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Pharmacology education during COVID-19: what we have learned

Published: 29 May 2020
Category:
By Steven Tucker

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Recently, the Society’s Education and Training Committee met to talk about how delivering pharmacology education has changed since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19. We shared what we have been doing in our own institutions while lockdown restrictions have meant that face-to-face teaching is not currently possible. We found that discussing our successes and challenges was very helpful, so in this blog we want to share what we have learned. We hope that this will support pharmacology educators working in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 

Lectures

During the meeting, we found that most HEIs are now using recorded lectures that students access via some form of virtual learning environment (VLE), and where appropriate, also using recorded lectures from previous years.

They are still delivering some live lectures using online tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, so that they can be recorded at the same time. This means that students who could not watch the lecture live (e.g. due to internet issues or different time zones) can still watch it later. We agreed that learning to use a new online platform can be a steep learning curve.. However, we also found that many of these systems are intuitive and, given some practice, relatively easy to use.

We felt that uploading previously recorded lectures is an acceptable short-term solution to deliver materials for the remaining academic year, but it is not viable in the long-term. If face-to-face teaching continues to be on hold into the next academic year, educators will need to consider developing interactive learning experiences to safeguard the quality of the student learning experience.
Tutorials

We know that many educators are using Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom and Skype for small group teaching. Overall, we agreed that this is a useful and engaging experience for students and staff. We were particularly enthusiastic about some of the online platform functionality e.g. breakout rooms where students can be split into smaller groups for discussion and smaller tasks, before reuniting as a larger group to summarise these. We felt this offered an authentic active learning experience. While many of us admitted to being quite new to these tools,  most of us had consulted freely available instructional videos and online guides to support the design and running of our sessions.
 

Practicals

One of the big challenges discussed in our meeting was the impact on practical classes and practical skill development in our students. Most of us described using simulated practicals (e.g. AD Instruments Lt system) or were developing exercises where the experimental process was described and explored using images, videos and interactive online sessions. In these instances, we discussed the value of then giving students previously acquired data for analysis and for the completion of the laboratory report. We discussed at length the large numbers of online videos and resources available to support this (e.g. Journal of Visualized Experiments. Many of the resources we explored are listed in the COVID hub on the Society's website

In the meeting, we also concluded that while these simulations cannot ever replicate the skills, development and experience of practical class teaching, these methods provide a temporary alternative until face to face teaching is restored.
 

In course assessments

As well as extending deadlines for course work, we heard how all of us have shifted to using VLE functionality to support varied and effective in-course assessments. Again, we were delighted to hear about examples of innovative and imaginative design for these VLE sites. We all agreed that instructional guides and short online courses were invaluable for supporting our training needs during this time.
 

Examinations

We all described how we are now delivering examinations online, with our exam assessments made available to our students over a period of between 12 and 48 hours for completion.

During the meeting, ee had an interesting discussion on the concerns around plagiarism and cheating, which we agreed the use of Turnitin (or equivalent) would help reduce. One thing we all agreed with was the need for careful messaging to students about what is allowed and what is not allowed during these style of exams, particularly around verbatim copying of lecture slides.

We were all fascinated to hear the slight differences in the finer details of the exams being run within our institutions such as different time limits, word limits and how the expectations were set for students and markers. Much of this was based on our experiences of written answers submitted in previous years. We agreed that it was important to communicate this framework to prevent students copying long prepared essays into a time limited online exam.
 

Research projects

We discussed and recognised that research projects taking place at this time are going to be a challenge given that many of these are scheduled to be wet laboratory projects. The main alternative approaches we identified in our discussions fell into these categories:
  • Sharing 'pools of old data' and asking students to complete data analysis
  • Using Jove, YouTube videos or similar and asking students to write up a scientific method from the visuals
  • Changing project towards a structured or systematic review
  • Transforming project into a dry investigation or literature research
One interesting proposition was to contact the broad academic community within the university and ask if anyone has data that requires analysis or attention. This may generate collaborative opportunities and provide meaningful across discipline projects.
 

Mitigating circumstances

We all highlighted that our institutions are allowing extensions to deadlines during this time to ease the pressure on students in these circumstances. It was also apparent from our discussions that where students made further requests for deadline extensions, any circumstances arising from the COVID-19 pandemic were being looked at leniently, with the usual requirements for medical letters or certificates to support extenuating circumstances relaxed. 
 

No detriment / safety net policies

We all described and compared our “no detriment” or “safety net” policies where grades previously achieved by students will act as a backstop to prevent student outcomes or progress being hindered by COVID-19. It was fascinating for us all to note the various forms of policy, and we all agreed these were an important move to reduce stress and anxiety among our students.
 

Supplementary materials

We discussed how some of our institutions had plans to release supplementary materials on VLEs for students to study over the coming months. These materials were designed to maintain contact with students and to encourage them to continue to engage with their learning and the university. At the same time, we explored how these materials could also be designed to aid transition into the next year of study.
 

Ongoing student welfare

In our discussions we agreed communications should be carefully worded, and consistently (but not too frequently) issued to the students reminding them that they are still part of the university community, and that all available support channels (academic and pastoral) remain open for them, albeit online or through the telephone.

We were all in agreement that this was very important for students, especially those experiencing mental health difficulties, and so careful reminders about the availability of student support services, counselling and student learning services were identified as important.  We also spoke about how personal tutors (or their equivalents) were being encouraged to contact students regularly to check on welfare. We were fascinated to here that some institutions have introduced a weekly remote drop-in meeting via Zoom for pharmacology students to come online and just have a general chat or tea break. Indeed we recognised how vital this simple approach might be for promoting a sense of belonging.
 

Contacting the Society or other Educators

As a member, you have access to the BPS Community where you can reach out to other educators and ask any specific questions or seek feedback on your ideas.

You can also reach the Society and the Education and Training Committee by emailing: education@bps.ac.uk
 
 

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