Maureen Barry was used to teaching a small undergrad nursing class at U of T. A group of 30 or so students would gather around, and she’d hold up a syringe, or demonstrate in front of a mannequin, or whatever they were doing that day. It’s how things were always done—until her accelerated program got an influx of cash and began expanding rapidly. All of a sudden, within just three years, Barry was walking into a room with 150 people.
“It was mind boggling,” Barry says. “I knew we had to change the way we taught.”
With so many students, the class time it took to get through class and lab sessions was becoming perilously long. Fortunately, Barry knew where to turn: technology. She had always been interested in high-tech solutions for teaching. She points to her use of an early precursor to Blackboard during the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“I was one of the only ones to embrace it, and we were able to teach quarantined students. And we never looked back after that.”
So when she wanted to turn to technology again, Barry went to ITIF and in 2003 got a grant to develop web-based learning for her burgeoning class. Her goal was to take some of the passive learning that was happening in class, and put it online.
“Video learning was always in the back of my mind,” Barry says. Now, with online videos more readily accessible with online learning systems, she could have students learn the basics before class, and then start the lab session without a demonstration.
“This grant is where I’ve gone since, I’m interested in learning management systems. Blackboard, podcasts, wikis, blogs—I’m just interested in having as many tools as I can. When you get in front of 180 students, you can’t just talk for 2 hours. You’re an actor on a stage.”
So Barry developed an assignment where students filmed themselves doing a certain procedure. Despite the technical problems she encountered in grading it, she says the learning outcomes involved in producing these films were really good, which pushed her to pursue options for improvement.
Two years later, her program moved to a new building, with a new simulation lab, and better video capacity. She yearned for the kind of feature where students could simply upload a video for her to grade.
“We have that ability now, but,” Barry says, “it all comes back to this initial grant for me.”
(And building on her initial successes, Barry received the Council of Ontario University Programs in Nursing Teaching Innovation Award in 2010.)
Maureen Barry’s interest in technology didn’t stop with online learning or her work in the simulation lab. In 2012, she got another ITIF grant for encouraging students to do what many other teachers outlaw: use their smart phones in class.
Barry says her interest in smart phones stemmed from a research study she did in 2008, when PDAs were still common. She handed some out to her students, and found that they really liked having resources—like drug handbooks—which Barry had pre-loaded onto the devices, at their fingertips. Who wouldn’t? The results were mixed, however, because students couldn’t be expected to pay for their own device.
Still, as smart phones found their way into nearly every fabric of modern life, Barry thought it was time to revisit the idea. That feeling grew when she saw the way her own students were using their phones after she tried some informal encouragement.
“I was getting frustrated because students weren’t using their devices to look up information we asked them to look up in seminars or labs,” Barry says. Instead of using trustworthy resources for medications, for example, students were just googling a drug. “No, you can’t do that—we have all these resources at our fingertips.”
Barry figured it would be more seamless if students could use their phones in class and in the lab, in order to get them used to the idea of looking at trustworthy sources and evidence-based information. So with an ITIF grant, in the fall of 2013, she began a project to see how this greater smart phone use would turn out.
Barry handed out the phones to a pilot group of nursing students, once again pre-loaded with a bundle of useful information, including handbooks and some textbooks. Since they were pre-loaded, no online connection was necessary to use them. Barry also handed out gift cards for the online app store, so that students would explore further uses for their phones.
Overall, Barry says she found that once again, students liked it. They used the phones mostly in the clinical aspects of the class and clinical practice area.
“Smart phones in labs are perfect. You want [students] to not make mistakes, and looking things up is the way to do that.”
However, Barry is far more interested in the parts of the experiment that didn’t go as planned. One of the most noteworthy findings for her was that some students were self-conscious about using their phones in those clinical settings, fearing that patients, patients’ families, or even other nurses would assume they were being unprofessional.
“They thought nurses or people would think they were using their phones for Facebook or email,” Barry says. “I was surprised, I thought we were past that. I think we have to get past that stigma as teachers. Let them look things up. They already have laptops.”
The lack of use for the app store gift cards disappointed Barry as well. She envisioned students finding lullaby apps to help work with kids, or a level-tool app they could use without having to bother someone else to get a physical one, or even exam test prep apps to help them study.
“I wanted them looking around because there are some interesting apps out there,” Barry says. “Maybe I didn’t encourage them enough. It does take time, and you do need to be interested in technology to dig around and look for it.”
And while it turns out not everyone can be as tuned in to technology as Barry, no matter how successful her initiatives are, she’s always ready and willing to dig around and look for more answers.
“I love that kind of learning, I’m very involved in that,” Barry says. “I’m very much driven by what students do in sim. There’s no formula for this. I feel it’s a better way of learning. And it’s made me reevaluate the way I teach and how students learn. In the process, if I do it differently, it makes me a better teacher too.”