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Dr Jag Dhanda teaching students online at BSMS
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Dr Jag Dhanda teaching students online at BSMS
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How do they do it? The creative art of moving practical courses online, from drama to dissection

From livestreamed human dissection to online theatre and illustration, creativity is at the heart of new blended ways of learning and teaching. 

Just as the disciplines differ enormously, so do the innovative ways they are being taught online. We take a look at three very different online approaches to topics traditionally taught in the classroom.

The theatre course

Theatre practices might, at first glance, seem to be some of the more difficult disciplines to move to online learning. Not at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance (RBC), London’s International Drama School with an established history of distance learning.

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Students at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance (RBC)
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Four years ago, RBC overhauled all of its online learning materials, embedding group collaboration and large online activities into the curriculum. The courses are now a mix of a blended/hybrid approach and students are reaping the rewards.

Take the popular theatres at work course taught to students on campus and across the globe, in China, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Curriculum manager for online learning and teaching, Jayne Richards explains how it works:

“The students are asked to choose a local theatre for their studies and will collaborate online and feed back to the rest of the cohort at regular intervals. The students take us on a ‘virtual flight’ using Google Earth to their region and theatre. Students discover the differences from country to country, from the crowded city of Hong Kong to a remote village in the middle of Iceland. It's a module that embeds independent learning and establishes the habits of practice that students need in order to work.”

The director module has been written with online in mind and looks at the role of a director on stage. Students understand the fundamental principles of directing through practice-based activities. Jayne says

“The module gets the students to work in groups and create directed pieces online, applying theories about the use of space and place to what they know about technical issues that can crop up, without the need for being in the same physical space.”

Similarly, the module The Actor, a module which is being redeveloped, will use a mix of recorded media, a demonstrator in the studio performing live to the online class and students working on their own to develop their skills – as well as online webinars with the tutor.

For the full-time programmes, live performances are a little trickier. According to Dr Sally East, director of finance and operations,

“There is a concern that students aren’t performing to a live audience and the level and accuracy of feedback is an issue for a 3D performance viewed on a 2D screen. To overcome this, we’re doing more virtual green screen work, so students can explore their artistic nature. If the script says it’s raining, the green screen will be raining, which gives a different dimension to the 2D perspective that performing online brings.”

Online learning is providing more choice and opportunity to learn in a variety of ways for students at RBC. It’s also allowing RBC to engage with other academics and specialised tutors around the world, helping to expand the college’s reach and stature.

The illustration module

Chris Dennis, lecturer in art and design at Cardiff Metropolitan University, teaches a level four illustration module. Usually delivered face-to-face, it introduces students to the subject of typography through lectures and a one-day practical workshop. Due to lockdown, Chris had to work out how to deliver the module online so students could keep learning.

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Student working on illustration module at Cardiff Metropolitan University
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He started with the lecture content, breaking it up into bite-sized 20-minute chunks, each followed by a series of practical tasks, allowing the students to put their learning into practice. These tasks were designed to offer students an opportunity to develop materials as a part of their professional practice. They were tasked with creating their own business card and a small promotional postcard featuring a large image of their own work, incorporating their illustration and typography skills.

Normally delivered in one day, the practical tasks were set up in the VLE, which students could access at any time. Some students completed the tasks in a day while others spread them out over a few weeks to fit in with their personal circumstances. Despite not having face-to-face access to their tutor, students were able to contact him via email. For any students struggling with the software, a series of online tutorials was made available.

Learning from the situation, Chris says:

“The tasks had no formal deadlines to allow as much flexibility as possible but, in the future, I’d like to set deadlines to provide more focused goals for students.”

He’s also considering the addition of more tutorial sessions between the tasks to give the students more opportunity for feedback and to be able to tailor and amend their work.

“These submission points would also help with monitoring engagement,”

says Chris.

Chris would like to offer the module online in future.

“The advantage of delivering this module online is that students can develop a wider set of skills. Not only those of illustration and typography but skills that will develop their professional practice and help them adapt to working in an online environment.”

There were concerns that students might push back against an online mode of delivery, given the nature of the module, but the feedback has been positive –

“I think the approach to lockdown teaching has been fantastic. My lecturers have been wonderful at communicating throughout it all and have stuck by their promise of support and feedback,”

says one of Chris’s students.

The livestreamed human dissection

Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) became the first medical school in the UK to extend its provision of anatomy and surgical teaching and training by using livestreamed footage of cadaveric donors being dissected in a secure manner in early October. 

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Dr Jag Dhanda teaching students online at BSMS
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Staff at BSMS, a joint venture between the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton, have implemented a blended medical curriculum so students still receive face-to-face teaching in key clinical areas, while at the same time benefiting from the latest digital innovations to support their learning.

One of these innovations has been to bring the dissecting room, a highly regulated space, to students via streaming. This has been carefully planned, considering the Human Tissue Authority regulations, and only involves donors who have consented to the activity.

Medical students have already had an introduction session, where they explored the muscles and bones of the chest, and year two students and medical neuroscience students witnessed a brain being removed, learning about the nerves and blood supply to the brain. Medical students will still come into the laboratory in small groups and undertake dissection but this new innovation has ensured the material can still be covered despite restrictions.

Professor Claire Smith, head of anatomy at BSMS, says:

“In responding to the current restrictions, it remains imperative that medical and surgical teaching continues. In anatomy teaching, COVID-related restrictions have been compounded by the medical school only receiving half the number of donated cadavers for teaching. We are so fortunate to have donors and my thoughts are always with those have suffered loss at such a difficult time. This new innovation has meant that the donors’ wish to educate and inform future generations can still occur, albeit in a slightly different way.”

Student feedback from those who attended the brain removal session has included

“it was an incredible experience to see a human brain in such detail and the cranial cavity”

and

“it’s definitely a learning curve with all the new tech tools, but I really felt that I gained an incredibly valuable experience by being present during the session. I know that I speak on behalf of all the Medical Neuroscience students when I say that we are very grateful for the opportunity to be included on something like this!”

It is not only medical students who are benefiting from this innovation. In September, a week-long course was arranged by Dr Jag Dhanda, consultant maxillofacial/head and neck reconstructive surgeon at Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, who used the live stream to demonstrate surgical procedures on cadavers with virtual reality (VR) or 360-degree cameras.

Multiple camera angle perspectives in the virtual reality view were livestreamed to 350 surgeons from 26 countries around the world. These surgeons were able to view the surgical techniques on cadavers through virtual reality headsets that allowed them to choose the camera angle perspective they wanted by moving their heads. Specialities involved included maxillofacial/head and neck surgeons, plastic surgeons, ear nose and throat surgeons, orthopaedics, breast, vascular surgeons and hand surgeons, as well as anaesthetists and emergency medicine doctors. 

Dr Dhanda said:

“We have all had to adapt in how we deliver teaching and training for doctors in the COVID-19 era. Using a readily available technology like VR provides a much more immersive experience for trainees in which they literally feel they are 'in the room’ with the tutor. Using this in the anatomy laboratory at BSMS with cadavers is a unique approach that has enabled us to provide a worldwide first in demonstrating surgical techniques in this manner.”

Discover more ways that peers are rethinking teaching and learning.