Dare I say it, but we almost seem to have come to a turning point in our “COVID saga”, wouldn’t you say? Our vet school hospital no longer requires us to wear masks continuously, and while people are still away from work for testing positive, we don’t appear to be testing ourselves on a regular basis. Colleagues might be under the weather with the virus for a few days, but if we are vaccinated and boosted, the chances of needing to go into hospital are pretty small. My apologies if COVID-19 is giving you more grief than it has me, but I’m hoping we can put it behind us to a greater or lesser degree. So, perhaps it’s time to have a look back at changes that have occurred because of the pandemic?
I’m particularly thinking of how COVID-19 has affected education for our veterinary students – it’s changed how I teach for sure. Previously, I’ve given basically the same set of ophthalmology lectures for a fair few years: maybe changes in the drugs we use for glaucoma, or perhaps an advance in our understanding of the genetics of retinal degeneration, but not that much changes. I hope that these sessions were entertaining as well as educating, but the key function of the lectures was to transmit information the students needed to know, about corneal ulcers or cataracts or conjunctivitis, into their heads – or at least into their notes so they could read it later when they needed to know it out in the real world. Though the question really is whether these lectures work. In these days of interactive media, do we really need to have face-to-face interactions where, as it has been said, information goes from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without going through the brain of either?
The difficulty in the past has been to integrate interactivity into lectures when there is a lot of information to impart
For the two years when face-to-face lectures were not possible, we recorded our lectures, and they were available online. Actually, in Cambridge, the Department of Veterinary Medicine had been live streaming lectures and recording them prior to COVID-19. The idea behind this change was that everybody could watch the lectures, even if they were ill or unable to attend for another reason. It also allowed students to go back and rewatch areas they hadn’t fully grasped or use the recordings during revision. So, we were all prepared from that perspective for the time when the pandemic caused chaos in education. But now that in-person lectures are back, do we just go back to the old ways? Some have for sure, while others have questioned whether we need lectures at all. Maybe, if lectures are just there for knowledge transfer, online is just as good as face-to-face.
But no – there’s much more to a lecture than that! It’s about exciting students and inspiring them and enthusing them. And while it’s possible to do that online, it’s so much better to do it with the students in front of you! More than that, learning is much better if it’s interactive, if one can ask students what their understanding and experience is throughout the lecture proper. The difficulty in the past has been to integrate interactivity into lectures when there is a lot of information to impart. But now the changes COVID-19 influenced us to put in place have given a great opportunity to change things for the better.
The information is all out there, online in that set of recorded lectures. The students can watch them in their own time – though I do allocate time for this during the curriculum. Then, once they have watched the lectures, we have a fully interactive seminar. Now I can show them a slide of an animal’s eye and ask what their diagnosis is, or what the critical next diagnostic step should be, or what the best treatment should involve – in much the same way I do every day on my Instagram posts, where there is a new case to review every day.
One of the perennial problems with the lecture format is that however entertaining and enlivening you are, you can only expect to keep students’ attention for a relatively short time
The lovely thing about being more interactive in a seminar setting is that I can get the students to chat with each other about what the answer is. One of the perennial problems with the lecture format is that however entertaining and enlivening you are, you can only expect to keep students’ attention for a relatively short time. A quick saunter around Google Scholar shows research papers suggesting this time is anything from 8 seconds to 15 minutes; the lower is based on how long a teenager looks at a webpage before moving on. So hopefully we can expect more than that from a keen veterinary student, but not a whole hour. An interactive seminar where students chat together every five minutes to discuss a clinical case can, with any luck, keep them interested and interacting and really help them recognise the key conditions they will regularly encounter in practice (here’s hoping!).