Key Principles for a Smooth Transition to Online Teaching

Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels principles for transition to online learning, anatomy educators

The adage ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ was certainly true as anatomy educators at Medical Schools, across Australia and NZ, had to consider alternative ways to teach when the pandemic imposed restrictions on classroom and laboratory gatherings.

In a study conducted by anatomy educators from the Australian and New Zealand Association of Clinical Anatomists (ANZACA), including Associate Professors Alexandra Webb and Krisztina Valter from ANU Medical School, the group explored the immediate impact to staff and students in suddenly transitioning from on-campus to online delivery of anatomy classes.

Given the practical hands-on requirements of anatomy learning (e.g. study of cadavers), remote learning presents a major challenge, which was thrust upon educators and students as a result of the pandemic lock-down.

Educators were faced with challenges such as having to quickly upskill to new IT abilities, sometimes facing technical IT issues, having to work rapidly with technical teams to create digital content, and having to change the anatomy curricular and assessment structure to align with what was possible in an online learning environment.

Students also faced challenges, reporting a perceived lack of opportunity for deep learning that would have been possible if they were in the laboratory. Motivation was also lacking due to the loss of face-to-face interaction with teaching staff.

But the situation also offered some opportunities. Staff have upskilled in new areas and devised creative solutions to allow continued learning. Perhaps most importantly, these changes have demonstrated that there are ways to engage students in the “virtual” classroom. And, these findings may influence new ways of delivering anatomy education in the future.

The authors identified the ‘Six Cs’ of anatomy education during the initial acute phase of the COVID19 pandemic, which can potentially be adapted to other learning environments where there is a rapid need to move to online learning.

IMAGE: Infographic of shared Australian and New Zealand anatomy education teaching approaches during the Covid‐19 pandemic.  Image used with permission.

Of primary importance is the Care of the Community including all staff (educators and professional) and students, covering both physical and mental wellbeing. Rapid change, coupled with uncertainty, increases anxiety. Therefore, it’s important that leaders address any and all concerns. This can be achieved through Clear and Effective Communication. Transparency throughout a crisis is key for ensuring cooperation and a feeling of inclusion, as well as reducing stress for educators and students.

Being able to Compromise, Adapt and be Flexible in the practices and design of the curriculum is vital to the success of moving rapidly to online learning. For example, adapting already existing material, where possible, enabled a quick response for generating educational outputs. Being realistic about what is achievable given the circumstances of the situation and the timeline is also valuable.

Additionally, when change occurs in the curriculum, it is important to find Constructive Alignment between learning outcomes, new activities and new assessments and to articulate these to students. Doing so ensures good education practice continues and demonstrates to students why new activities and assessments are suitable.

With the sharp increase in workload associated with a sudden shift in education delivery, it’s important that leaders Clarify Expectations on workloads and manage stakeholder expectations. It has been found that emergency remote learning places additional demands on educators, such as an increased expectation by students to be available to correspond, support and manage their needs. Therefore, it’s important that leaders step in to put boundaries in place.

Finally, when a crisis hits, the need to have Continuity Planning in place is paramount. Considerations, such as, what happens if key personnel are effected, need to be addressed.

In the case of the COVID19 pandemic, the crisis has shown there are opportunities to be explored in the teaching of anatomy (and potentially other courses) in the online learning space. Perhaps one of the key determinants of what components of the online approach will endure after the restrictions lift will be based on the performance and satisfaction of students.