Pivoting toward on online future

Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

On March 18, 2020, Western University moved all classes online for the remainder of the final term of the academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Schulich Dentistry faculty members readied their courses for their students, they began to question what the 2020/21 academic year might look like and whether or not it needed to change.

Task Force Team Members:
Hanna Chang
Brenda Davis
Beverly Goldsmith
Fatima Hanif
Shatha Jaber
Dr. Fernando Inocencio
Kriti Kasni
Danielle Lapthorne
David Lim
Andrea Marsh
Dr. Sharat Pani
Hannah Roberts
Kim Scott
Shivani Shah
Tom Stavraky, PhD
Dr. Trevor Thang
Tim Wilson, PhD

"There was an abundance of concern amongst faculty," said Dr. Trevor Thang, Assistant Professor. “And it was clear that we needed to find ways to pivot our existing education model, which was comprised primarily of in-person lectures to an online, remote delivery model.”

Time was of the essence to make a radical shift, and it was identified early on that technical and educational pedagogical support was needed for the transition to be successful.

Complicating things even more for dentistry were the technical skill development needs, which are taught with hands-on training. Innovative and creative options were a top priority.

Enter Schulich Dentistry’s Education Task Force – a team comprised of faculty, staff and students working together to create a new online learning model for Schulich Dentistry.

With so much to accomplish in short order, the Task Force was well supported by a strong administrative team including Andrea Marsh, the Program Administrator for undergraduate dental education. A seasoned program administrator, Marsh coordinated the meetings and kept the all-important communication between individuals flowing, always ensuring action items were on schedule and completed.

“We all had the same end goal,” said Marsh. “We wanted our students to succeed, and we pulled together in a time of crisis and achieved what was needed.”

Meeting weekly throughout the spring and summer months, the Task Force set priorities and work plans with feedback from students and faculty members. And in a very short period of time, they were able to develop an OWL Learning Module that would guide faculty members on how to utilize OWL. They also created a standardized template that faculty members could use to ease their transition to online education and took on the responsibility for vetting new technologies that might be used.

A key to the success of the Task Force was hiring digital media interns who worked with faculty members to create innovative approaches to the online courses. Shivani Shah, Dentistry Class of 2022, served as a task force member and worked as a digital intern throughout the summer months.

Four other students joined her to pivot individual courses online. Working alongside faculty members, they met weekly, created websites, produced videos, edited existing material and did anything and everything to transition the courses for online learning.

Shah found the experience enlightening in many ways. Not only did she gain experience working as part of a team, she recognized in herself a growing interest in education and teaching, and is considering how she can combine a career in dentistry and education.

What stood out the most for Shah, however, was how rewarding it was to see how faculty did their work.

“Sometimes we forget that our professors are human and we think there is a barrier between us and them. But I learned how much they want us to learn, how much they really do care about our education, how much they want us to become well-rounded clinicians and enjoy the material they are creating and teaching,” Shah said.

“There was something about them connecting with us for help while we were all struggling through the pandemic that felt really human to me,” she added.

With the start of the fall term, the Task Force was dissolved, but that doesn’t mean the work has ended. Many of the original task force members from across Schulich Medicine & Dentistry started working as part of a new School-wide grassroots group known as the Schulich Education Enhancement Division (SEED). This group has helped to unify the many task forces across the School that developed during the summer, pooling resources. They will continue the development of education projects with the students at the heart of it all.

Dr. Thang is proud of the Task Force’s accomplishments and says that one of the defining features was incorporating students very early on.

“It was felt that as the ultimate stakeholders in the education reform, their opinions were valuable as we shaped a new curriculum,” he said. “I believe that with students as partners, the outcome of every project was strengthened and improved.”

He’s also grateful for the immense enthusiasm faculty, staff and students have for continuous improvement.

“It was exciting to find like-minded individuals who are passionate about promoting change and weren’t going to let a world-wide pandemic stop them,” Dr. Thang said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but I believe that we have the right people here at Schulich Dentistry to get the job done.”