Distance Learning in Medical Schools During the Pandemic

woman learning online

Even the world’s top medical schools have to reorient themselves on how they can continue classes and hands-on training amid the coronavirus pandemic. They had to cancel classes. Training hospitals don’t have space for medical students as they are bulging on the seams because of COVID-19 patients. There’s a meme going around social media today. It says that society has to worry about the next generation of doctors and nurses because the future healthcare workers are in their homes glued to Netflix instead of learning in classrooms and hospital settings.

That meme might be funny if it isn’t one of the most tragic things to happen in the past year. Imagine future doctors learning through online classes and extended reality in education. They were supposed to mingle with their peers, listen to doctor-instructors in person, and handle cases in the real world. Imagine simulations instead of actual cases. This is how most doctors and nurses learned in the past year.

That’s not to say that distance learning in medicine does not work. The problem with distance learning is more pronounced in preschools than in college and post-graduate education. But the ability of students to focus on virtual lessons and classes doesn’t negate the fact that distance learning has many challenges. One of these is ensuring that future health workers are as equipped and well-trained as the doctors and nurses who are today’s modern-day heroes.

The Learning Barriers in Virtual Education for Future Health Workers

The first challenge is to develop the students’ technical skills while they’re only learning virtually. Sure, professors can teach through Skype and Zoom, but how can they teach technical skills when they are not in an in-person class? Insufficient devices, programs, and software are a barrier to learning. This is truer in less urbanized countries. Students who cannot afford laptops, big monitors, and augmented reality glasses will also suffer.

Another problem for educators is the time they have to spend on these classes. In a regular setting, classes in medical schools are composed of 50 or more students in one schedule. This wasn’t possible in the past year when professors relied on virtual learning. Zoom classes have to be limited to a certain number of students because large classes are difficult for engagement.

doctor using a tablet

Professors are already having difficulty juggling their careers as doctors, personal lives, and teaching medical students. As the pandemic droned on, they also had to face the reality that they had to divide more of their time teaching students online. Even the presence of computer-based tools barely helped them in the past year because they needed time to engage themselves with the tools.

While first-world countries have the infrastructure for distance learning, middle- and low-income nations are not as lucky. They have intermittent Internet signals and low access to computers, laptops, and photocopiers. That is not counting the fact that many students in these low-income countries don’t have the resources for noise-canceling headphones and virtual reality programs and devices. In fact, many of them might not even have their own rooms where learning is possible.

Using Technology for Distance Learning in Medicine

It is only thanks to technology that distance learning was at least mildly successful. Yes, there are growing fears that students didn’t learn from their professors in the past year. It was not impossible to think that students didn’t learn as they should because the coronavirus disrupted school and life. But, in truth, the only reason society is still standing today is because of technology.

The presence of teleconferencing and project management tools, simulation, and even poor infrastructure allowed learning to happen despite the seemingly insurmountable impact of the pandemic. The barriers to distance learning have also become the catalyst for governments to prioritize the reopening of classes, especially for college and university students. As learning theories and concepts are not the be-all and end-all of education, governments had to act quickly to fill in the gaps.

The pandemic was unlike anything the world had seen before. It closed down businesses and offices. Families moved from the city to the suburbs. Schools canceled classes. Students had to stay home when they were supposed to mingle with their peers. But the medical field itself could not stand idly as their students lose opportunities to handle patients and cases in real life. They needed a way to fill in the gaps of distance learning. And although technology was a great help, this was not enough, as later discovered when medical students were allowed to go back to school.

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