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Teaching through the pandemic: what is the future of immunology education?

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an important global shift to remote teaching, which presented some new challenges for immunology educators and students. In this article, BSI members, Dr Thomas Wilkinson, Professor Rob Nibbs and Dr Nigel Francis discuss these challenges, what they have learned from teaching in a remote environment and the importance of retaining the innovative educational tools that have been developed during this time.


Practical difficulties

There is no doubt that the global COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and lasting impact on the education sector. The rapid shift to emergency remote teaching in March 2020, when campuses were forced to shut their physical doors, threw up the obvious challenge of how to teach labs without access to physical teaching space or equipment. The response from the sector showed remarkable resilience to adapt and overcome, with an incredible willingness to share innovative ideas and best practices between institutions.

The outcome was that students can still acquire many of the skills associated with laboratory classes, including scientific inquiry and curiosity, data handling, analysis and presentation and the theoretical underpinning of immunological techniques. However, what has been lacking and cannot be replicated in the virtual space is the hands-on learning and the experience of using scientific equipment. This presents challenges for immunology educators both in the short term to upskill current students but also in the longer term. Universities will need to realise that school leavers entering higher education over the next two to three years may have skills gaps resulting from having less time in labs.

What has been lacking and cannot be replicated in the virtual space is the hands-on learning and the experience of using scientific equipment. This presents challenges for immunology educators both in the short term to upskill current students but also in the longer term.

Closing the skills gap

'Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry', a report published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) in 2019, highlighted a growing need to train and recruit immunologists at all levels, with the development of practical skills considered a significant problem. Therefore, even prepandemic, there was already concern over the number and quality of immunologists being trained. COVID-19 will, of course, have exacerbated this problem. Therefore, a concerted ‘joined-up’ approach will be needed among educators to address the skills gaps in the industry as a whole.

So, what can be done and what new educational tools have emerged during the pandemic? Across the biosciences sector as a whole, some incredibly innovative teaching has been developed. Approaches can be broadly divided into four main strategies: videos, simulations, augmented / virtual reality and the generation or provision of datasets. Often several of these approaches have been combined. For example, a simulation is used to help students understand the theory behind a technique; then, a video is provided of an academic demonstrating the use of the equipment. This can be followed up by providing a randomly generated dataset to allow students to practise analysing and presenting experimental data.

Here, there is often the assumption that students will hopefully experience the technique at some point during their studies. However, one potential benefit of the pandemic is that academics have developed resources that allow students to virtually experience techniques beyond the scope of traditional laboratory sessions due to limitations of cost or access to the physical equipment.

One potential benefit of the pandemic is that academics have developed resources that allow students to virtually experience techniques beyond the scope of traditional laboratory sessions.

Challenges of remote lecturing

Certainly, the shift to online teaching has been challenging for educators, not least because it is very different from face-to-face instruction, and we have not had training in, or much experience of, this form of education. Lecturing to a blank screen when all the students have their camera off makes it near impossible to judge whether the key messages are hitting home. As lecturers, we thrive on the buzz of the classroom and relish those ‘light bulb moments’ when everything suddenly makes sense to the students, and we witness that moment of understanding. That is not to say that all teaching online is bad. The increased willingness of students to ask and answer questions via chat functions on platforms like Zoom or Teams has enhanced the level of engagement of students in live sessions. Asynchronous videos have allowed students to learn at their own pace and at a time that is convenient to them, the latter being particularly important for international students.

 

The new normal

What have we learned from teaching in the remote environment? Firstly, it is hard work, probably harder than conventional face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, we have shown what is possible. There has been an impressive level of inventiveness among academics who have let their creativity run free!

COVID-19 has probably signalled the end of the traditional lecture. The new norm will be blended learning, with content provided upfront online for the up and coming lecture. Therefore, whether face to face or virtual, students will be better prepared for the teaching session ahead. Furthermore, having better prepared students should allow teaching staff to challenge students with more diverse material such as problem-solving in groups, quizzes and discussions coming to the fore. For laboratory sessions, the vast majority of the preparatory material, including health and safety information, can be moved online ahead of time. Demonstrations of equipment and key learning objectives for individual sessions can all be provided by video with formative quizzes to allow students to check their understanding. This frees up more time in the laboratory for actual laboratory work. This is important because laboratory time is likely to be limited for the foreseeable future, so online preparation and grounding in the theory will allow students to maximise their time practising techniques and acquiring vital practical skills.

 

Support from the BSI

The BSI recently launched a Teaching Resource Hub that will be invaluable for academics to share novel solutions and resources to engage students with their studies in these changed times. With blended learning becoming more and more prevalent, shared expertise and resources will prove incredibly useful to enhance student learning and complement laboratory skills development. The recently formed BSI Teaching Affinity Group will look to help support educators and raise awareness of the importance of teachers within the immunology community.

 

Change for the good

COVID-19 has been challenging, but there are positives to take from the experience. The innovation that has been displayed has driven a long-awaited change to the conventional teaching model. This will allow students to develop additional skills that will be highly valued when they graduate and will hopefully go a long way to address the issues raised in the ABPI report.

As we highlighted in our recent Immunology article, alternatives to laboratory classes and laboratory projects have been developed through necessity. We should retain and adapt the best of these resources when laboratories reopen – not because we have to, but because we ought to.

 

Dr Thomas Wilkinson, Swansea University
Professor Rob Nibbs, University of Glasgow
Dr Nigel Francis, Cardiff University

 


Dr Nigel Francis

BSI Immunology Teaching Excellence Award

Our Teaching Excellence Award highlights excellent immunology teachers in UK higher education institutes. The award recognises those who show a passion for immunology and education, along with the communication skills to make these complex subjects accessible to their students.

Dr Nigel Francis, Associate Professor at Swansea University Medical School, won the BSI 2020 Immunology Teaching Excellence Award. Huge congratulations!

The 2021 award is open for nominations. Find out more here.