The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented change to the world of medicine including education. With no immediate end to the pandemic in sight, we have seen a complete overhaul in the design and delivery of medical education within the UK. As of mid-April, 191 countries implemented school and university closures, impacting 1.57 billion students. Since the return of teaching this Autumn, medical schools across the UK have introduced online alternatives to deliver their curricula, or so-called ‘virtual medical education’ (VME).
Benefits of VME
VME enables delivery of education to large numbers of students, improving accessibility, as well as access to novel high-quality learning resources. Pressure on educational organisations to provide alternative teaching in a short time period has led to accelerated development of new educational technologies. This includes delivering education through virtual reality, augmented reality, AI-enabled software and the increased use of simulation-based clinical and virtual patient training. VME also offers greater flexibility for learning. Students get an improved work-life balance with access to 24/7 online teaching platforms and the option to work ‘anytime, anywhere, at any pace’. This is particularly important for those who have acquired new carer or work responsibilities over the pandemic.
The online environment also offers a certain degree of anonymity and mitigates factors such as age, race, gender, and disability. Unfortunately, discrimination within medical schools is still very common. In 2018, approximately two thirds of students in one UK medical school experienced or witnessed discrimination or harassment. Therefore, removal through the increasing use of VME improves the quality of education and is less likely to be impacted by prejudice.
Drawbacks of VME
One of the most apparent problems of this new era of medical education is the unreliable nature of even sophisticated technology. We’ve all suffered from infuriating issues surrounding connection problems. When technology is unreliable, the learning experience is diminished. It assumes each learner possesses a certain level of computer literacy to navigate the online environment and abide by so-called computer “netiquette”. It also assumes that everyone has equal access to internet and the latest devices or software, which risks worsening economic inequality among students. In this regard, we hope universities will make it their upmost priority to support students with access to the online learning environment during this period of education.
VME also shifts responsibility away from educators and towards students. Online teaching appears to suit students with a high degree of self-motivation and self-discipline. When faced with more flexible ’24/7’ learning, students who thrive in traditional classroom-based lessons may struggle. Undoubtably, we need ways to promote small-group learning online that will drive peer-to-peer team-work to help students remain engaged. We know that full engagement improves retention of information and enhances learning. Nevertheless, it’s apparent that the online environment doesn’t compare to the real in-person experience of university education.
Without question, COVID-19 means that medical education must be adapted in a way that optimises student learning. VME has facilitated the advancement of educational technologies and fosters flexible learning with improved work-life balance. However, we need to ensure all students have equal access to online educational technologies and universities need to ensure an online curriculum is current, supported and engaging. Now more than ever, we must continue to adapt to the current situation and prepare for a future with VME.
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- Atreya A. et al. Distant virtual medical education during COVID‐19: Half a loaf of bread. The Clinical Teacher [Internet]. 2020. 17(4):418-419. [cited 26 September 2020]