Pathology 417: An online, problem-based learning course

By Heather McCabe posted on May 17th, 2013

Niamh photo

Bacterial Infection in Humans, a completely online course, grew out of Niamh Kelly’s desire to emulate her experiences as a student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland’s oldest university which was founded in 1592.

“Going way back maybe fifteen or twenty years ago when I started teaching at this university, one of my first observations was that I was teaching fourth-years, and there were 90 students in the class and I had 50 minutes, and I was on the podium,” Kelly said. “But when I did my undergrad degree at Trinity College Dublin, there were 11 students in the class, and we had unlimited access to the profs, not only in the classroom, in the pub, watching cricket. So it was an incredible education.”

Kelly approached the dean of Science at the time, Barry McBride, to raise questions about the traditional model.

“I basically wrote [McBride] a letter and said, you know I just don’t think this is a fourth-year education because 50 minutes, 90 students, and me means I’m still doing transmission. [The students] aren’t really getting to access a prof in the right way which is critical thinking. The way we did it, it was probably just endless conversation and engaging with somebody who had intellectual skills that you were trying to attain. That’s how you really learn.”

In response to the letter, the dean put Kelly in touch with Tony Bates, the head of distance learning.

The original lecture-based course had been gaining in popularity, and at the same time, the Faculty of Medicine had moved to a problem-based learning approach, where students learn about a subject through the experience of problem solving. Kelly, an associate professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, wanted to incorporate problem-based learning, but knew that it would only work with a smaller class size. Since Kelly wanted to focus much of the class around small group learning, and because it proved difficult to schedule a time when students from different departments and faculties could take the course, she worked with distance learning to create the online version of Pathology 417.

During the course, students work through four cases and have three weeks to spend on each case. The cases are presented as narratives, and the instructors, Kelly and Patrick Tang, a clinical assistant professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, provide students with four set questions for each case. Each student in a four to five-person group is assigned a particular question for the case, so by the end of the course, a student will have been in charge of all the questions.

In the first week, students work independently to answer their particular question and journal their learning online. In the second week, the students interact in their small groups and try to come up with their best answers to the four questions and put that up on a wiki page. Then in the final week, the groups share the material that they’ve learned and try to refine their wiki pages. The instructors come in at the end of the second week and comment on the students’ answers and try to take the answers that students have gathered to a deeper level.

“It’s entirely learner driven,” Kelly said. “When you do learner driven courses, it’s an incredibly high standard that the students go to, much higher than I would ever aim for in a content transmission course. Because it’s learner driven, you get the eager learners and you get what’s truly a university education. You get learners who go out there and are interested in the content and start bringing that back, and then other learners go, ‘Wow, I wasn’t thinking at that level.’ My experience is that when you have a learner driven course, the sky’s the limit, really, because that’s what learning is.”

The fact that the course is online has provided flexibility for both students and instructors. Students from every province in Canada, as well as students in Boston and Hong Kong, have taken the course. And Kelly has taught the course from Hawaii, California, and Europe.

In addition to designing and teaching Pathology 417, Kelly was involved in building the distributed medical education program at UBC, which distributes medical education to campuses in Prince George, Vancouver Island, and the Okanagan. The program has received several awards and has served as a model for medical schools across North America.

Kelly is also heavily involved in creating outreach programs that bring together UBC arts and science students with high school students and focus on connections between science and art. The high school students are asked to take one aspect of their science curriculum, for example DNA or protein synthesis, and represent it in a creative piece. Kelly is working on making a province-wide learning object repository that could be accessed online that would hold all of these creative pieces.