Using online multimedia to teach practical skills

During 2016 I supervised an undergraduate research group in my department and we looked at the possibility of using multimedia – including video, images and text – to teach students practical skills. Traditionally, we teach these skills by having the lecturer demonstrate the technique on a model while the class watches. Students then break into small groups to practice while the lecturer moves around class, giving feedback, correcting positions and answering questions.

This process was pretty much the only option for as long as we’ve been teaching practical techniques, but it has it’s disadvantages:

  • As class sizes have grown, it’s increasingly difficult for every student to get a good view of the technique. Imagine 60 students crowded around a plinth trying to see what the lecturer is demonstrating.
  • Each student only gets one perspective of the technique. If you’re standing at the head of the module (maybe 1 or two rows back) and the demonstration is happening at the feet, you’re not going to get any other angle.
  • There are only so many times that the technique will be demonstrated before students need to begin practising. If you’re lucky the lecturer will come around to your station and offer a few more demonstrations, but owing to the class size, this isn’t always the case.

We decided that we’d try and teach a practical technique to half the class using only a webpage. The page included two videos of the technique, step by step instructions and images. We randomly selected half the class to go through the normal process of observing the lecturer demonstrate the technique and half the class were taken to another venue,  given the URL of the webpage and asked to practice among themselves. Two weeks later we tested the students using an OSCE. Students were evaluated by two researchers using a scoring rubric developed by the lecturer, where both assessors were blinded to which students had learned the technique using the webpage.

We found that the students who only had access to the multimedia and no input from the lecturer performed better in the OSCE than the students who had observed the lecturer. This wasn’t very surprising when you consider the many advantages that video has over face-to-face demonstration (rewind, pause, watch later, etc.) but nonetheless caused a stir in the department when the students presented their findings. We had to be careful how we framed the findings so as not to suggest that this could be considered as a replacement but rather as a complement to the traditional approach.

There were several limitations to the study:

  • The sample size was very small (only 9 students from the “multimedia” class took the OSCE, as it was voluntary)
  • We have no idea whether students in the multimedia class asked students from the “traditional” class to demonstrate the technique for them
  • We only taught and tested one technique, and it wasn’t a complex technique
  • Students knew that we were doing some research and that this was a low stakes situation (i.e. they may not have paid much attention in either class since they knew it would not affect their final grades)

Even taking the above into consideration though, in principle I’m comfortable saying that the use of video, text and images to teach undergraduate students uncomplicated practical techniques is a reasonable approach. Instead of being defensive and worrying about being replaced by a video, lecturers could see this as an opportunity to move tedious, repetitive tasks outside the classroom, freeing up time in the classroom for more meaningful discussion; Why this technique and not this one? Why now? At what level? For which patients? It seems to me that the more simple, content-based work we can move out of the classroom, the more time we have with students to engage in deeper work. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Sharing? Collaboration? No thanks

Last week I took our third year students to see a demonstration of the management of a patient with spinal cord injury as part of the Movement Science module that I teach. I noticed that during the demonstration many of them were taking pretty comprehensive notes, and thought that this would be a great opportunity to use a collaborative writing platform to create something useful for everyone in the class.

I proposed the following to them the next day:

  • I’d set up a shared online workspace, either using a wiki or Google Docs and create the document structure so that they’d just have to fill in the spaces from their notes
  • We’d use class time so that this wouldn’t be regarded as extra work
  • I highlighted the benefits i.e. additions to their individual notes from other students, adding multimedia e.g. video and images to enhance understanding, linking out to external sources to strengthen the evidence base, error correction by the group and myself, and creating a potentially useful resource for anyone else in the world

Their response…no thanks. It wasn’t even up for discussion. I found out that they didn’t even planning on typing up their notes, even after I’d pointed out the digital notes are searchable, expandable and shareable. They told me that if they wanted to share with their friends then they’d just photocopy the notes.

These aren’t selfish students, and they’re not limited by access to technology. They just don’t see that sharing in this context has any value for them as individuals, and that’s where I think the problem lies. They think that sharing doesn’t benefit them in the context of their learning (or studying as they call it, which I think is a fundamental problem in itself). They told me that they are connected but only in their social lives. They regarded studying as that thing they do in the classroom, and that learning comes from studying.

I also got the sense that they believe in some way that this is a zero sum game, in the sense that the notes they have will give them some kind of competitive advantage over other students in the class, thereby increasing the odds that they’ll get a higher mark. What it is they’re competing for is unclear. I wonder if grading is somehow related? Grading sets up a system of ranking and competition, not of sharing and collaboration. From that point of view, sharing knowledge is only good if it doesn’t impact on my own position in the ranking system. If you get a higher mark than me, it pushes me down the list. If sharing is seen as a zero-sum game in which your success impacts negatively on my success, then sharing isn’t a good strategy.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed because I believe that sharing and collaboration has enormous potential for learning. What do I do…force them to share in the hope that they’ll see the light? Even if I design collaborative assignments that requires a sharing component, as long as they see it as work, I’m not sure that it’ll change their thinking.