Editor’s Note: In early 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. In our final installment of a three-part series looking at how different areas of pathology and laboratory medicine have been affected over the past year, we look at what virtual learning has taught us, and what this could mean for the future of education of pathologists and laboratory professionals.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed. The way people lived, worked, and notably, how they learned. Elementary students to graduate students, and each grade level in between and beyond, took to Zoom classrooms and remote learning as so many cities and towns across the country went under stay-at-home orders. It was a struggle for many students to adjust, but for pathology and laboratory medicine students, the challenges presented by virtual education also gave way to what had been hovering on the horizon, as well as a wealth of opportunities.
“The pandemic made us speed up any sort of virtual education pedagogy that we had before,” says Kamran Mirza, MD, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of Education, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “Technology had advanced even before the pandemic where many considerations were being given to hybrid models of education and virtual only models of education.” However, he adds, those models were being done tentatively, evaluating the benefits and drawbacks. The pandemic, however, pushed those models to the forefront. “Now, we were suddenly faced with this crisis of the fact that we cannot gather groups into areas for education, how do we best get the education to them?” Dr. Mirza says.
Enter virtual learning.
It became a household phrase overnight, and the challenges that accompanied it rushed to light. Student engagement topped the list of issues for many, with educators learning how to better engage students when they at times literally could not see them. That was compounded by the casual relationship with teaching environments that developed—giving a lecture while background noises of kitchens and kids and barking dogs, and unstable Internet connections reared their ugly heads. For some, making the switch to virtual learning wasn’t too hard. “Some students loved watching online lectures anyway, there’s flexibility in them just being able to fast-forward and quickly hear things that might have taken a long time,” says Dr. Mirza. But on the flipside, for some trainees, he adds, it required a heightened level of self-discipline that they might not have needed with in-person learning.
“The time is entirely in the students’ hands,” he explains. “And when left to their own devices, that does require a little more strictness on their part.”
Pivoting to virtual education was not easy, but institutions made the shift as quickly as possible. Other educational offerings also transitioned to virtual, like the ASCP Annual Meeting, or were created outright, like PathElective (pathelective.com), founded by Dr. Mirza and Cullen Lilley, MS. Launched at the height of the pandemic, the free, modular space offers medical students around the world access to pathology education. Dr. Mirza also worked with the American Society for Clinical Pathology to establish the Virtual Pathology Grand Round series (VPGR), which brings a traditional Grand Rounds into a virtual setting, including subject matter experts.
The key to the successful transition to virtual learning throughout the pandemic has been adaptability, and recognizing where virtual learning could be an asset rather than an obstacle. After a year of virtual learning, what was once uncomfortable for many people has become less so. “We’re all comfortable with it, and I think we’re better for it, we’re humanized by it because we see how people live and what real life is like,” says Robert Goulart, MD, MASCP, chair of ASCP’s Commission on Continuing Professional Development and professor of pathology and associate chief of Anatomic Pathology, UMass Memorial Health. “We’ve reached a comfort level with it that we really should have been at before the pandemic.”
While the end of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully looms in the not-so-distant future, it is unlikely that education will return to the exact way it was before.
But does that mean all learning and educational offerings can or will be done online? Not necessarily. The pandemic made apparent that virtual learning works, but some in-person is still necessary. “In activities where the tactile education of moving, running machinery, or being close to the machine where QA/QI is being done, or grossing an organ,” says Dr. Mirza. “We can do a good job in virtual, but it’s solidified the need for having students, at times, learn in person.”
Mixing in virtual learning with in-person learning breaks open a wealth of educational opportunities that previously didn’t exist. For example, when the ASCP 2020 Annual Meeting went virtual, the number of enduring materials skyrocketed. Plenary sessions, keynote speakers, educational courses, posters—in fact the entire educational content of the meeting—all were now accessible for people attending virtually, explains Dr. Goulart.
“The silver lining is that the pandemic accelerated us to a point in utilizing virtual learning where we should have been all along, to take nothing away from in-person learning, as there are very important parts of that,” says Dr. Goulart. There are benefits to a hybrid approach, as the personalized aspect of seeing colleagues, friends, and mentors is still a factor to learning he says.
“Hybrid meetings are the best of both worlds,” he notes. “People now feel very comfortable with living in a partial virtual world, personally and professionally.” There will always be a need for live sessions, he says, but virtual education has dramatically advanced education’s efficacy, reduced the cost of education, opened new audiences for education, and leveled the playing field. For example, travel can be difficult and expensive for some to attend the educational courses they need, but virtual offerings mean more opportunities for people to attend from wherever they are, whether they live in the same city or halfway around the world.
“Now that we have had a taste of hybrid education, the flexibility of that option perhaps demands that we always have a hybrid option even moving forward, even after the pandemic is over,” says Dr. Mirza.
In March 2020, no one knew how quickly and extensively education would change in the face of the pandemic and beyond. It has shifted the timing of education, how people receive education, and the amount of education available to them. While COVID-19 has been a tragedy that no one wanted, it has provided a more personalized way to learn, and has shown that education doesn’t have to be relegated to a classroom or a conference room, creating a more meaningful experience for learners and educators alike.