Online learning is the new norm at the School of Pharmacy in Spring Term as a result of COVID-19. Faculty members are exploring a variety of innovative methods to deliver content and assessments in a virtual space.

When he was in the classroom, William W.L. Wong was known for his ability to break complex concepts down and give his students opportunities to apply the concepts he taught using software in the School’s Professional Practice Lab. Wong specializes in health informatics and pharmacoeconomics, and students appreciated how he brought these complex topics to life with examples drawn from Canada’s health-care system.

“Through demonstrating the practical application of informatics, I help students appreciate that many key concepts in this discipline are actually simpler than they initially seem,” he says. “It was important that I was able to find a solution to replicate this in the current online learning environment.”

When on campus, students worked with Kroll software to complete informatics lab tasks. The labs assessed their abilities using a pharmacy management system to document patient information and provide pharmacy services. Students typically use Kroll software to produces patient records, fill prescriptions and visualize drug interaction alerts.

Kroll is only available on computers in the School’s Professional Practice Lab. It wasn’t easy, but through collaboration with Robin Andrade, professional practice instructor, and Steve Bradley, IT manager, Wong devised a solution to continue offering this hands-on learning experience to his remote students.

“It was vital our first-year students had remote access to Kroll, as many of them haven’t seen the dispensing software program before,” Andrade explains. “Like many applied labs, the richest form of learning comes from performing the task instead of only ‘watching’. Professor Wong, Steve and myself wanted to make sure learners had the same opportunity no matter the circumstances.”

Bradley is one of the essential staff members allowed into the School, so he ensured students could access the computers via Remote Desktop and Virtual Private Network technology.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge as most students didn’t have a lot of experience with remote access,” he says. “We had never tried to run the Kroll software in this manner. We knew we had to make it simple without sacrificing content.”

Bradley was physically present in the Professional Practice Lab during scheduled lab times and kept the computers running so that the students could use Kroll remotely. Andrade had previously worked with Wong to design the lab. Since she’s now working from home, Andrade created three videos and assignments so the students could watch the task, and then complete it on their own. The videos helped increase student confidence to use the software without having an instructor beside them.

“Robin and William walked me through what specific steps the students take if they were in the lab, and we came up with a way for them to achieve it,” Bradley says. “We tested scenarios extensively and came up with a plan that was simple to follow and allowed us the greatest chance for success. The fact that we designed this solution well in advance also added to the successful outcome.”

Implementing this type of activity is not without challenges, and Wong spent much time preparing for the virtual labs.

“As an instructor, I had to not only familiarize myself with the course and lab contents in a digital space, but I had to know how to solve connectivity issues for students in real-time on both Windows and Mac environments,” Wong reflects. “So far however, all students have been able to participate. If there were difficulties during the scheduled lab times, I offered alternative times for them to participate, and I used a live WebEx session throughout the duration of the lab so that I could solve problems in real-time.”

Wong has now successfully run three lab sessions, and his students appreciated the experience.

“I really enjoy the labs,” reflects Sarah Fallis, a student in Wong’s informatics class. “I’m glad we can still get this practical lab experience while in person classes and labs are cancelled. I completed Exercise One and it felt like I was in a pharmacy again. Lots of fun!”

Prof Wong, who recently received Outstanding Performance Award, which recognizes exceptional teaching and scholarship, is an informatics and pharmacoeconomics expert. So naturally, he plans to also survey his students to acquire data to assess their responses to novel activities like the lab sessions.

“Data will be used to modify the course content to enhance student learning experiences in the future offering.

“This is a learning experience for myself and the students, and it wouldn’t have been possible with support from our staff here at the School,” he says. “We’ll continue to try new strategies and collect feedback so that the educational experiences can be as effective as possible for everyone.”