Near Future Teaching Think Tank: Vets

On 18 January 2018, we were delighted to welcome 17 students at various stages in their training to the Institute for Academic Development. The students were primarily from the University of Edinburgh Veterinary Programme at The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. They came along to attend a Near Future Teaching Thank Tank event.

The format for the event was three short talks or ‘provocations’ detailing possible developments in the future university, which would be followed by a group challenge being set. The group would then be split into teams which would respond to the challenge.
The first talk was by Dr Catriona Bell, and was called ‘No More Lectures – more time to think’. Catriona noted that lectures are traditionally ‘didactic and linear’ and that it could be difficult for students to remain engaged throughout. By the time the typical 50 minute lecture is combined with making notes and revising, the total time cost is usually 3-3.5 hours, and she asked whether this was the most efficient use of student time.

Her provocation was that in future we eliminate lectures completely, increasing flexibility and using other approaches such as the flipped classroom to enhance and develop a more personalised learning experience.

Next up was ‘Competition, analytics and student league tables’, by Dr Jeremy Knox. Jeremy spoke about the ‘datafication’ of society and asked – if we have all this big educational data, what can be done with it, or more importantly, what SHOULD we do with it. He promted us to consider ‘openness’, ‘prediction’ and ‘attention’ and described some of the benefits of data sharing in these areas, however he also pointed out that there may be a tendency for data to be used to control and reduce. His provocative questions touched on the following:

  • Openness: Is your data really you? Who owns student data? Who should see it?
  • Prediction: Is a future without failure a good future? What is the educational value of mistakes?
  • Attention: Should students in classes be scanned for attentiveness? What if students were punished for not paying attention?

Finally we had Erin Williams on: ‘Getting rid of the bodies – cadaver-free anatomy teaching’. Erin asked if we can use technologies such as 3-D printing and virtual reality to replace the need to cut up cadavers in the lab when learning veterinary skills. She talked about how these technologies have been used in the commercial world, such as in gaming, with great success and asked if this could be a way forward to a more animal-friendly, economical, healthy and flexible way of teaching in future.

Professor Susan Rhind then set our challenge for the workshop which was: ‘What is your fantasy veterinary curriculum and how will assessment work in your fantasy future vet school?’ The students split into 3 groups and had 30 minutes to debate and consider. They came up with rich and sometimes surprising ideas and responses to the provocations.

Group 1

In response to the first provocation to end lectures, Group 1 suggested a move towards structured small group teaching sessions but did say there was some value in live tutor contact via lectures. One student said she had skipped a number of lectures and still passed her exams, so in her mind that meant that lectures were not of particular value. They argued that the time spent overall on lectures was inefficient, but also made the point that they will be entering busy 9-5 jobs and that the preparation and rigour involved in attending lectures could be good training for full time employment.

They had a strong response to the second provocation regarding data and analytics and argued that they had been tested and pitted against their peers all their lives to get into the University of Edinburgh and that they felt they had ‘been through enough competition already!’ They felt there had been negative emotional consequences for many from the intense competition in schooling and said that now they are here, they should be taught without having to prove their worth all the time. They felt that assessment technology should be used by lecturers to find out what THEY are doing well or not well, rather than targeted at struggling students. They argued that academic knowledge is not the be all and end all of being a good vet and that academic performance does not necessarily reflect the ability to be a good clinician. The ‘at risk’ model of identifying struggling students could be useful to help these students, but should be kept private and used to provide support rather than being public and exposing which they felt would be degrading.

Finally, on the topic of cadavers, the students said that the technology on offer at the moment was not good enough to replace operating on cadavers, and the 3-D/VR technology on offer now is not good enough to support learning properly. They felt the public would not trust a vet who had not operated on a cadaver and that they already did not have enough contact with live animals during their study, let alone dead animals. One devil’s advocate in the room did mention that pilots are often trained in simulators and then fly with real people! They said that while some technologies could help with resources, they would not be a total replacement. 3-D printed skulls would mean that more students could spend more time examining the skull, but it might be more difficult to reflect the natural and important variation of nature. They asked how we would stimulate that spontaneous natural variation.

On the subject of lectures, the students argued that they would like to spend more time learning in hospitals and that effort and tenacity should get more weight than numerical assessment. In their ideal future university, people would graduate with ungraded degrees, teaching hours would be cut and there would be more time spent in teaching hospitals and supervisors would assess technique.

Group 2

Group 2 said that there was a difference between learning the fundamentals of anatomy versus surgical anatomy and that it is very different operating on live animals. They felt that there could be less or no use of cadavers when learning the fundamentals in pre-clinical work – skeletons and muscles could be learned on plastic cadavers and 3-D models, however they still would require cadavers  for the clinical training. This group felt strongly that they did not want data tracking and agreed with Group 1 that they had already faced their fair share of comparison and competition. They stressed that praise is important and does not need to be data/numbers-based (for instance, it could be a response to good client communication). They said that the Vet School does not say ‘Well Done!’ enough and that this type of praise can mean so much more than a distinction.

They argued for more smaller, ‘bite-size’ exams and felt that data could be used to flag up failing students and get help for them, but not to punish them. This group had already experienced flipped classrooms and stated that they are a huge improvement over lectures. Overall though they did acknowledge that it is impossible to cater for everyone and that the Vet School does a great job at balancing priorities.

Group 3

This group had some mixed opinions. As regards data, some felt this could be used usefully to improve the performance of lecturers, and that in the business world data will inevitably be used to track performance and help meet targets, thus it is important to get accustomed to working with it and in response to it. Others argued that we are already self-critical and compare too much and that data can be dangerous, that it is a way of a seeing a reduced version of a person on paper rather than conveying other vital skills such as good interpersonal skills. It could be a way to weed out people who might deserve a job but do not look like that on paper. One student mentioned that in some countries interview scores are released to the public by companies and that this can improve overall performance rates, but asked if we are prioritising outcome behaviour or welfare. She said that if you look at China, they are able to make technological advances because they can control performance via data, however if we make data public and get rid of anonymity, are we in danger of changing the way we look at failure and destroying our ability to make mistakes and learn from them?

On the subject of lectures, there were some mixed views as well. Some felt that lectures should be replaced with group sessions whereas some thought lectures should never be completely eliminated because some things can only be learned in a lecture format. That student said that contact with a lecturer is good and that you can ask questions of them in person. She had also learned a lot from working through cases at home and presenting them in small groups. They agreed with Group 2 that more little assessments along the way would be of use and make one value what one is learning more, and that after each lecturer’s series of lectures, the students should be able to give immediate anonymous feedback.

They agreed that cadavers were still needed but said that post-mortems could be used more within early years teaching to incorporate histology. One student said that she always remembers what ISN’T normal – those instances have more impact. Also with post-mortems, specimens are fresher and not full of chemicals. They did feel that a virtual system would be very useful before surgery in order to revise.

So overall it was a dynamic, fascinating and extremely provocative session. The teachers came away from the event inspired to rethink how they are teaching NOW, and the students could not stop chatting as they walked out into the night… into the future!

Jennifer Williams
Projects & Engagement Coordinator
Institute for Academic Development

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