In a less disrupted world, the process of shifting a university subject online might involve a learning design process undertaken over several months. Due to the COVID-19 situation, many course coordinators, teaching staff and support staff have found themselves in a position of having to very quickly rebuild subjects essentially as online offerings. Here are some examples of face-to-face based learning designs that presented a challenge to shift online, and the innovative solutions that have been undertaken.

Biomedical Polymers and Critical Thinking

Biomedical Polymers is a post-graduate subject offered by the School of Biomedical Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering and IT (FEIT). Teaching staff were all set to make use of the new Hive Superlab newly opened this year, a space that enables students to have hands-on experience of the latest development in the field of tissue engineering using cells and novel biomaterials. In the current circumstances, an online approach needed to be developed in a very short amount of time. While students were really interested in receiving a first-hand experience in the lab, Dr Carmine Gentile has developed a new ‘eLab’ model in designing the new online learning experience for students.

The eLab

The eLab is an online space for each student to work in with classmates and teaching staff, all working together towards the engineering of a 3D bio-printed tissues. The eLab uses Teams as a platform to discuss medical problems and hypotheses, design experiments and further develop their projects in conjunction with other platforms, such as PubMed, UTS library and Lt (for virtual lab activities for physiological testing).

As the eLab is a virtual experience, students are now free to use and develop their critical thinking by working to understand medical problems by using online libraries, and come up with ideas that in this case are not limited to the tools available in the HIVE, but include any cell, biomaterial and 3D bio-printer available in the world. This approach enables a much broader range of possible explorations for the students, who are even able to “invent” new biomaterials that may not exist yet.

Enabling collaboration

To enable interaction, students were initially engaged through Zoom using Zoom rooms for project groups. After some technical issues arose, teaching staff shifted the project groups into Microsoft Teams and found this approach to be beneficial, as the Teams group spaces function 24/7 and can be accessed by students independent of teaching staff. Students can share documents, and use text, voice or video to interact. When student groups need assistance, they can tag teaching staff (i.e., @carmine) in their Teams discussion thread and staff get an instant notification. The course Canvas site still operates as a central hub for the subject, hosting pre-recorded lectures and discussion spaces for students to ask broader questions.

The modified subject emphasises development of critical thinking skills as students negotiate, plan and collaborate. Carmine describes the focus upon experimentation design and documentation as a form of authentic learning, as these activities form most of the actual work a biomedical scientist undertakes.

Virtual prototyping with Fundamentals of Biomedical Engineering Studio A

Another subject from FEIT particularly impacted by the switch from face to face is the postgraduate subject Fundamentals of Biomedical Engineering Studio A. This is usually a studio-based subject that asks students to undertake a process of prototyping a medical device. The physical building component is impossible to implement outside of the physical resources of the university, so students are now using the software Solidworks to prototype virtually.

Dr Nham Tran, subject coordinator and Deputy Head of School, Teaching and Learning in the School of Biomedical Engineering emphasises the importance for teaching staff to maintain a connection to students. Weekly Zoom sessions are held with breakout rooms led by teaching staff with specific expertise, including fabrication and electrical engineering to assist students, resolve issues and give feedback. Students can also book 1:1 Zoom consultations as needed.

Interestingly the subject in its online form is achieving a significant increase in student attendance in comparison to previous years. Lectures and sessions are carefully planned for Zoom with specific sections addressed by different teaching staff and include contributions from students. Teaching staff also meet before and after each session to help it run smoothly and capture any feedback and improvements while the experience is still fresh. Dr Nham Tran acknowledges “there is more that can go wrong with such a high level of reliance upon technology, this increased level of planning and reflection assists in minimising and addressing the impacts of any issues”.

Sharing knowledge

The unfolding situation in relation to COVID-19 is bringing a range of new pressures and we are all being impacted. Perhaps there is comfort and inspiration to be gained through sharing these experiences, the cleverer and more hopeful the better.

Drop a comment below, or email if you’d like to share your experience!

Feature image by Jared Arango.

Join the discussion