Videoconferencing is a critical part of future health networks

A senior manager with the University of British Columbia talks about a project that helped enhance its distance education capabilities by deploying sophisticated collaboration technologies

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Not everyone may recall, but back in 2000, doctors walked off the job in Prince George in protest of the lack of support Northern British Columbia was receiving to recruit and retain healthcare professionals.  Over the coming months, the message was received by the government loud and clear and as a result, the government created two mandates: increase the number of graduate doctors in the province (then 128) and address the under-served areas of the province.

This mandate translated into the need for UBC’s medical school to increase enrolment  to graduate more doctors in British Columbia and adapt program delivery to encourage them to practice in under-served parts of the province. As this plan came together, the Government and Faculty of Medicine decided to double the number of graduates from 128 to 256, with an expansion to Prince George and Victoria in 2004 and further expansion in 2011 to 288 students with the addition of Kelowna.

Existing facilities at the Point Grey campus in Vancouver could not accommodate the increased enrolment.  In addition, the capacity of the hospital facilities in the lower mainland could not support the increased requirement for teaching, supervision, and student-patient encounters.   As a result, the decision was made to expand UBC’s existing medical program by utilizing distributed [a form of distance] education to offer education to students across the province via videoconferencing technology.  This model would allow the program to leverage existing foundations and resources and create efficiencies and opportunities in the process.

Videoconferencing technology was chosen because it was the most flexible option whilst maintaining a high degree of “touch” – the ability to seamlessly interact with instructors and fellow students, producing as close to the in-person experience as possible. It allowed groups to remain in cohorts in formal teaching facilities, creating better participation opportunities and engagement, rather than faceless students learning from home hiding behind a computer screen, and ensuring students have access to the necessary educational support and resources. Videoconferencing gives high-quality video and audio, as well as the ability to present high resolution education and medical diagnostic materials, such as high definition x-rays, CT scans and anatomy diagrams, as well as videos, photos and presentation materials.

Of course, the transition wasn’t easy.  There were many obstacles to navigate along the way. This was the first time an entire educational program of this magnitude was distributed in lock-step to students at geographic distance. Lecture theatres were custom built to incorporate videoconferencing infrastructure and the necessary environment to support learning. Functionality was implemented to allow students and the instructors to see each other and talk face-to-face in real-time, no matter where they were located within the room. Several students share a microphone and when they push the button to speak, a camera zooms in on them so they appear live on the screen alongside the instructor to support discussion and involve the entire class. There is significant complexity and automation in the systems and a lot of emphasis has been put into training and developing faculty to teach in this environment. Lecturers can’t use a laser pointer, for instance, because they only benefit the local audience.  To solve these issues we have introduced specific tools to support instructors to effectively teach at distance – document cameras and annotation screens that enable instructors to write, show pictures and display exhibits in real time. Instructors are trained to actively ask questions to different sites to increase involvement, and to pause periodically to give students across the province the chance to get their questions in.

For more, download the complete case study on UBC’s videoconferencing project with Allstream.

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