News » SMHS Education Goes Virtual

SMHS Education Goes Virtual

To flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, nearly every state issued stay-at-home orders by late March.

To honor those requests while still meeting their educational missions, universities across the country are moving education online. At the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), creativity and ingenuity are key to ensuring students continue to receive a high-quality education.

From the MD curriculum to GW Health Sciences and PhD Programs, faculty and staff at GW are working around the clock to ensure students get the most out of the switch to online learning.

GW Health Sciences

Departments across GW had to move quickly to get content online, and none more so than GW Health Sciences, which boasts 48 programs in 34 fields of study.

“This is an unprecedented event in higher education,” said Catherine Golden, EdD ’14, MPA, associate dean of academic affairs at SMHS. “We had instructional continuity plans, but they were designed more for occasional disruption, such as inclement weather, not all the factors we face now.”

To tackle the unprecedented move to fully online classes, Golden said both faculty and leadership worked under tight deadlines and evolving circumstances to find ways to complete the spring semester while meeting academic objectives and keeping students safe. 

Many health sciences programs are already online education based, so those did not need many adjustments. However, Golden noted, many of those students are working health care professionals and adjustments have been made for those who need it.

Faculty have been key to online transitions throughout GW, and those in health sciences have spent hours adapting course materials, resequencing content, and creating online simulations.

For example, in the Physician Assistant Program, Tami Ritsema, PhD, MPH, MMS, assistant professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS, with the help of Linda Cotton, senior instructional multimedia specialist at SMHS, is shifting the suturing lab course online. Ritsema and Cotton are taking stop-action photos and creating video to help teach the students suturing techniques.

The program is mailing suturing kits for at-home practice, and students can share videos of themselves suturing for feedback from faculty on their technique. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, and it means stress and disruptions in school and at home. …  It’s a challenging time to be a student. We’ve tried to implement some academic policy adjustments this semester to help mitigate some of the stress for students as they juggle new circumstances,” Golden said. 

GW MD Programs

Second-year MD students are studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 exams, while the first-years just finished their cardiac and pulmonary/renal block of education and have just one more to go this semester, the GI/Liver block. 

With the help of staff including Tracy Blanchard, instructional enhancement specialist at SMHS, and the Center for Faculty Excellence, the switch to online education has gone quite smoothly, according to Robert Jablonover, MD, assistant dean for pre-clinical education at SMHS.

Faculty members have the choice of teaching courses using BlackBoard Collaborate, which allows sessions to be presented in real-time at home, or the Panopto video education platform to record sessions in advance. 

A spreadsheet was created with the help of Kathleen Kline, director of the Office of Medical Education at SMHS, to outline which faculty are leading each session and the platform they would be using to present their course, Jablonover said. In addition, for in-house exams, online software ExamSoft is being used for proctoring, he added, which also has gone smoothly with the help of the SMHS Office of Medical Education and SMHS Computer and Applications Support Services. 

“The students have been notified each step of the way on how classes will be presented, and they have adapted quickly and easily,” Jablonover said. 

The culinary medicine elective also has moved online using the WebEx platform, according to Tim Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS, executive director of the GW Culinary Medicine Program at SMHS, with students cooking up recipes from the comfort of their own kitchen.

While going online, the program still mirrors the in-person, hands-on course with team based learning, cases studies, and hands-on cooking using simple equipment and ingredients. 

For the MD clinical years, things have changed more dramatically with students unable to continue on site for their clinical rotations at GW Hospital, Children’s National Hospital, and other clinical sites around the region.

“We’re maintaining educational continuity to the best that we can,” said Terry Kind, MD, MPH, associate dean for clinical education at SMHS. “We converted our education sessions to be delivered online and have added some virtual patient cases as well.”

She said they are staying true to the core objectives of each clerkship and clinical learning encounters that define those experiences with the help of programs from companies like Aquifer, which offers simulated cases for specialties such as pediatrics, surgery, and medicine. The programs present a virtual patient with various symptoms and the students must go through the best strategies for caring for that patient and use clinical decision-making. 

Kind added that the faculty are finding creative ways to offer course materials, such as virtual rounds where feasible and even the addition of an online elective focusing on telehealth practices during a public health crisis.

“We’re working hard to maintain transparent communication with each class year,” Kind added, “and the students have been embracing new formats.”

She added that the decision has been made to push back the start of clerkships for rising third-year students by two months, from April 27 to June 29, and faculty and staff will keep an eye on the virus trends in Washington, D.C., and across the United States to see if further steps need to be taken. 

PhD Programs 

The programs in the SMHS Institute for Biomedical Sciences (IBS) typically require lectures and learning to occur in person. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced faculty and staff to think outside the box to make sure students’ needs are met.

The IBS program has two curricular components: Didactic coursework, especially in the first two years, to build specific knowledge, and experiential laboratory research experiences.

“We had no guidelines for online didactic IBS coursework, and overnight many faculty had to learn how to deliver content and conceive of ways to foster journal discussion of research breakthroughs in small groups online,” said Alison Hall, PhD, associate dean for research workforce development at SMHS. 

Colleen Kennedy, IBS program manager, and Rachel Ulmer, IBS program coordinator, provided essential communications with students and several workshops for faculty to familiarize them with Blackboard and WebEx tools for virtual sessions, Hall said. 

Faculty also have learned to use the “group discussion” components of Blackboard to foster interactions among students during class.

For research, the SMHS labs have had to limit those coming onto campus by designating essential personnel and reducing research activity to ensure SMHS was in compliance with social-distancing policies.

Because of those adjustments, graduate students could no longer continue wet-lab activity, which is “a major disruption for all researchers,” Hall said.

To remedy that for first-year students, an extension was created for the spring rotation and mini projects, adding an extra two weeks where students can work with their mentor and lab on a new proposal that can be done remotely.  A new educational opportunity allows students to take PhD-relevant free online coursework in topics like coding, neuroscience, immunology, drug approval, and there will be a delayed start to the summer rotations. 

“This collaborative effort has been well received by students and faculty alike and offers some continued flexibility as circumstances change,” Hall said.