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Covid-19 has changed how we teach students
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  1. Mark Bowen

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Mark Bowen is professor of veterinary internal medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham

‘The time has now come for us all to do more’.This was the plea from our prime minister on Monday 23 March.

Innovation in veterinary education has suddenly occurred at a rate never seen before

In response, innovation in veterinary education has suddenly occurred at a rate never seen before. Within days, the classroom curriculum evolved to online material delivered from lecturers’ kitchen tables to students’ homes. Teaching has been adapted so that it can still be delivered in this new reality, and staff are encouraging participation using a range of tools, chat functionality and video conferencing to create more dynamic sessions. Whether this has resulted in a ‘better’ learning environment is unknown, but it is certainly one that is better aligned to the ethos of the millennial generation. We have had better attendance at teaching sessions, better engagement and also better feedback. Of course there have been some challenges, but academics and students have adapted well. Hopefully we will keep all the good bits of this new reality, and the concept of learning ‘any time, any place and on any device’ will continue after the pandemic ends. Will this finally spell the end of the traditional lecture?

Remote practical teaching is challenging during the lockdown, but staff and students have come up with creative ways to cope – we have seen suture practice on bananas and bandaging of chair legs, family members or pets. Timetables have been adjusted, and when things return to normal there will be consolidation weeks of practical teaching to supplement and revise the theory that students are currently learning. Providing our students with a strong practical skillset remains our priority.

It has been difficult to deliver clinical teaching remotely, and by necessity these sessions have become purely observational, although they can still remain interactive. Using video platforms such as Teams or Zoom, we can stream detailed case discussions about images, laboratory data and video recordings from our homes, or clinical cases live from the emergency rooms. We can also live-stream videos from our smartphones, endoscopy and ultrasound systems so that students can participate and ask questions in real-time. The UK vet schools are doing everything they can to prioritise student learning and ensure that those all-important clinical decision making skills are still being developed during this unprecedented time.

Requirements for extramural studies (EMS) have been scaled back for the current final-year cohorts, but thanks to the generosity of some pharmaceutical companies, the British Cattle Veterinary Association and the British Equine Veterinary Association and their sponsors, we have been able to gain access to a massive bank of free webinars to support students who are missing out on those informal teaching opportunities. Additionally, practitioners are sharing cases and initiating discussions with students via VetWings, a new Facebook group. The generosity of our profession in giving their time to the future generations of vets is something we must all be grateful for. During this crisis we need to re-evaluate EMS; we need to allow it to evolve and adapt, the status quo is no longer fit for purpose.

Final exams will still go ahead as scheduled. At Nottingham university, they will be delivered using the secure online assessment platform developed by our medical school. They will be completed by students at home in an ‘open-book’ format. This is actually not a change in our assessment strategy, since we have long moved away from testing knowledge and trivia. Life in practice is ‘open-book’ and clinical reasoning and problem solving are the priority.

Despite all these great adaptations, some challenges remain. At Nottingham university, our first-ever second cohort of first-year students started on 30 March, albeit remotely, and we will need to find a way to still deliver our ethos of practical and clinically relevant teaching from the very beginning. The new final-year students are due to start this month and we are having to develop contingency for the inevitable delay to face-to-face clinical teaching.

However, in each vet school, the teams of staff and students are coming together to make the best of the situation they find themselves in, and I am proud to be a member of a team with a can-do attitude that has put the needs of our students first and not once has considered delaying their graduation due to Covid-19. ●

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