On March 23 – coincidentally immediately after our students’ March Break – Queen’s UGME moved its classroom-based teaching to all remote learning to comply with social-distancing measures put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic..

This also coincided with the majority of faculty, and administrative and support staff moving to working from home, except for those deemed essential to university operations.

By the end of May, we’d conducted close to 250 learning events via Zoom that would have ordinarily been taught in our classrooms by dozens of faculty members. The Meds Video Conferencing (MedsVC) team, led by Peter MacNeil were instrumental in making this possible, providing technical support for every learning event.

Lectures were recorded to accommodate students who found themselves in different time zones (many having travelled home for March Break and subsequently stayed there rather than engage in unnecessary travel) and those with family responsibilities, for example.

Instructors faced the same challenges most have read about regarding online conferencing. As Dr. Jenna Healey, Chair in the History of Medicine, describes: “Technical issues, navigating the software, making sure there were no interruptions on my end—like my very loud cat meowing!”

Faculty sought creative solutions to previously-scheduled in-class sessions. For example, in MEDS 246 Psychiatry, there were two expanded clinical skills sessions scheduled which each included a Standardized Patient actor (SP) to help demonstrate aspects of psychiatric interviews. Course Director Dr. Nishardi Wijeratne led both sessions – the first before the switch to remote delivery and the second one via Zoom. Each session was 50 minutes.

Standardized Patient actor Mike Campbell and Dr. Wijeratne at lower left window, conducting a psychiatric interview demonstration for students, via Zoom.

“Having taught both at the SOM and fully zoom, I did not find a significant difference between the two as a teacher,” Dr. Wijeratne says. “Given that my clinical practice as psychiatrist has moved to mostly virtual care right now, the Zoom version actually felt closer to my daily clinical practice right now.”

She noted three aspects that helped greatly with the session:

  • MedVC staff to help with tech issues
  • Connecting with the SP about 10 minutes before the session to discuss goals and structure
  • Assigning tasks to the students ahead of the session to maintain engagement thoughout the 50-minute classes. Students observed the psychiatric interviews and documented mental status, identified risk factors, and considered possible differential diagnoses.

In addition to his own teaching, MEDS122 Pediatrics Course Director Peter MacPherson pitched in with a solution to a Clinical Skills session – about half the class missed their opportunity to complete a toddler observation session because of the pandemic restrictions.

“Usually, the medical students get down on the floor and play with a toddler while they infer the child’s real age based on their developmental achievements,” he explains. “We were able to cover the same curricular objectives remotely. The students were able to observe and interact with my toddler via Zoom in his ‘natural environment’ (aka our playroom) and do a similar assessment.

“It was a lot of fun to teach while playing dress up with my child!”

Dr. MacPherson shared his Zoom toddler development session experience on Twitter.

One part of the classroom experience that’s more challenging to achieve remotely is direct interaction with students as a class. “In particular, it is rather difficult to judge the level of understanding of the class,” MEDS245 Neurosciences Course Director Stuart Reid notes. “It cannot provide the personal contact that comes with in real life interaction.”

“On the other hand, it has been an invigorating challenge.  We introduced more online learning modules and sought creative approaches to making distance learning both active and interactive,” he adds. One such creative approach was a “Jeopardy” style game in place of a hands-on expanded clinical skills session. It didn’t replicate the face-to-face session, but it actively engaged students in the session.

Dr. Healey echoes Dr. Reid’s comments about missing that face-to-face factor. “I very much miss interacting with my students in class. As an instructor, what I have found most challenging is not being able to see student’s faces. I didn’t realize how much I relied on non-verbal communication to adjust my pacing or gauge the level of student’s interest or understanding.”

Dr. Healey started encouraging students to use the Zoom “raise hand” function more often in her classes. “I want students to feel comfortable interrupting me if they have questions or comments.”

Dr. Reid speaks for all of us at UG when he notes that the students were a key factor in the success of our remote curriculum delivery: “They have been patient, accommodating, and enthusiastic enablers of our altered circumstances. Many thanks to them!”

At the end of the semester, the Education Team conducted several focus groups with Year 1 and Year 2 students to get additional feedback on what worked well, what didn’t, and suggestions for improving this type of remote learning. This, combined with the course evaluations (which included additional questions about the new required remote learning activities) will be used to inform teaching decisions in the coming academic year, as the COVID-19 pandemic situation continues to evolve.