Robots help UAlberta 'Double' up on rehab training in Calgary

President David Turpin says new technology is integral to teaching more students across the province

Laurie Wang - 1 November 2016

Kevin You examines a classmate's knee in a physical therapy lab in Calgary as a Double Robot watches and provides feedback.

"Try moving your hand further down towards the ankle - how does that affect the force you can apply?" says Mark Hall, associate chair of Physical Therapy, who is programming the Double Robot from the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in Edmonton.

You is a second-year University of Alberta physical therapy student who is completing his degree in Calgary, thanks to synchronized distance learning technology and Double Robotics, similar to the ones used by Sheldon on Big Bang Theory.

"It's great we can take advantage of technology and the accessibility it gives us. Calgary is home for me and I plan on staying in southern Alberta as a physical therapist when I graduate," says You.

Home to the only free-standing Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in North America, the University of Alberta is training rehabilitation professionals to meet the needs of people across the province and beyond. Not commonly known to Calgarians, UAlberta currently offers MSc Occupational Therapy and MSc Physical Therapy programs in Calgary. The physiotherapy program is also offered in Camrose.

"The post-secondary landscape is evolving, and technology plays an increasingly important role. Accessibility is critical, and thanks to the robot and streaming technologies, our Rehabilitation Medicine students are now studying and working across Alberta," says David Turpin, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Alberta. "Satellite programs like this one are about ensuring that students can receive high-quality education no matter where they are in their home province."

Working with the University of Calgary to share space, the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine's Calgary satellite program is located in U of C's downtown centre. Both MSc Physical Therapy (PT) and MSc Occupational Therapy (OT) offer classes in-person and online. Much of the instruction originates in Edmonton, but faculty may choose to broadcast from Calgary or Camrose over the course of the program.

The class sizes at the downtown centre are quite small, with two OT classes of 24 students and two PT classes of 18 students in the Calgary cohort. According to occupational therapy student Amrita Surdhar, this is one of the best aspects of being at the Calgary satellite.

UAlberta President David Turpin and Rehab Med Dean
Bob Haennel visit occupational therapy students during
one of their classes. (Photo: Janelle Pan)

"With smaller class sizes, it's so much easier to connect with classmates. I often compare the Calgary cohort to a family, because we know one another so well," she says. "The technology allows us to stay closer to home and this also helps some classmates who can't financially afford moving away and have other responsibilities at home.

It's a great new way of getting the same education without having the distance barrier."

"Our synchronized distance learning technology allows our students to train through lectures and labs in Calgary, Edmonton and Camrose. We also adopt teaching technology that has been proven to be effective, including simulation labs, e-learning and state-of-the-art clinical equipment," says Bob Haennel, interim dean, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Expanding to rural and southern Alberta enhances accessibility for students and patients. The satellite programs also allow the Faculty to engage health centres across the province and create more clinical placements for students - an integral part of training future physical therapists and occupational therapists.

"Our students are completing more clinical placements in Camrose and we are exploring more opportunities for placements in Calgary to serve the rehabilitation needs of the communities there," says Haennel. "With Alberta's aging population, we need to more rehab professionals to meet the rehabilitation needs of patients across the province."

The Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine launched its first satellite site in 2010 at the U of A's Augustana Campus in Camrose with an initial enrolment of 12 master's students in physical therapy. The model was later adopted to launch Calgary satellite programs for physical therapy (at the U of C's Downtown Campus) and occupational therapy (initially in leased office space) in the fall of 2012.

Permanent enrolment funding from the Government of Alberta last year and an additional capital investment have allowed for ongoing operations in newly renovated space at the U of C's Downtown Campus, where both programs now reside.

For You and Surdhar, both born and raised Calgarians who want to serve their communities when they graduate, the satellite programs and teaching technology couldn't have come at a better time.

"We get access to some of the best professors and instructors in the country. The quality of education we receive is equal to being in Edmonton, if not better," says You.