Spring's Online Transition Prepped the School of Dental Medicine for Fall

Faculty are finding unconventional ways to connect with first- and second-year students
“The transition to online learning has forced us to be creative and innovative in ways that we might not have imagined before,” said Ellen Patterson, assistant professor of comprehensive care. Photo: Alonso Nichols
“The transition to online learning has forced us to be creative and innovative in ways that we might not have imagined before,” said Ellen Patterson, assistant professor of comprehensive care. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 20, 2020

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When the academic year begins at Tufts School of Dental Medicine at the end of July, first- and second-year students will be attending all their classes remotely, another accommodation to the realities of COVID-19. Faculty and administrators say the experiences of last spring—when TUSDM, like all Tufts’ schools, was abruptly launched into fulltime online education—have offered valuable lessons in creating curricula and finding unconventional ways to connect virtually.

“The transition to online learning has forced us to be creative and innovative in ways that we might not have imagined before,” said Ellen Patterson, assistant professor of comprehensive care. “The undiscovered silver lining,” she said, was realizing how previously existing online tools could be stretched. “I’m always looking for ways to be interactive, and yet, I hadn’t taken the time to really use some of these tools until I was forced to.”

For Patterson, that meant taking advantage of the Zoom breakout rooms feature for her interprofessional education course and reconfiguring the final project for the year-long “Introduction to the Dental Patient.” For Rocio Saavedra, assistant professor of pediatric dentistry, it meant creating a roster of virtual child patients, complete with case histories, intraoral photographs, and digital X-rays, for students to diagnose. 

It is expected the D23 and D24 classes will come back to One Kneeland Street for the winter 2021 semester starting in January, for the preclinical, hands-on work that can’t be replicated online. Third- and fourth-year students, whose curriculum is heavily grounded in patient care, will be following their regular routine of simulated and clinical rotations this fall.

Rising to the challenge of this unusual moment has, in fact, energized faculty and students, said Aruna Ramesh, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “What I’ve found is that the faculty are very enthusiastic with the live Zoom lectures as they see more students attending these than the previous classroom lectures in several courses; they feel more connected to students,” she said.

“For someone so naïve about technology, [the quick transition] freaked me out,” admitted veteran professor Kanchan Ganda. “But, I said to myself, you need to buckle up and do this.” Before long, she was recording lectures for her multiple courses, having students present cases online, organizing online rotations, and arranging for online guest speakers. In the end, “I think it was a success,” she said.

Among the key takeaways from the spring that have helped shape online learning at TUSDM for this fall:In virtual education, input from students is as important to communication as output from instructors, said Irina Dragan, DG15, MSD15, DI19.

Communication: “We can never overcommunicate, especially when people are virtual,” said Ramesh. Irina Dragan, DG15, MSD15, DI19, director of faculty education and instructional development, emphasized that the communication also needs to be a two-way street, with input from students as important as output from instructors.

Zoom fatigue: With so many teachers becoming enthusiastic about interactive, real-time Zoom lectures, students can become overwhelmed, Ramesh said. She recommends a mix of synchronous and asynchronous lectures, mixed with smaller breakout sessions and self-paced at-home assignments.

Redesigned curriculum: Rather than carrying all the individual courses for a full semester, the first-year students will take some of their classes in sequence, and some in parallel with other courses, so that they are not juggling too many courses at the same time, throughout the term.

Dragan and her colleagues in the department of periodontics, Robert Gyurko and Camille Neste, published a paper in June in the Journal of Dental Education examining the transition at TUSDM from clinical rotations to virtual experience, available here: J Dent Educ. 2020;1-3. https://doi.org/10.1002/jdd.12298