Transitioning to a Virtual Campus

The Experience of the RCSI School of Physiotherapy during the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this blog, we want to share our experience of dealing with COVID-19 in the teaching, learning and assessment of our physiotherapy students.

As a University of Medicine and Health Sciences, RCSI is well known for its international footprint. This, alongside our world-leading expertise in infectious diseases, were significant contributing factors in our rapid response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

In early February, our infectious disease experts and senior management in RCSI Dublin flagged the potential impact of COVID-19 – as our Bahrain Campus had experienced the effects of COVID-19 some weeks before it became a reality in Ireland.

A Business Continuity Team was established in RCSI Dublin to identify requirements for the college to move to a ‘virtual campus’ as soon as practically possible. IT solutions were put in place at pace, including Blackboard Collaborate for delivering ‘live’ interactive student lectures and tutorials, Speedwell for online assessment, Microsoft (MS) Teams for staff and student meetings, and Office 365 to allow remote access to files for all staff. The IT department provided intensive training for all staff on use of these systems.

As a School, we held numerous meetings to plan and implement RCSI’s strategy of moving to a virtual campus. Our focus was on virtual academic teaching, preparing contingency plans if clinical placements were cancelled, and ensuring clear, consistent student engagement and ongoing personal tutor support.

On Thursday, 12th March, when the government announced that universities were closing from that day, we were well placed to switch to our virtual campus. Students on clinical placement had to discontinue their placements, although placements were already being affected as COVID cases appeared in various hospitals. The remaining practical/clinical skills teaching could no longer be delivered and we had to ramp up our contingency plans for alternative methods of assessment.

Those first couple of weeks felt long and mentally draining as we all moved out of our comfort zone in using Blackboard Collaborate for teaching, coupled with back-to-back remote staff and student meetings.

The students really engaged with the ‘live’ lectures and attendance was excellent across all years. The ‘breakout group’ feature of Collaborate provides an opportunity for student interaction in small groups, whilst the educator moves between the groups to facilitate discussion.

Over the next few weeks, we became more proficient and innovative with this technology. This sketch note summarises well our experience of transitioning to remote learning – thanks to Dr. Ailish Malone who put it together.

With clinical placements no longer possible, students participated in a programme of placement-related activities overseen by the Practice Education Co-ordination team. These included on-line Covid-19 modules and case studies, which focused on placement learning outcomes.

With practical and clinical skills assessment no longer feasible for our end-of-semester assessments, we planned for remote assessment for all years.

We also wanted to expedite our final years’ exams to allow students to register with CORU and enter the workforce as soon as possible. As they had already completed their final clinical placement, all that remained was their final year research protocol and a viva exam, which could be administered remotely.

Our final years successfully completed their exams and received their results on Friday 1st May, five weeks earlier than planned. With the help of our Communications Department, we were delighted to put together this video to celebrate results day.

In this period, we have certainly up-skilled in using technology to enhance the learning experience for our students. While it cannot replace the face-to-face interaction, we see technology playing a significant role in achieving a more blended learning experience in our post COVID environment.

We are very proud of how our students embraced this unprecedented transition to a ‘virtual campus’ and we are now planning for how our programmes can be delivered safely and effectively for the 2020-2021 academic year.

We would like to thank all those who contributed to the successful delivery of our undergraduate and post graduate programmes including academic staff, practice education co-ordinators, clinical tutors and educators, administrative staff, external lecturers, external examiner and our student, academic and regulatory affairs staff.

The biggest thanks to our students for staying engaged throughout despite missing out on so many other aspects of college life. We hope that when the academic year resumes in September, they will return to some degree of a traditional student experience.

This Blog was written by Dr Helen French, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and Professor Suzanne McDonough, Head of School of Physiotherapy, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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