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It would not be correct to say that studying online is going as well as studying in person, even at universities with the best technology. Spending so much time by a screen is both physically and mentally exhausting. Holding students' attention and teaching practical content online requires teaching staff to constantly be innovative while the lack of face-to-face contact challenges people’s motivation.

Having just completing her second exam session online, Anete Laura Ģīle, a 5th-year student at the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Faculty of Medicine, says that this time around students really came together. They not only discussed their immunology exam with one another, but they also knew when to seek professional psychological help – as prospective doctors, they know how important it is.

Anete Laura's family supports her through difficult times and her three-month-old puppy Neo adds colour to the monotony of the pandemic.

This helps her see the silver lining of having to be online constantly: the time she has saved on commuting, getting wider access to theory online and a safe and convenient environment in which to take her exams.

attalinatas_studijas.jpgProspective doctor Anete Laura Ģīle and her companion Neo

Virtual five-minute roundtables, and other ways in which students can experience hospitals

The porridge she has made in own kitchen right before the exam is the first perk Anete Laura mentions when asked about her online exam. The reduced commute has enabled her fellow student from Carnikava to be able to attend all pre-exam consultations for the first time. Studying remotely has also given new mothers more time to spend with their babies, while a fellow student who fell ill with COVID-19 did not have to miss a single day thanks to all classes being online. Her scheduled exam time, however, had to be slightly delayed due to her illness.

These are not automatic advantages of studying online, but can only be enjoyed if a university has implemented the right infrastructure in time: technical solutions, approachable lecturers who are prepared for teaching online, and good communication regarding the study process.

‘Students feel valued if all of this is put in place. I want to compliment our university for doing that,’ says Anete Laura, who has already passed her exams in Biostatistics, Neurology, Clinical Genetics and Immunology, Paediatrics and Dermatology.

During the winter session, RSU has used the best programs for organising exams online: the Respondus LockDown Browser secure browser and the Respondus Monitor video monitoring system. As Anete Laura jokes, her first experience of how sensitive the Respondus Monitor system was happened during her Genetics exam when doing some neck stretches triggered an alarm. Both students and teaching staff are now used to it, however.

Looking back at the autumn semester, the prospective doctor feels that studying Biostatistics online has been even more effective than doing so face-to-face. ‘Being on Zoom is not a problem for learning theory at all. The other students and I have discussed how well our lecturers are using all the possibilities this platform offers – even a venerable ophthalmology lecturer has not had any technical issues during her lectures.

The lecturer was only upset that we did not get to learn to use the tools and observe clinical cases in person. These are the main disadvantages of studying online.

In a way, I am glad that I am in my 5th year and that we already have some practical courses behind us, like Cardiology, where we learned how to examine patients, or Basics of Clinical Care, where we learned to place catheters, how to get dressed for surgery, and other practical things. It is difficult to imagine doing all of this online,’ says Anete Laura.

Now that most students cannot go to hospitals in person, teachers are considering ways in which to make the remote study experience as close to the face-to-face experience as possible.

Anete Laura refers to virtual simulations, group work on Zoom, and participation in so-called five-minute roundtables online at clinical university hospitals, where the condition of patients from various departments are assessed.

Educators are the pandemic’s heroes

‘If we look at the digitisation efforts that we have made, you could say we have been preparing for COVID-19 for a long time already,’ says chemist and RSU Assistant Professor Agnese Brangule. She is referring to a scholarship from the Boris and Ināra Teterev Foundation that allowed her to start digitising materials for independent learning five years ago already.

‘Even before the pandemic, my colleague Mihails Haļitovs and I made short thematic videos and decided to hold colloquia electronically: students gathered in auditoriums at computers equipped with a special security system and took exams using our electronic task bank’.

agnese_brangule_feb19.jpg RSU Assistant Professor and chemist Agnese Brangule

Agnese has worked with digitisating study materials a lot. She first developed an algorithm for the curriculum during her studies in the early 1990s. She took it to an advanced level in a project for high schools in 2005, when many biology classrooms only had a few mole skeletons to work with. The digitisation projects that were implemented also laid a strong paedagogical foundation for Agnese. Each task had to be paedagogically substantiated with a defined outcome and clear achievement criteria for both lecturer and student.

‘Any paedagogic work has to have a purpose. I would say that this has been RSU’s official policy all this time. It has gained new momentum in the last couple of years, since the School of Young Lecturers was established, however,’ says Agnese, who started working at RSU 10 years ago. At this time, the university was investing heavily in its infrastructure, including laboratory equipment.

During the first wave of the pandemic, Agnese taught Medical Chemistry and Biochemistry to international students. In the autumn she participated in introductory courses for both local and international students at the Faculty of Medicine. The first shock of transitioning to remote studies was followed by a period of teachers working overtime trying to improve online studies to match what students would have experienced in person.

‘Now everyone has adapted to it, although people are starting to get exhausted. Teaching online doesn’t mean that a lecturer is just sitting in an office chair with a cup of coffee in front of a screen,’ she smiles convinced that educators, alongside doctors, are the heroes of this pandemic.

Developing online materials takes much more time and imagination than preparing for a face-to-face lecture. ‘I find myself unable to focus on one online topic for an hour – my mind inevitably wanders. So instead of standing in front of the screen and delivering an hour-and-a-half-long monologue, I create short, focused videos for my students. Immediately after the lecture, students take a test to consolidate what they have learned,’ says the lecturer. 

In order to achieve the maximum effect, she usually organises classes on Zoom and divides them into three parts: first everyone discusses the most important issues they have previously learned or listen to the new topic with their cameras on; then the work takes place either individually or jointly in break out rooms; finally everyone has to turn their cameras on and students clarify their questions and consolidate what they have learned.

Hybrid models of the future

‘Entering an auditorium with faded lecture notes in hand is a sight that will disappear from universities around the world after the pandemic’, says Agnese.

‘Lecturers should not see this time as something inconvenient to just get through as quickly as possible. Education will take place in hybrid form in the future with combined in person and remote learning. The education sector will never return to its old ways, mainly for economic reasons’, she predicts.

The biggest challenge lies in experimental sciences – chemistry, physics, biology. Working in a laboratory and conducting experiments allows students to experiment as well as develop research skills.

‘Currently, students have access to experiment protocols and process videos, but this doesn’t allow students to design experiments on their own,’ the lecturer points out adding that she and her colleagues are still looking for the best solution.

Meanwhile, Anete Laura notes that stories are taking shape right now that will be told for generations to come. ‘One day this will all end, the difficulties will be forgotten, and we will only remember that we were students at a time when we knew the names of our fellow students’ and lecturers' pets because they always appeared on video during lectures,’ she smiles.