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Learning to learn online
  1. Nick Short

Abstract

Online resources are playing an increasingly important role in veterinary undergraduate education and lifelong learning. The challenge is to know where to search for useful, authoritative and comprehensive information without wasting time aimlessly browsing the web. Nick Short, head of the e-Media Unit at the Royal Veterinary College, gives a brief overview of some of the sites available

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THE students of today have grown up using computers from their primary education right through to university. In fact, the term ‘digital native’ is widely used to describe this generation's familiarity with technology. Almost all these veterinary ‘digital natives’ have their own computer and use it for several hours a day. This is likely to consist of multi-tasking between online learning, checking their e-mail or updating their Facebook status – not necessarily in that order.

The veterinary schools have embraced e-learning to add value to existing teaching practices. All staff use PowerPoint presentations, and these are usually published on a virtual learning environment linked to audio recordings of the lectures. In addition, there are online videos of common clinical procedures, interactive guides to anatomy, radiographic image banks, online assessments and more. In fact, the problem is often prioritising what topics to review and finding the time to work through the relevant material.

While online resources can never replace hands-on experience, there is no doubt that online resources have become central to veterinary education. As a result, after five years at vet school, students are comfortable with e-learning and have developed strategic approaches to referring to educational websites to keep in touch and up to date. However, without access to past electronic study mat-erial, they can easily lose touch with sources that they have grown to rely upon.

A number of websites have grown up to support veterinary graduates in their transition from university to practice. There are also, of course, many other websites, which provide a wide range of more or less reliable information. The first port of call for many of us is Google, which is likely to throw up links to Wikipedia and other high-profile sites. However, while these may provide some background information, they are often not veterinary-specific or quality-assured.

For a veterinary-specific search of websites, I would recommend Intute (www.intute.ac.uk/veterinary), which reviews all the main veterinary sites and provides an expert review of each site. The NetVet site (http://netvet.wustl.edu) has a comprehensive list of links, but does not seem to have been updated for some time. Finally, the Merck Veterinary Manual (www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp) is freely available and often used by our students.

While veterinary online reference sources can be valuable, for example, in working on an assignment for the certificate of advanced veterinary practice, they are not really seen as educational resources. In contrast, there are a number of free or commercial sites that include instruction, guidance, interaction and assessment. These often mirror the peda­gogical approaches to teaching in the modern veterinary school.

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WikiVet (www.wikivet.net) is one example of online learning that I am involved with, and draws on much of the expertise and content available in UK vet schools. Using student and graduate authors with peer-review by experts, it is working to create an online undergraduate and graduate curriculum. The attraction of this approach is that it builds logically on the existing taught curriculum and reflects on well-tested e-learning methodologies.

Many of our students and interns are enthusiastic users of the Veterinary Information Network (www.vin.com), which is the oldest and probably the largest continuing education site on the web. The site relies on message boards and real-time discussions to take the user through a wide range of topic areas. The problem is that most of the synchronous sessions run in the evening in the USA, which means early morning in the UK!

A number of UK CPD providers are starting to run online courses. The RVC (www.rvc.ac.uk/cpd) was the first to launch e-CPD courses that comprise six-week interactive sessions with an expert moderator. It now offers live two-hour ‘webinars’ each week where participants around the world take part in an interactive presentation. CPD Solutions (www.cpd-solutions.com/keysteps.html) also offers online Keysteps CPD courses including a range of video material. IDEXX (www.idexx.co.uk/animalhealth/education) provides regular free webinars on various clinical topics.

There are many other sites that might be useful to new graduates. Vetstream (www.vetstream.co.uk/education/index.htm) provides new graduates with free access to comprehensive information on canine, feline, rabbit and equine medicine for a two-year period. The BSAVA (www.bsava.com/CPD/tabid/36/Default.aspx) has a comprehensive set of CPD material for small animal practitioners, while the BVA's journal In Practice (http://inpractice.bvapublications.com) has peer-reviewed clinical reviews covering all species. Some universities such as the RVC (www.rvc.ac.uk/RVC4Life) also offer continued online support and access to teaching material for their recent alumni. Meanwhile, programmes developed by the RVC's e-learning unit can be sampled at www.rvc.ac.uk/review.

It is clear that online learning is developing rapidly and is changing the way we study and learn, both as students and graduates. The challenge is to anticipate what developments are coming next and how best to adapt them to provide appropriate, affordable and enjoyable learning in the future.

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