Late night thoughts #3

by reestheskin on 05/04/2019

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Late night thoughts on medical education #3: Touching the void

Clayton Christensen gets mixed press: he cannot be accused of not pushing his ideas on ‘disruption’ to — well — disruption. So, his long history of predicting how a large number of universities will be bankrupt in a few years due to ‘innovation’ and ‘digital disruption’ I take with a pinch of salt (except I would add: an awful lot should be bankrupt). But I am glad I have read what he writes, and what he says in the following excepts from an interview makes sense to me:

Fortunately, Christensen says that there is one thing that online education will not be able to replace. In his research, he found that most of the successful alumni who gave generous donations to their alma maters did so because a specific professor or coach inspired them.

Among all of these donors, “Their connection wasn’t their discipline, it wasn’t even the college,” says Christensen. “It was an individual member of the faculty who had changed their lives.”

“Maybe the most important thing that we add value to our students is the ability to change their lives,” he explained. “It’s not clear that that can be disrupted.”

Half of US colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.

We know several factors that are dramatically important in promoting learning in university students: the correct sort of feedback, and students who understand what feedback is about (and hence can use it); and close contact. Implicit in the latter is that there is continued contact with full time staff. When stated like this it is easy to understand why the student experience and faculty guided learning is so poor in most UK medical schools. The traditional way of giving timely feedback has collapsed as the ward / bedside model of teaching has almost disappeared; and teaching is horribly fragmented because we have organised teaching around the working lives of full time clinicians, rather than what students need (or what they pay for). When waiting times are out of control, when ‘bodies’ are queued up on trolleys, and when for many people getting a timely appointment to see a NHS doctor is impossible, it is self evident that a tweak here and there will achieve very little. Without major change things will get much worse.

When MIT under Chuck Vest put all of their coursewhere on line it merely served to illustrate that the benefits of MIT were not just in the materials, but in ‘being there’. And ‘being there’ is made up on other students, staff, and the interactions between these two groups.

Medical schools were much smaller when I was a medical student (1976-1982). Nevertheless, there was remarkably little personal contact, even then. Lectures were to 130+ students, and occasional seminars were with groups of 10-12. Changing perspective, students did recognise the Dean of Medicine, and could name many of the lecturers who taught them. Integration of the curriculum had not totally disrupted the need for a course of lectures from a single person, and the whole environment for learning was within a physical space that was — appropriately enough — called a medical school: something obvious to the students was that research and teaching took place in the same location. For the first two years, with one possible exception, I was fairly confident that nobody knew my name. If a student passed a lecturer in the street, I doubt if the lecturer would recognise the student, let alone be able to identify them by name.

Two members of staff got to know me in the first term of my opening clinical year (year 3): Nigel Speight, a ‘first assistant’ (senior registrar / lecturer) in paediatrics; and Sam Shuster, the Professor of Dermatology in Newcastle, who I started a research project with. For paediatrics, I was one of four junior students attached to two 30-bedded-wards, for ten weeks. It was very clear that Nigel Speight was in charge of us, and the four of us were invited around to his house to meet his kids and his wife. It was interesting in all sorts of ways — “home visits” as we discovered in general practice, often are — but I will not go into detail here.

Sam invited me around for an early evening dinner and I met his wife (Bobby), and we talked science, and never stopped — except to slag off Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman. Meeting Sam was — using Christensen’s phrase — my ‘change of life’ moment. As I have written elsewhere, being around Sam, was electric: my pulse rate stepped up a few gears, and in one sense my cortical bradycardia was cured.

There are those who say that meaningful personal contact is impossible in the modern ‘bums on seats’ research university. I do not agree, although it is not going to happen unless we create the necessary structures, and this does not involve bloody spreadsheets and targets. First, even in mega-universities like the Open University, with distance learners, it was shown to be possible. Second, in some collegial systems, close personal contact (and rapid verbal feedback!) is used to leverage a lot of private study from students. In the two years I did research under Sam’s supervision (as an undergraduate — not later when I worked for him as a full time researcher), I doubt that I spent more than six hours one-to-one with him.

How you leverage staff time to promote engagement and learning is the the single most important factor in giving students what they need (and often what they want, once they know what that is ). We will continue to fail students until we realise what we have lost.