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November 01, 2020

The virtual professor

Veterinary faculty members suggest tips for online teaching
Published on October 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted most veterinary education to modified on-campus teaching that involves virtual components, but many of the people doing the teaching are learning themselves.

JAVMA News spoke with veterinary college faculty members about how they’re working to overcome challenges during the pandemic, learning new technologies to facilitate virtual learning, and keeping students engaged online.

Students working with video-enabled microscopes
Dr. Perry J. Bain, an assistant professor and veterinary clinical pathologist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said social distancing has led the veterinary school to purchase microscopes with video cameras attached that can send live feeds of slides to faculty members and students. (Courtesy of Dr. Bain)

“The challenge of turning my course—which is so important and typically in person—online was difficult,” said Dr. Ariana Boltax, an instructor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in the educational support department. She has been deeply involved in the transition to more online courses. Dr. Boltax designed and teaches the course Small Animal Euthanasia: Clinical Communication and Practice.

The course won first place in the COVID Educational Creations Contest, a competition run by the nonprofit VetMed Academy and sponsored by Merck Animal Health. A list of the 10 other winners and the educational resources can be found at the VetMed Academy website.

For her course, Dr. Boltax focused on good design principles and added things to help students navigate an online environment.

“On the first day of class, students don’t know where to go on campus, and it is the same online,” she said. “You don’t know where to click and what to do and how to navigate. I gave them an introduction video, and it included a screen-share of where to click and where things are.”

Managing new technology

The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, reported that the School of Veterinary Medicine has opted to go with “a hybrid model with both virtual and in-person instruction in the fall.” According to the article, Penn Vet faculty members were “revising the fall semester curriculum so that hands-on activities, such as anatomy laboratories, clinicals, and surgical skills training, can be conducted in person in small cohorts.“

Dr. Amy C. Durham, associate professor of anatomic pathobiology at Penn Vet, said moving online was difficult initially.

“Transitioning our course, General and Systemic Pathology, with 96 lecture hours and 64 hands-on lab hours, to an engaging virtual format was overwhelming at first,” Dr. Durham said. “Over this past summer, I took some time to familiarize myself with online learning techniques and decided to try out different methods during the first two weeks of the semester. Our IT (information technology) and ed tech staff were extraordinarily helpful, and this transition could not have happened without their support.”

Dr. Durham said the virtual pathology course includes live and recorded shortened lectures, reading assignments, worksheets, short quizzes, and virtual office hours. Students were surveyed after two weeks to find out which methods worked well, and the feedback will steer development of the portion of the course on systemic pathology.

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, according to the school’s COVID-19 Policies and Guidelines, had people returning to campus in stages for the fall term with protections in place that allowed for controlled increases in clinical activity, fourth-year students returning to clinical rotations, an increase in on-campus research activity, and a return of master’s and veterinary students.

Dr. Perry J. Bain, an assistant professor and veterinary clinical pathologist at Tufts, said social distancing has led the veterinary school to purchase microscopes with video cameras attached that can send live feeds of slides to faculty members and students.

Dr. Bain said he has wanted to implement this system for years because it allows him to easily recognize whether a student is seeing the right thing.

“It’s nice to see what the students are seeing,” Dr. Bain said. “It also allows the students to see each other’s microscopes, so they can work with each other without looking through.”

Dr. Hershberger-Braker
Dr. Karen Hershberger-Braker, lecturer in comparative biosciences and pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said she took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about Blackboard, the platform being used at the veterinary school. (Photo by Dr. Hershberger-Braker)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and its School of Veterinary Medicine brought students back on campus for the start of fall classes on Sept. 2 with modifications, including holding larger lectures online, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. But then the university moved to all-online classes and limited campus operations for at least two weeks amid a growing COVID-19 case count in mid-September. Some in-person activities resumed as of Sept. 26 while the university maintained strict health measures.

Dr. Karen Hershberger-Braker, lecturer in comparative biosciences and pathobiological sciences at Wisconsin’s veterinary school, said she took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about Blackboard, the platform being used at the veterinary school.

“I had never heard of it, but I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could and then distribute this knowledge,” she said.

Dr. Hershberger-Braker said having weekly Q&A sessions for faculty has been very helpful in exchanging best practices and supporting each other.

“If people are struggling with how to do something, we call and help each other,” Dr. Hershberger-Braker said. “There is a learning curve. We are trying to support each other. The unity has been so positive.”

Creating community

At the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, students began returning to campus on Aug. 9 to prepare for a mix of online and in-person classes, which started Aug. 19. On the Knoxville campus, which has about 29,000 students, there were 680 active COVID-19 cases—667 students and 13 employees—by Sept. 13, according to university data. However, that number decreased to 135 total active cases by Sept. 23. The UT Veterinary Medical Center took precautionary measures to limit exposure and transmission of the coronavirus by, among other things, continuing to limit patient caseload by focusing on patients in need of essential medical care and emergency patients. The hospital was still working with limited personnel as of late September.

To offer something new, Dr. Luca Giori, associate professor of biomedical and diagnostic sciences at Tennessee’s veterinary college, is teaching an extra class to faculty members, staff members, and students: cooking. Dr. Giori is from Italy, and he loves to cook. He said the culture around cooking and eating is important there, and he wanted to try to teach students something healthy to make at home.

“The idea of cooking was something we thought would be good for the students who are under stress,” Dr. Giori said. “I cook from my house, so it’s almost like opening my house for them. We thought doing the cooking classes was also a good way to interact together and show our faces on Zoom.”

He teaches two cooking classes a month, and he saves the recipes and videos to Google Drive for students, faculty members, and staff members to reference.

Dr. Hershberger-Braker said she is trying to forge connections, too, by creating discussion boards for second-year veterinary students to introduce themselves to instructors.

“It has been wonderful to see the students share pictures and videos of their pets and hobbies,” she said. “Instructors have been able to respond to the students’ posts, allowing for virtual connections between instructors and students.”

Learning curve

Dr. Boltax has the following suggestions for veterinary faculty who are teaching online:

  • Be clear about deadlines and assignments.
  • Be consistent and clear about learning objectives.
  • Send deadline reminders.
  • Engage students by commenting on what is happening in real life.

“I would also encourage the instructors to experiment with their own vulnerability,” Dr. Boltax said. “All too often the teacher is on the pedestal being smarter than their students, but it isn’t real. For example, if you are prerecording a lecture and you mess up, you can just mess up and go on. It shows you are human, especially in an online environment. Students need to know there is a human behind the screen. If they don’t feel that way, then they’re less likely to reach out and ask for help. Model vulnerability for students. Mess up.”