Embracing virtual learning as a supplement to hands-on training during COVID-19

U of A medical students experience an online Pediatrics Boot Camp to prepare for clinical rotations

ROSS NEITZ - 08 July 2020

Megan McCreary was unsure what to expect when she and dozens of other University of Alberta medical students first logged into a three-week virtual Pediatrics Boot Camp at the beginning of June.


The MD student had recently finished her second year of classes, arriving at a key junction where exclusive classroom learning ends and hands-on learning through clinical rotations- known as clerkship-begins. With the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily disrupting clerkship this spring, the virtual sessions offered learners like McCreary a chance to re-engage as the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's MD program retooled for a much different student learning experience.


"I was a little hesitant knowing that it was going to be over Zoom, but I think it turned out really well," said McCreary. "It was very interactive and the instructors did a great job of making the sessions case-based and engaging. Even though you were sitting at home alone on this Zoom session, it felt like you were still a part of the lectures."


According to Karen Forbes, director of Pediatrics Clerkship in the MD program, the boot camp was born out of a need to supplement student learning and adjust to new academic realities brought about by the pandemic. In March, in-person classes were temporarily suspended at the U of A and clerkships were put on hold. Medical students completing their third year were especially affected, as they hadn't been able to complete all of their eight-week-long clinical rotations-valuable learning opportunities that couldn't be replicated in a classroom. Second-year students completed their classroom training virtually, but were unclear when or how their own clerkships would begin.


For educators, it left a logistical nightmare. How could they make up for months of lost time without sacrificing the quality of the medical education? Training a double cohort of medical students in the usual way was not possible due to a lack of clinical placements available, along with new physical distancing requirements brought on by the pandemic.


"I proposed that we could do a pediatrics boot camp," said Forbes. "Normally our pediatrics rotation would include one day a week for classroom-based teaching session to supplement clinical experiences. If we could front-load that teaching, then when the students came back to their clinical rotations-which we know have to be shorter because we just lost three months of our program-we could essentially provide the same clinical opportunities in six weeks that we would have in eight."


According to Forbes, the virtual boot camp covered all the content that would have been covered in the classroom-based clerkship sessions, plus additional content that MD students had traditionally struggled with in the past. Extra effort was made to ensure that two instructors were present during each online session to moderate the chat and assist with student questions without disrupting the flow of the teaching. Instructors were also encouraged to find new ways of keeping the sessions engaging and interactive.


"I was just so impressed at how people stepped up and were able to do that," said Forbes. "Breakout rooms were used in sessions, we had journal clubs, virtual escape rooms, quizzes. One of our speakers even used a Jeopardy type of game as part of her session."


"I certainly think that this has helped a lot of teachers look at how they do things and approach them differently."


"I was very pleasantly surprised at how well organized and engaging the lectures were," added third-year medical student Jahaan Ali. "I feel they've done a really good job at sparking some excitement about students returning to a pediatric placement. I'm definitely looking forward to my rotation."


Each session of the Pediatrics Boot Camp has been recorded and is now required viewing for all medical students before they enter their third-year pediatrics rotation. On average, between 80 and 90 students participated each day while the sessions were running in June. While it's unclear how the virtual sessions will compare to how pediatric clerkship was run previously, Forbes believes they are the best option possible during a difficult time. The MD program will evaluate their success at the end of the 2020/'21 school year.


While change can often be difficult, McCreary believes the sessions have opened a new way forward that she trusts will put her and her classmates in a position to succeed.


"I really miss the in-person sessions and being with your colleagues and your professors. There's definitely something that you can't quite replicate being over Zoom in that sense," said McCreary. "But I've also been pleasantly surprised with how adaptable everyone was and how flexible, and the fact that there are a lot of things that can be done online that you don't necessarily need to be coming into school for."


"I feel a lot more comfortable now going into clerkship because of it. They were very much about learning how to think in a clinical reasoning way. That was really valuable."