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Problem Based Learning for Veterinary Students Using Simple Interactive WWW Pages
Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Most veterinary degrees are traditionally mammalian-oriented, and rightly so considering that there is much for students to learn in this area. The prevalent use of traditional didactic teaching techniques prohibits the inclusion within veterinary curricula of every possible career avenue available for veterinary graduates. One of the consequences of the current situation is that students reach their final year of study keen to learn about the disease problems of non-domesticated species, birds and other non-mammalian animals.
The Avian Medicine units in Australian and New Zealand veterinary programmes tend to provide students with information on avian or poultry diseases and it is frequently assumed they will be able to transfer knowledge from mammals to birds. Comments from students entering the avian medicine unit at Murdoch University suggest that the majority of students feel that they lack the necessary knowledge and confidence to investigate the wide range of production, poultry, companion and wildlife problems which are part of this field of professional work. In common with students at other teaching hospitals, a further problem exists for students at Murdoch University because very few clinical bird cases are seen in the Murdoch University Teaching Hospital (MUVH). Consequently, students have very limited opportunity to investigate representative disease problems in real individual or flock bird cases. Problem based learning using simple interactive WWW pages such as the method described in this paper gives students a chance to practice their diagnostic approach and problem solving skills, learned in mammalian medicine in the context of avian medicine.
One important desired attribute of a veterinary graduate is the ability to observe and describe tissue and organ abnormalities. This is a necessary skill for students to interpret and explain disease. The acquisition of such observation and descriptive skills is difficult for veterinary students particularly if teachers rely on traditional didactic lecture-based teaching methods. For students to effectively engage with material and develop the complex skills of interpretation and diagnosis, learning must be within a context and ideally be experiential (Laurillard 1993; Ramadan 1992). Currently, printed materials such as photographs of clinical or pathological changes trigger discussion during problem-solving group tutorials and these are highly successful. They are not entirely appropriate for independent learning as they are of high complexity and it is the discussion of the change which encourages deep learning rather than the simple visualisation of the change.
The internet is a useful tool for presenting information and images of high quality to a large number of recipients. This does not equate to an improved learning environment. Nevertheless, it is a rapidly developing environment rich in methods which can be used to present useful teaching materials. In an attempt to encourage problem solving skills in students, without increasing staff contact time, interactive problems have been designed for independent web-based use. The purpose of this presentation is to demonstrate two methods of providing students with problems that they can actively engage with by using simple web pages which facilitate the development of observation, description and interpretation skills.
Method 1. Web-based Problems and Email Discussion in aVian Medicine
During 1995, problem-oriented lectures in avian medicine were introduced to final year students at Murdoch University. Positive feedback from this approach led to the production of a computer-based PBL module which was trialed in 1996 with a small group of 14 students. Students were taught using a combination of lectures and 24 computer-based presentations. Comprehensive lecture notes were available both as web pages and as a printed 260 page book. Students had access to 18 PentiumÆ computers within the Veterinary School.
The problems were multi-level web based forms designed for Netscape 2.0; students worked through them either as individuals or in small groups of 2 to 3. Answers were sent for criticism and marking by email and discussion of the problems was facilitated by email. Students used EudoraÆ 2.0 as their off-line email software package. Students were also allowed to anonymously comment on the teaching method through an anonymous web-based email form.
The aim of this teaching method was to equip graduates with confidence to diagnose and solve unfamiliar bird medicine problems and to convince students that they could integrate their extensive "mammalian" veterinary knowledge. An additional aim was to encourage the development of computer literacy, a required attribute of our graduates and one essential if they are to become life-long learners (Candy et al., 1994).
In 1996 some 24 of 44 fifth year veterinary students used Method 1. The majority (n=14) of these students had participated in an avian medicine special elective which lasted three weeks, during which time they were instructed on the use of the teaching method. Before the course all of the students had used email and the internet at least once during their training but most admitted that they had limited experience.
During the three month period leading up to the final examination the number of email messages generated by individual students ranged from 2 to 79 (mean 18). Approximately 450 email messages were generated in total by 24 students. This involved approximately 2 to 12 email messages per day.
Participating students were asked to comment on the teaching method. All students indicated that teacher feedback was helpful for solving the problems presented. Also, most students used their printed lecture notes as reference material and very few accessed the web-based lecture notes. This was reflected in computer log files. None indicated that the method had no merit as a teaching method. Student comments were mostly positive, although, some suggested that the problems were too difficult. Students which participated in the trial also suggested that the method was helpful for their learning but not all students would use it because it was not part of formal assessment. Some student comments follow.
"Gee, I guess you were talking about toxoplasmosis huh? Only feeling slightly dense now, I guess birds can't get listeriosis. At least I know my differentials for CNS signs in people and repro problems in women. Thanks a lot for your help with the questions."
"This computer thing is totally amazing and I think there should be more of it!!!"î
Method 2. Interactive Web Pages in Systemic Pathology and Medicine
Systemic Pathology and Medicine (SPAM) is a fourth year unit in the veterinary programme. It is divided into 13 modules, most of which are taught by different teachers. Consequently, students are subjected to different teaching methods but mostly didactic lectures.
Web-based computer problems were first used for teaching in 1996 when simple problems and photographs used in lectures were converted into HTML format. However, the following comment from the student representative stimulated the development of interactive problems such as the one below.
"Could you please organise such that someone can put some answers to the alimentory (sic) problems somewhere. Its extremely (sic) annoying not being able to check what one thinks the problem is."
Students were observed using the method and unsolicited comments were noted. In general most students found the method user-friendly. Nevertheless, some were intensely frustrated by the computer particularly if they accidentally misspelt keywords which the computer then recognised as an error. This was alleviated by modifying the questions to make them more specific. However, it was difficult to do this without leading towards a specific answer. Also, some students were obsessed with finding ways to trick or cheat the computer. For these reasons the teaching method was more suited for initial use during supervised tutorials. However, many students continued to use the problems for revision after the scheduled tutorials either by accessing the problems from their home computer or through the Veterinary schoolís computer laboratory.
The first teaching method described above involved the presentation of textual and visual information to engage students in discussion. The teaching method utilised student-computer-teacher interaction, providing a highly suitable learning environment (Newble & Canon, 1989; Laurillard, 1993) and was suitable for presenting difficult problems of high complexity with no real correct answers. Students experienced few problems with the use of this teaching method.
The first teaching method has the potential to replace much of the traditional didactic nature of Avian Medicine lecture courses in veterinary programmes with a problem oriented approach (Boud & Feletti, 1996). The main thrust of such teaching is learner-oriented rather than teacher-oriented. The technique could be used for more appropriate learning in professional courses to facilitate discussion between campuses or universities or practicing professionals to facilitate collaborative student and professional learning. Strategies such as this have been suggested to allow a mutually supportive environment to enhance information and skill acquisition, particularly for novel or developing fields of study such as avian medicine (Shadduck, 1994) where highly skilled specialists are rare. In this way a comprehensive curriculum and international expertise can be used to enhance student learning in times of financial constraint in the higher education sector (Bates 1995). For example, the involvement of international expertise on exotic diseases would be of great benefit for Australian veterinary programmes.
The first teaching method also could facilitate learning during periods of student-staff separation such as occurs during planned or unforeseen staff absences. The methods are useful and directly applicable for distance education programmes and fore reflection during extramural professional experience. The teaching method could provide an opportunity for graduates, professional bodies and practicing veterinarians to participate in the development of undergraduate teaching whilst maintaining professional expertise in an easily accessible life long learning environment.
Both teaching methods were cross-platform and did not require the knowledge or use of expensive software packages to produce.
The second teaching method is one simple method which increased the interactivity of web based teaching. However, the method is one that relies mainly on student-computer interaction. Students expressed some frustration with the computer particularly when they misspelt keywords in their answers and staff find that the method had limited capacity to challenge students with highly complex problems with no clear answers. Nevertheless, it was felt to be an improvement on simple and passive ìclick hereî web pages which fail to do so effectively what books can do, that is to provide readily accessible information.
Many university teachers would agree that the Internet has provided them personally with both a valuable resource and mode of rapid communication between colleagues and many now provide course information through locally accessible WWW pages as a means of supplementing lecture notes and other materials. However, by casually browsing through available on-line courses it seems that some teachers believe that electronically presented of essentially textual information is superior to print. In many instances it is not. There is a challenge for University teachers to use interactive learning methods which stimulate student-teacher interaction and facilitate student-directed learning. The internet can provide a medium for such pedagogically appropriate teaching methods.
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Candy P, Crebert G. & OíLeary J. (1994). Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. National Board of Employment Education and Training. Commonwealth Government Press, Canberra.
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(c) S.R. Raidal
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