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Blending Tomorrow and Today 

By Karla Taylor

Even as MOOCs, social media and video are transforming some aspects of pharmacy school, there’s still a place for time-honored techniques that improve teaching and learning.

If you try to picture the future of pharmacy schools, it’s not hard to imagine a time when much of what first-year classes cover will be outdated by the time students graduate. Given the pace of change in the profession and in technology, students may well learn much of their subject matter online, at whatever pace they can manage. “Students won’t be in a fixed time program but instead in a show-achievement program,” says Dr. Ruth E. Nemire, AACP’s associate executive vice president. “What they learn won’t be time-bound but instead achievement-bound.

That doesn’t mean professors will be extinct. Whether online or in person, Nemire says, “they’ll go beyond imparting facts to directing students in how to integrate the knowledge they gain with skills involved in professionalism and patient care.” At the same time, faculty will be freed up to devote more time to research, “unhindered by the classroom while still connected to students.”

Change is inevitable in part because students are demanding new access, speed and convenience, Nemire says. “But the changes will also help faculty impart more knowledge and refine their techniques even as they have more time for scholarly work. With the help of technology, they can improve both student-centered learning and their research.”

The future Nemire foresees isn’t here—yet. But efforts to both meet student demands and improve teaching are underway. Here are examples of how innovative professors are bringing the world of tomorrow into pharmacy schools today while also using proven techniques that help individual students learn more.

MOOCs’ Massive Reach

The numbers are always the eye-popping part about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. An amazing 34,000 students signed up when Dr. Kenneth M. Hale, assistant dean, taught his first MOOC—Introduction to Pharmacy—through The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy in October 2013. The students came from 143 countries and ranged in age from 14 to 90. However, when the course ended in November, only 664 earned a “statement of accomplishment,” signifying they had successfully completed the required weekly quizzes and one written assignment. And as far as tuition dollars were concerned, the course earned precisely zero.

Despite the many challenges MOOCs present, Hale uses the word “intoxicating” to describe the experience. “Students really want it,” he says. “And it can be a better and more efficient way to deliver content, as opposed to me standing there putting up slides. I love colleges, and I love being here in this place with students. But in terms of distance education and using technology, this is the future.”

Intro to Pharmacy is one of about a dozen free, not-for-credit MOOCs that have grown out of a partnership between Ohio State and the education company Coursera since early 2013. Hale is a 30-year teaching veteran who has taught in traditional classrooms as well as via videoconference. Developing the seven-week course took more than 200 hours between April and August 2013. Preparation included creating approximately 140 videos, divided between 10-minute content videos and interviews with guest practitioners. Because of the heavy advance work, he says, the course practically runs on autopilot once it starts. (Learn more at the Coursera Web site.)

Hale recognizes the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs, which he says are “different— very different” from teaching in the classroom or even via videoconference. As great as it is to reach students from around the world, he estimates that only about one-third are genuinely engaged. (Because the course is free, “a lot are just playing around with it,” he says.) And he echoes the theme of much of the news coverage MOOCs have received: It’s hard to figure out how to make money from courses that students don’t pay for.

That said, at least two of his MOOC students—from Arizona and Maryland—applied for admission to Ohio State’s pharmacy school. He makes a point of using attractive campus settings as backdrops in the videos, and “I’m starting to see the power of reaching people around the world who know Ohio State only as a football school. This lets us tell them something else about ourselves.”

For others who may consider MOOCs, Hale’s major piece of advice sounds familiar: Develop a clear, detailed road map for the course up front. But he also stresses the need for 24-hour-a-day tech support (Coursera provides his); attentive teaching assistants to manage the message boards through which students communicate; and wise use of social media (he uses Twitter to distribute a question of the week).

In addition, Hale says, don’t underestimate the importance of marketing. The second time he offered the class, in winter 2014, it drew 12,000 students—about a third as many as the first offering. He thinks the heavy promotion the class got before its 2013 introduction may have been a major factor in higher initial enrollment.

Social Media’s Compelling Convenience

Convinced that social media could be useful for more than distributing announcements, in 2011, Dr. Jeff J. Cain, along with co-instructor Dr. Anne Policastri, started Facebook groups to encourage informal learning in the pharmacy management and leadership classes he teaches at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Since then, some 90 percent of his students have signed up for the optional, course-related groups. An adjunct associate professor and director of education technology, Cain uses the Facebook groups to expose students to:

real-world topics in healthcare, business management, and pharmacy management;

professionals who are influencing the field; and

ways to use social media for lifelong learning.

Because they’re already on Facebook anyway, “students like it and find it more convenient than Blackboard,” Cain says. One sign of their enthusiasm: Many students stay with his Facebook groups after finishing the class. And Cain finds that the informality and ubiquity of Facebook generates after-class conversations. The groups are convenient for Cain, too. They take little of his time other than accepting students and guests, and monitoring them.

Like Cain, Dr. Margarita V. DiVall of Northeastern University uses Facebook to connect and share information with students, including those in her four-semester therapeutics course. DiVall is associate clinical professor and director of assessment at the Northeastern University School of Pharmacy. When she and her colleagues did an experiment to compare students’ use of the discussion boards on Blackboard and Facebook, they saw that “students had a preference for seeing things on Facebook because that’s where they were already”—despite the fact that syllabi, course materials, and announcements were on Blackboard. From her perspective, Facebook makes it easier to share news, such as FDA press releases about new medications, and has a “cool factor” that other online resources don’t.

That said, based on the research and her own experience, DiVall can see drawbacks. “You can’t require students to have a Facebook or Twitter account,” she says. In addition, Facebook is not a sure-fire way to get students engaged: “In a class of 150 students, you don’t get 150 students responding or posting.” She recommends considering incentives, such as extra credit for posting a link on a specific topic.

DiVall also thinks it’s important to have a policy that spells out responsible social media use, protects your school, and may even prompt discussions about social media and professionalism. For the sake of her own privacy, and students’, DiVall doesn’t friend students on her personal Facebook page until after they graduate.

Cain and DiVall concur about this major point: Faculty shouldn’t use social media for social media’s sake. Instead, Cain says, concentrate on “producing graduates with the knowledge and skills to be competent pharmacists and problem solvers.”

“In general, technology is another tool—it should not determine how or what we teach,” DiVall says. “We have to use it with sound instructional design in mind. The first, most important consideration is this: What outcomes are we trying to achieve? Only then should we think about whether we have technologies that can help us teach and our students learn better.”

The Enduring Importance of Experimentation

As a “teaching and learning guy,” Dr. Adam M. Persky is fascinated by techniques that get students to prepare better so he can use class time more effectively. And he’s willing to experiment to get the techniques right.

Persky is a clinical associate professor and pre-pharmacy adviser at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy. A few years ago, he performed an experiment in long-term retention and application with his class in physiology for first-year students. The study compared a previous lecture version of the course to a newly created “team-based learning lite” version. The TBL-lite course assigns brief readings for students to complete in advance, gives quizzes to check comprehension, and either provides cases to read before class or puts students in structured teams within class to apply what they learned to those readings. The main performance outcome was retention and application of information one year after the lecture course or new course was completed. The result: Persky has adopted the TBL-lite approach, and students now have better facility with applying the knowledge as well as better retention.

In a foundational pharmacokinetics class, Persky experimented with more approaches: conducting in-class lectures followed by problem-solving practice; delivering content via narrated animations or readings that students could view or complete before a large recitation; and, eventually, a team-based learning course in which they read the material on their own and get repetition and reinforcement in in-class work.

To ensure the best retention, Persky keeps a close watch on student grades and evaluations and whether students need more lectures, time to study, or review. For those who might want to apply his flexible techniques, “my first advice, usually, is to start small,” he says. “Use the 80/20 rule—you can often get 80 percent of your impact by changing 20 percent of what you do. For example, look at your alignment between learning objectives, assessments and instructional techniques. If your goal is to teach critical thinking and you spend most of your time lecturing, that’s a misalignment.”

Ultimately, though, Persky believes that the best way to maximize student learning and improve teaching is to design a curriculum that constantly reinforces the material. “One-and-done has never really worked,” he notes. As part of a strategic-planning process, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy is now revising its curriculum to reinforce connections among classes, make it easier for students to retrieve information as needed once they’ve covered it, and increase experiential education.

Mixing the Time-Honored With High-Tech

Some techniques can work well by themselves or blended with high-tech tools, video, or even the old-fashioned 3-by-5 card.

For example, to uncover roadblocks to comprehension, DiVall gives tried-and-true active-learning techniques an update with the help of Facebook. At natural breaks in class, she stops to ask students to write Facebook posts about what they see as the “muddiest point”—the material she most needs to clarify. She can watch the posts as they roll in and respond immediately. A variation is the “one-minute reflection,” when she asks students to take 60 seconds to post one thing they learned and one they didn’t understand.

At the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Pharmacy, Dr. Craig D. Cox is a specialist in experiential learning and faculty development who believes in starting strong by getting to know the learner. As vice chair of experiential programs and associate professor of pharmacy practice, Cox especially likes icebreaker exercises.

During pre-rotation orientation, Cox asks students to complete a Pharmacist’s Inventory of Learning Styles, or PILS, questionnaire. Answering the 17 questions takes just a few minutes, and the results give both the students and their preceptor insight into how they absorb new material most effectively. “It’s a fun way to teach students about themselves and for me to learn about their tendencies,” he says. (See the inventory, available here.)

Cox also uses a video he produced himself to deepen the student-preceptor connection. The video, which students view before meeting with him on orientation day, includes an overview of rotation activities, an active-learning exercise, plus a few fun facts Cox included about himself. In addition to saving time, he says, “having a prerecorded session that introduces basics to students without my having to be in the room has proven beneficial. And with the humor and active-learning exercises, students find the video both engaging and educational. By the end of day one, we’re comfortable with each other, and it really allows us to hit the ground running.”

To deliver feedback at the middle and end of rotation, Cox goes low-tech with the note card method. On a card, he writes three things each student is doing well and three he or she needs to work on. Before letting students look at their cards, he asks how they think they’re doing. Then they compare answers. “If a significant discrepancy exists, it may signal that students need better and more regular feedback,” he says. This method is also good for learners who get defensive, since it lets them tell you what they need to work on.

“All these things are good for getting out of your comfort zone,” Cox says. “And the students love them.”

Cox’s latest—and most ambitious—project combines his interest in video with his belief that the future of learning is far from dull. To teach preceptors to be better student trainers, in spring 2014 he’s introducing a professionally-produced video miniseries. Its 12 episodes follow a novice preceptor and her two polar-opposite students—an anxious overachiever and a slacker—through a six-week clinical rotation at a hospital. At the end of each five- to eight-minute installment, two commentators offer takeaway lessons and encourage viewers to reflect on how to deal with their own challenging students.

Although Cox designed the series so that viewers can earn continuing education credit, he’s hoping it accomplishes something more—something most pharmacy professors can relate to, no matter whom they work with or how. By blending technology with a deep desire to make education more effective and even fun, “I want to help make learning something people want to do and provide them with motivation to improve. I hope the miniseries provides a medium for them to do this, as opposed to just passively watching another PowerPoint presentation.”

© 2014 American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy
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