As the pandemic picked up in the spring of 2020, entire industries were brought to their knees. But health technology education? Like a boxer shrugging off a walloping left hook, it assessed the situation, took a moment to reset, and then it jumped back into the ring.
More than a year after COVID first hit, educators and education-program leaders all say the same thing: Nothing about the pandemic has been routine or expected, but the courses, the teaching and the learning all continue – health tech training has hardly missed a beat.
“It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure,” says Charles Wickens, CCE, adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at Portland Community College in Oregon.
When the school closed its doors to in-person classes, all hands-on lab work for HTM students was put on hold, as was the co-op program he runs at Samaritan Health, where Wickens serves as director of clinical engineering. There was no playbook for what to do next, but he did know he wasn’t about to stop teaching.
“It all happened so fast, Oregon moved swiftly in implementing comprehensive COVID-19 restrictions, opening up alternative ideas for education with the stoppage of what had always been standard practice for educating these students. The only thing we could do was pivot to something entirely different,” Wickens says. “We really didn’t have a choice. It was an education must move forward approach.”
That “something” has predictably involved technology almost everyone has become familiar with over the last year or so. In Wickens’ case, he’s turned to WebEx for class videoconferencing, and D2L Brightspace Learning Management Platform for posting and managing class resources.
“Those two tools have allowed us to continue our didactic lecturing, and then we use technical training videos in place of what the students would have had in the laboratory or through the co-op experience,” he explains.
One video, for example, might run through the preventive maintenance (PM) procedures for a device, while another might cover repair-related troubleshooting. Much of the content is provided by manufacturers, but Wickens also turns to industry stalwarts like TechNation for live and recorded webinars. Students watch the videos together via WebEx, or they stream them on their own as their schedules allow.
“Nothing can replace hands-on experience, but there are a lot of good things about remote learning, too,” Wickens says.
Wickens isn’t the only one who feels this way.
“Having the ability to do things remotely is really good for some of our students,” says Brian Bell, lead faculty in the biomedical engineering technology program at St. Petersburg College in Florida. “I think for the vast majority of my students, they prefer to be in-person no matter what. But I also know there are people out there who want to take the program, but accessibility is a real issue. If we offered them online access, maybe they’d be more likely to enroll.”
After moving completely online as part of its initial response to the pandemic, SPC transitioned to a hybrid model last semester. For biomedical engineering, lectures and other standard classes are now delivered in what the college has dubbed “Live Online” format. Unlike typical “asynchronous” online courses, where lectures are recorded and students learn on their own schedules, the Live Online courses are delivered synchronously, over Zoom, in live virtual meeting rooms.
When the threat from the virus reached a peak in Florida, all lab work was also handled remotely. For example, in a class covering electrical circuits, Bell sent students packages containing a variety of tools and supplies, including wires, multimeters, capacitors and resistors.
“You obviously can’t send a $5,000 medical device home to every student in the class, but for smaller things, this actually worked pretty well, and the students seemed to enjoy it.”
Ensuring that his organization’s educational offerings met its customers’ expectations was also a concern for M.J. McLaughlin, AAMI director of education programming. Just a few months prior to the pandemic’s arrival, McLaughlin had started exploring moving some AAMI training courses online.
“We know it’s hard to pad travel time and expenses into a training that could be up to five days, so one major advantage to virtual training is the complete elimination of those considerations,” McLaughlin said.
March 2020, McLaughlin says, forced his team to stop investigating and planning and to instead take quick and definitive action. “We had a course scheduled at our facility in Arlington for the week after everything shut down,” he recalls. “Six days to prepare – that’s all the time we had to go completely virtual.”
The good news for that event and the others that followed: Almost everyone seemed amenable to making online education work. “People mostly understood, and in a lot of cases, it’s what they preferred to do anyway,” McLaughlin says.
To make their new instructional approach work, McLaughlin and his team turned to many of the same tricks used by educators at colleges and universities. They mailed blood pressure monitors to the attendees of one course, for example, and for other courses, they did away with paper workbooks, emailing PDF versions of the material instead. They also started using daily evaluation surveys to get feedback on what was working, and what could use improvement.
“So now we’re taking that information and we’re applying it right away, making changes to make our courses more virtual-friendly,” McLaughlin says. One bit of feedback his team received early on was that more bathroom breaks would be appreciated. “That was something we hadn’t thought of – that when you’re taking a class sitting behind your computer, the standard two hours between breaks can feel really long.” Since then, he says, they’ve adjusted schedules accordingly, and he hasn’t heard any complaints.
“I think we’ve learned a lot in the last year, and I think we’ve made a lot of progress along the way,” he says. “It’s been a whirlwind and we’ve had our challenges, but I think for the most part, things are working out.”
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