possible. Case discussions were, but they had to be done in a carefully orchestrated manner. Today, as VetMedAcademy's learning modules might demonstrate, we can use a variety of interactive techniques including video, to accomplish the same effect.

Those early CE learners had something in common with today’s students…they were engaging in totally online instruction.  However, the magic was that they rapidly adjusted to the affordances of learning physically separate from their “classmates”, but “in situ.”  It is that spirit that hopefully new online instructors can encourage with veterinary students rushing online today.  It might even be time to invite some guest veterinary practitioner participants in a class, to bring a fresh perspective, and to take advantage of asynchronous interactions more commonly used in the most efficient forms of distance education.

Returning to general guidelines for rushing instruction online, in her recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester, Beckie Supiano describes religion professor Brandon L. Bayne’s now “viral” post about his “adjusted” course syllabus for this semester.3 All I have done is to remove the title of the course, and you can see how it would apply to veterinary education.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Summary of an Optimist

We have progressed from state accrediting boards telling us 30 years ago, “Heck no, this isn’t real education, and if it is, we had better limit the number of hours,” to “OK, we accept that there is ‘no significant difference’ in performance between online and face-to-face learners,” to today’s forced reality where veterinary classes are going kicking and screaming online.  In none of those prior circumstances, did pre-existing institutions for veterinary continuing education disappear, nor did the need for good instructors decrease, but rather the profession adapted.  Now, having focused on how veterinary educators and students might adapt, maybe we should turn to why we should adapt.  To that optimistic point in Part 2.

As always, comments on these blog posts (VMA members just need to sign in) or stand-alone guest commentaries are always welcome. Please email vma@vetmedacademy.org to suggest a contribution.

References

1. Gannon K: How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. Chronicle of Higher Education (March 12, 2020)
https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Make-Your-Online-Pivot/248239

2. Stanger A: Make All Courses Pass/Fail Now. Chronicle of Higher Education (March 19, 2020)
https://www.chronicle.com/article/Make-All-Courses-Pass-Fail-Now/248281

3. Supiano B:  ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester, Chronicle of Higher Education (March 20, 2020).
https://www.chronicle.com/article/Nobody-Signed-Up-for/248298

Title image: Piotr Siedlecki, CC0 Public Domain