Online learning in medical school: How students affected by COVID protocols are coping
Two years into the global pandemic, it has become clear that COVID-19 has changed most industries forever. Changes in higher education are apparent and rippling through institutions large and small.
Online, virtual and hybrid learning environments in higher education are not new concepts born out of pandemic necessity. Online learning has been used in higher education since 1989. In 1996, Jones International University became the first fully web-based accredited institution. So while online learning is nothing new, the pandemic has forced it to come to the fore. Many institutions have had to scramble to create a virtual learning plan for their students.
Online learning in medical school
Medical schools have faced a unique set of challenges amid the pandemic regarding virtual learning. Distance learning in medical school can be more complex because students aren’t just expected to learn in a classroom, but through standardized patients and cadavers.
Historically, this was an approach to learning that was done only in person and on the job. However, advances in technology have allowed this learning to be delivered virtually. Powerful virtual labs and 3D cadavers are some of the innovative platforms available to medical students. It must be said that these tools can be expensive and, therefore, beyond the reach of some small institutions. Students can be negatively impacted if they do not have access to these technological advances in virtual learning.
A variety of approaches
When it became clear that the COVID-19 shutdown would affect the 2020-2021 school year, schools had to create their own virtual learning plans; a lot on the fly and in a short time. Plans varied from institution to institution and were tailored to the unique makeup of their students. Medical schools had a particular need for purpose-built virtual learning, as they faced the challenge of bringing lessons that were previously only delivered in person in a virtual environment.
At Antigua University of Health Sciences, the virtual learning approach has been divided into three parts:
The first part involved live resourcesincluding weekly online tutoring meetings with faculty and other students, as well as bimonthly presentations on problem-based learning by faculty members followed by faculty critique.
The second part was pre-recorded resources, including access to video lectures covering the most essential information of a specific unit. This part also involved additional reading and other resources to complete the understanding of these topics for the USMLE and PLAB exams.
The third part combined other resources such as video linksaccess to textbooks, etc., all designed to give students the tools to succeed.
This three-step approach has worked well for UHSA students. In terms of outcomes, student performance has remained consistent, similar to in-person learning. Each medical school needed to devise an approach that specifically targeted its student body and its unique needs during these unprecedented times.
As we emerge on the other side of the pandemic, we are bringing some aspects of our curriculum back to the classroom due to the nature of our education sector. Although, by now we have recognized how valuable and effective remote learning is. We plan to continue training our medical students through a hybrid approach.
The student experience
In a BMC Medical Education study published in August 2021, experts analyzed the effectiveness of online learning compared to in-person teaching during COVID-19 among medical students. The results of the study were decidedly mixed. Virtual learning was found to be effective in four settings, including submitting homework and meeting individual student needs. However, in six other parameters studied, such as skill development and level of interaction, e-learning was found to be less effective.
Medical schools and students echoed the BMC study’s finding that virtual learning can be effective in some areas of medical school education, but not all. Medical schools offer specific training, and the value of this in-person, hands-on training cannot be ignored. That said, the more virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology advances, the more effective online learning in medical schools can be.
Today’s emerging physicians will be entering a medical industry that is increasingly dependent on technology. They must be trained in the latest technological advances. Virtual learning plays a role in this training beyond its necessity during the pandemic. As telemedicine and virtual labs become mainstream, new physicians will need to be familiar with the use of this technology in patient care as well as continuing education throughout their careers.
Students in a study published by PLOS One in September 2021 said they were generally satisfied with the quantity and quality of online courses offered at their medical schools. The study showed that greater online program flexibility even led to stable or increased course attendance rates. Students said in their comments that they hoped for a more balanced and hybrid approach to post-pandemic teaching.
The pandemic has shown us that, more than ever, highly qualified doctors are needed. Therefore, the uninterrupted training of medical students is crucial. Universities that wish to continue to produce competent and competent doctors will have to constantly evolve. The waning pandemic does not signal the end of virtual learning. On the contrary, institutions have realized the value of virtual learning environments and are integrating more robust online learning platforms into their programs. Medical schools must use a combination of in-person and virtual learning to stay competitive and provide the best education for their students.
Featured Image: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash.