It is likely that some dental schools will be delivering a mix of in-person and online learning in the 2021/22 academic year as the higher education sector continues to emerge from the pandemic. Having helped move a global newspaper online in the 90s, I have seen first-hand the mistakes that can be made in shifting traditional services to digital channels. In this article, I offer dental professionals in teaching roles four strategies to avoid similar pitfalls in the coming year.
The education and training of the future dental workforce currently looks very different from what has come before.
As dental schools pivoted to online learning due to the pandemic, I began to see some practices which took me straight back to the 90s. Back then, it was not higher education technology that was my thing, but newspapers. As vice president of one in particular - the Washington Post - it was my job to help move the outlet online and look at effective ways to engage our audiences in this new virtual environment.
Today, working with universities and dental schools, I began to see parallels to my newspaper days.
It is essential for schools to avoid mimicking the mistakes made by my former industry during that period. Instead, we need to ensure online study routes continue to support student success as it is likely some kind of hybrid model of teaching is here to stay for some time, if not for good.
Here are four strategies that I think will help.
1. Prioritise interaction
The first instinct of some dental schools when lockdown hit was to move the traditional lecture format online, with the expectation that students would continue to learn in the same way, but remotely.
Many publishers in the 90s took a similar approach, simply reproducing their hardcopy newspapers digitally. They quickly realised this was not enough to retain their audiences or stimulate their readers' interest.
Publishers then started asking readers to register or subscribe, which allowed them to read and comment on articles or view the remarks of others.1 This helped connect people and generate discussion.
Multiple lockdowns have emphasised the importance of the shared experience and this needs to be reflected in online dental education too.
Video conferencing tools need to be used in much more creative ways to bring students together and allow them to interact with their tutors and peers - whether they are on campus or online.
Instead of recreating a didactic style of lecture, ask students to collaborate via video on the appropriate treatment of a patient with underlying heart problems or share their views on diagnosing gum disease in young children, for example. This is a much more effective way of boosting students' progress and helping to ensure they continue to feel part of a wider learning community.
2. Create engaging experiences
The online classroom should embrace tools that keep students engaged in what they are learning, in the same way that news outlets had to incorporate multi-media such as video, online surveys and clickable content to keep readers coming back when they moved online years ago.
Quizzing and polling tools can be an effective way to spark discussions and assess students' knowledge as a lecture progresses, in a physical room or online.
And providing an online chat stream would allow a student to ask a question anonymously if they have not fully understood the preparation procedure for fitting a crown, for example, and get an immediate response from their instructor. This could eliminate any fear a student might have of identifying themselves to others in the session.
Active learning practices such as these need to become much more widespread to meet the changing needs of students who aspire to join the dental profession in the future.
3. Offer flexibility
Students, often now dispersed across the globe, increasingly need greater flexibility to be able to study when and where it is convenient for them to do so.
This compares with the digital journey the media took in the 90s and 00s to move away from the publication of daily or weekly newspapers to news updates 24/7, 365 days of the year, enabling people to stay up to date online from any time or place in the world.
Delivering this is easily achievable in a digital classroom. Group sessions can be scheduled at different times of the day for students in different time zones. Smaller team activities could also allow students in certain geographic areas to problem-solve a challenging dental procedure or work on a treatment plan together, tagging their instructor in the online chat if they have any questions or need support.
Flexibility has been much appreciated by those students juggling study time and family commitments in lockdown and it's safe to assume this expectation will continue as more students return to a mix of online and on-campus study.
4. Understand student behaviour
The video learning platforms used in many dental and medical schools can provide great insight into how students are progressing in their studies - and help instructors to flag individuals who may be struggling before they start to fall behind.
This was another lesson quickly learnt by newspapers, which after moving online had to become savvy at understanding how their readers behave and digest news in a digital format. Analysing information such as who is reading what content, when and for how long helped digital publishers to fine tune their service and keep readers coming back.
With the right training and support, academics can use the information they can access to identify students studying in person or online who might not be regularly accessing reading materials or lecture recordings before and after a class or spot when students are not contributing in group discussions. This gives teaching staff an opportunity to clear up areas of confusion and encourage participation.
The pandemic has accelerated awareness of what technology can deliver in higher education by at least 5 years.2 This opens the door for dental schools to make good use of the tools they have available to ensure they deliver quality teaching online, at scale, that is just as good or better than the face-to-face experience. But this will only happen if, like the newspaper industry, the lesson is learnt that engagement is key in this process. ◆
Fred Singer is CEO of Echo360, the teaching and learning platform used by dental and medical schools across the UK and globally to engage and support students learning in person and online.
Fred is an internet pioneer and entrepreneur whose career and philanthropic activities have spanned a broad range of interests from education, media, arts, science and veteran affairs. Prior to Echo360, he held a number of senior roles at AOL and was a founder of WashingtonPost.com.
The Guardian. Is it really wise for news websites to stop people from commenting? Available online at: www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/sep/25/is-it-really-a-good-idea-to-turn-for-news-websites-to-turn-off-comments (Accessed September 2021).
Office for Students. Universities' response to pandemic could see radical improvements in digital teaching. Available online at: www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/universities-response-to-pandemic-could-see-radical-improvements-in-digital-teaching-says-ofs/ (Accessed September 2021).
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