Allied Health turns textbooks
by Amanda GallagherAsk a student if college is stressful and youíre bound to get a "yes." Many students feel as though theyíre carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders - and a few years ago they were. Backpacks busted with 30-pound textbooks as students lumbered to class.
But those days are gone. The School of Allied Health Sciences has replaced the cumbersome hardcover with a few wires and the World Wide Web. In an effort to improve and increase education, Allied Health is turning textbooks into technology by offering one of the most comprehensive and coordinated e-course efforts on campus. The result is increased retention, maximized class time and improved access to education across the state.
"I firmly believe that the Internet is the great American equalizer," said Marilyn S. Harrington, Ph.D., dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences and a key facilitator in the Allied Health e-effort. "The Internet has brought us a vehicle whereby we can create and deliver new possibilities to any place at any time. Students are no longer at a disadvantage simply because life has placed them in a particular geographical location."
Geography is a major catalyst in Allied Healthís quest to get wired. Last year, the Health Science Center began educating students through its Laredo Extension Campus. "We have a shortage of occupational therapists (OTs) in Laredo but we do have several OT assistants who are now getting their degrees through our
e-courses," said Alison Beck, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy.
Thatís just the tip of the iceberg. Allied Health now offers more than 40 courses online, ranging from minimal Internet participation to 100 percent online education. And donít think this is your grandmotherís Internet - itís much more than a PDF of scrollable text. "You canít just put the material out there. You have to be creative," said Patricia Brewer, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy and chair of the Academic Informatics Services Advisory Committee.
Dr. Brewer is considered a pioneer among online educators in the School of Allied Health Sciences. Some of her most difficult courses blend Internet education with traditional class time. Her Neuroscience I and II classes, for example, require students to complete Web work before coming to class.
"Itís an active process. Textbooks can illustrate pictures but the Internet uses animations," Dr. Brewer said. "A student who doesnít get a concept can click on it again and again and absorb it at his or her own rate. The student who does understand it can watch it and move on."
Dr. Brewerís Web site presents students with the entire semesterís worth of work broken into units. Students can organize and print out class notes, view animated graphics or videos, enter chat rooms to discuss concepts with their peers and look at selected links for supplemental information. Dr. Brewer even has a "Take Home Message" so students are guaranteed to grasp the right concepts.
The e-material significantly enhanced the learning experience for Jerry Villagran, a physical therapy student. "I find it very helpful because by the end of class, I have gone over the material at least two or three times," Villagran said. "I feel like I learned more and I retained more in the e-courses than in other courses. Itís convenient and it kept me organized."
While it does take a significant amount of time for an instructor to initially develop a Web site, most say it leads to more quality time between instructor and student. "The students come to class prepared. They already have questions, so during the discussions I get a feel for what concepts students have grasped and what they are still struggling with," Dr. Brewer said. "I can maximize my time with students and the students are happy."
The e-system isnít just changing the way students learn - itís brought entirely new elements into the testing process. "Typically students pencil in bubbles on a test sheet. But instead of a multiple choice question where you only have four choices, we can use a drop down box with a long list of possibilities," said Glenn Forister, assistant professor of physician assistant studies and an expert in online testing. Foristerís tests can now include heart and lung sounds, blood smears and radiographs that students must identify.
"Students get feedback right away," Forister said. "And not only do they find out the right answer, they find out why itís the right answer."
Forister has trained faculty in other schools to use the system. But Allied Health remains unique in that its instructors worked together to create interchangeable courses that not only cross department lines, but will eventually be open to the entire university.
"Resource sharing is key," Dr. Brewer said. "The School of Medicine and the Dental School use many of the same materials so we want to make this collegial and cross department lines."
Thatís probably in the near future. "These changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary," said Brian Neuenschwander, the software systems specialist who transforms the facultyís content into e-learning sites. "The momentum for this is building. Within the next two years all of our courses will have some online component." Neuenschwander is now creating an Allied Health "brand."
"Itís like our signature. If each course format works the same, once a student has experience with one such course he or she knows how to navigate all of our courses," Dr. Harrington said. For now, she and her team will continue to chart the course of unexplored educational territory on the World Wide Web.
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