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Making practical-based subjects work online

20 Jul 2020 | Tim Hinchcliffe Tim Hinchcliffe explores the seemingly impossible world of taking practical based subjects and making them work in an online space. He argues that by slowing decision making, we create space to challenge assumptions that block meaningful learning design.

“I’ve got a practical based class [such as a science laboratory or simulated clinical setting] that needs to be delivered. How can I replicate this online if my students cannot come on to campus?”

This conundrum has probably been posed in our COVID-19 events more often than any other. Backed by decades of experience the synapses of the gathered educators crackle into action and creative minds pour forth possible solutions, none of which quite match the seemingly rigid requirements of the questioner. Why might this be?

It is that age old lesson that we hope our students master, and a lesson that many of us might need to revisit ourselves… to challenge both the question posed and the assumptions that are nested within it. In a high-pressure environment that demands quick responses - such as the pivot to online learning - it can be an easy trick to miss. So let’s break down some of these assumptions.

Outcomes-based education

It can be tempting to think ‘this is how I deliver this content right now, so how can I best replicate this online’. Stop. Think. What is of critical importance here. The mode of delivery? The content? A number of factors will influence your response but it can be helpful to consider education from an outcomes focused perspective. Given due time to consider their answer most educators would likely postulate that our primary consideration should always be what do I want students to achieve, because without this our education becomes aimless. Next we must consider how can I give my students the best chance to flourish and succeed.

Providing opportunity

Once you have clarity of purpose – i.e. the outcomes – then you can decide the knowledge, skills, attributes and so on, required to make this happen. What opportunities will the students be given to incrementally and iteratively develop these dimensions of learning? For some of you these might not have drastically changed, though it is worth reflecting on the importance of each in this new world. Are there emergent skills that are critical to a graduate in your field? What has this new world taught us about the personal qualities that we want society to embrace? I posit that with honest reflection we can all find something that we could modify or add here. The world has changed; it is unlikely that you are the only one to have escaped its effects. Our next step is to consider how we might provide such opportunity.

Replicate or redesign

Only now are you ready to take a look at your existing learning activities. Are they still fit for purpose? Could you replicate them online if in-person learning opportunities are not available? If not, is it a matter of adaptation or complete redesign? Redesign is perhaps the most intensive of these options and so our efforts here should be prioritised on ‘sticky issues’, those parts of a programme that are either critical to student success and/or shown to be the most problematic for students. Any remaining resource can be given to adaptation or replication – after all we can’t expect everything. Technologies that are new to you will likely play a role, but a note of caution… do not be led by technology, it is not a pedagogy. Find a solution that fits your purpose, don’t go with something because it’s fun (not to be mistaken for learning) or flashy (not be mistaken for engaging). Our pedagogy must be justifiable, so by what measures can we justify our approach?  

Authentic online learning

Authenticity is more often than not discussed in relation to assessment, but there is no reason why we can’t also apply it to our outcomes and methods. Authenticity poses some fascinating questions in our given example. We presume that a practical was originally chosen because it best replicates the context, in other words it demands that the student ‘do’ the subject. If we change this setting would we lose authenticity? Not necessarily. Nested here is another assumption; that online is somehow not authentic. Some ill-informed educators consider online as the poor relative to in-person education, but this is not the case, and a well-designed online learning experience can be equally authentic. Consider this. In the immediate future are physiotherapists likely to be required to provide some rehabilitative treatments through an online digital platform? Highly likely. Therefore, preparing students to do this on your course can actually help prepare them for their future. You can still teach (and assess) other dimensions of professional practice, such as patient care and empathy, through this medium too. Authenticity is not fixed and neither should our thinking.

Working with students

If the necessity of rapid decision making encourages us to look past some simple assumptions, then it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that it might encourage us to look past students too. Do not mistake me, I am not saying that university staff are intentionally side-lining the student voice. I am arguing that there is a very real danger that the student voice could easily be overlooked given the structural exclusion of students in most institutions’ meso-level decision making bodies. If we consider how drastically our own circumstances as educators have changed then pause for a moment and consider the circumstances of our students. Whilst as educators we have a degree of latitude and autonomy to decide how opportunities to learn are provided, our students have little to no say on such matters, unless we provide it for them. We must ensure that we do so.

You haven’t answered the question

Now at this juncture you might be thinking “Tim, when are you going to address the physical or practical element of the problem?”. That is the point, I am not going to. For to do so would mean we have fallen for the trap. Instead we must challenge the two assumptions made by the questioner. Firstly, that the chosen approach of a ‘practical’ is the correct and only way to deliver this part of a course. It may well be but we must not assume this to be the case - there are plenty of alternatives available to the educator who is willing to search for them. Secondly, and this is crucial, if we were to respond unquestionably we would be accepting that either the outcomes have been examined and found to be robust, or worryingly that consideration of the outcomes has been precluded from the decision making process all together and it is in fact the delivery and content that is driving action. In this case, the correct thing to do is not answer the original question, but to ask questions of our own.

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