Jacobs School Transitions to Distance Learning Model

Published April 2, 2020

story by dirk hoffman

Due to the COVID-19 global health pandemic, the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has transitioned to a distance learning model for student instruction to reduce density in the campus environment.


Passive Method of Instruction On Decline

Lisa Jane Jacobsen, MD

While the move is temporary, some elements of distance learning may one day become the norm as medical schools evolve in the way they teach and present information.

Jacobs School leaders and faculty have embraced the challenge of quickly shifting to a distance learning model that was implemented March 23.

Lisa Jane Jacobsen, MD, associate dean of medical curriculum, notes that while responding to the novel coronavirus necessitated the change, it was one that was already underway.

“There had been a movement to go to distance learning to some degree because medical schools are changing the way students are learning,” she says.

“The lecture halls have been emptying out because that passive method of instruction really isn’t very useful when there are better techniques, including small group discussions, learning by interacting with your peers and problem solving, having a faculty member ask questions and talking about issues,” Jacobsen adds. “Those kinds of active and interactive sessions have been much more valuable.”

Training, Tutorials Help Faculty Get Up to Speed

Elizabeth O. Fellendorf, IT customer service manager, leads a training session on web conferencing applications for Jacobs School faculty.

Jacobsen says that while the transition to distance learning was a major upheaval for the entire school, both faculty and students alike took it in stride.

She said most of the work focused on teaching faculty about different ways of communicating, including learning about web conferencing and downloading different applications such as Zoom, WebEx and Panopto.

Jacobsen says the use of in-person training sessions and online tutorials got faculty up to speed quickly, with much of the content created by UB’s Center for Education Innovation. She says the Jacobs School’s Office of Medical Curriculum and Medical Education and Educational Research Institute were also involved in educating faculty about the new teaching methods.

“And just because you bring everyone together in web conferencing, you also need to think about what instructional techniques you can use to keep students engaged and involved to make sure it is more than just a one-way lecture,” she says. “You need to develop methods to get students to interact, so that has been another learning process for the faculty.”

Revamping Courses a Lesson in Ingenuity

Chelsie E. Armbruster, PhD

Chelsie E. Armbruster, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, says she is primarily involved in courses for master’s and doctoral students, none of which have traditionally used video lectures.

“I actually just took over as course director for MIC516 (Fundamentals of Bacteriology) this semester, so the switch to distance learning meant having to revamp the course twice in a short period of time,” she says.

“This course is typically a blend of didactic lectures with group discussions of primary scientific literature, along with student group final presentations, so we needed to rapidly shift to recording all lectures via Panopto and find an alternate method for conducting group discussions with a class of 16 students,” Armbruster says.

Armbruster says one of the biggest challenges in transitioning the course to distance learning was making sure that she and the other course instructors were all comfortable with the features of Panopto, how to post recorded lectures to UB Learns, and which platform to use for group discussions. 

“So far, the students seem comfortable with the transition,” she says. “Mostly they have just expressed thanks at how quickly we communicated the changes so that they would be prepared.”

Students Benefit From Greater Flexibility

Armbruster thinks one of the greatest benefits of the distance learning model is that it will make the didactic portion of the class more accessible to the students, because they now have the option of working through the course material at their own pace, pausing the recorded lectures to take notes or reviewing a section if something wasn’t clear.

“For my course, we are using discussion boards for group participation, which may also allow students who are usually more reserved in class to share their thoughts and opinions and ask questions,” she notes.

Jacobsen says she envisions students also using some of the new online tools to engage in small group discussions and problem-solving learning on their own time.

“Maybe small groups can get together on their own time to work on a problem. Maybe they say ‘let’s meet at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday.’ That might be something they can do in a web conference, just having small groups they set up on their own time,” she says. “As students get more used to it, they may use these virtual meetings to work together at off times or when it is convenient for them.”

Jacobsen says web conferencing is better than a conference call because participants can actually see each other — some of the body language is still there — and notes that it brings a lot of the humanism back into the experience.

“On a conference call, you have no idea who is in the room, you have no idea if they are looking at you with confusion. You don’t even know if they hated your idea or if they are all nodding their heads, loving your idea. You get none of those visual cues,” she says.

Human Interaction Still Essential Component

Human interaction needs to remain a critical component of the medical school experience, says Jacobsen, a clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

“Despite continuing technological advances, we don’t believe we should always be online for everything,” she says. “People need verbal communication, interaction and socialization. People need to get to know each other in person. You don’t want to get rid of all these personal experiences.”

“In our new curriculum and in the future, we do need to keep these experiences where students are actually in contact with each other, looking at each other across the table, talking to each other, getting those body cues and all those communication cues that come through,” Jacobsen says.

“When you look at and interact with someone, those things are all valuable, and they help you become a better clinician because you need to be able to interact with your patients that way,” she notes.

Jacobsen says medical students also need to learn to be able to communicate effectively with nurses, pharmacists and other allied health professionals in a hospital or outpatient setting.

“Those skills are really important, so we definitely need to have experiences where people come together and solve problems together as a team,” she says.

Exploring Most Effective Teaching Strategies

Stuart D. Inglis, PhD

Stuart D. Inglis, PhD, instructor of pathology and anatomical sciences, is ahead of the curve in that he had transitioned to a flipped classroom approach to teaching a few years ago.

His in-class video sessions are active learning, where students are challenged with clinical questions that they work in groups to solve.

“From that perspective, the distance learning is not a major obstacle. It is a little more clunky than in the classroom but seems to work well,” he says. “The use of ‘breakout rooms’ in Zoom and other platforms closely simulates what we do in class, and once the learning curve for this software has been cleared, it should be fairly similar to the in-class experience.”

Because he teaches an anatomy course with dissection, there are some sacrifices in moving to distance learning, Inglis notes.

“The biggest disappointment for both myself and the students are the dissection labs. These are the sort of intangible educational experiences that make a university education so special, and which are so difficult to simulate online,” he says.

“I am grateful that the students had a good part of the term to engage in dissection, but it will be very difficult for them moving forward, seeing video sessions of others engaging in dissection, knowing what they are missing out on,” Inglis adds.

However, Inglis says the changes also present opportunities.

“The pandemic is challenging university professors to rethink the methods by which we deliver educational material and the efficacy of these methods,” he says. “The traditional university lecture predates the printing press, at a time when the most practical way to disseminate information was to dictate from a master text, while students frantically transcribed this information for their own record.”

“We have advanced far beyond the necessity to take notes from an oration to archive information,” Inglis says. “This is an opportunity to explore the most effective teaching strategies to educate both within and outside the walls of traditional academia.”