HIGHER education has undergone rapid and adaptive changes in its teaching and learning methods since the emergence of Covid-19.
It would not be a stretch to say that most pharmacy schools globally, particularly Malaysia, were equipped to a certain extent in tackling the online learning environment once the world declared a health emergency.
Student-centred learning techniques, or more commonly known as blended learning, was already a staple in pharmacy education.
A mixture of face-to-face classes and practicals were normally supplemented with online learning management systems and various virtual learning tools.
However, since the pandemic, pharmacy education has seen a paradigm shift from existing student-centred blended learning to complete online teaching and assessments.
Institutions that appeared to be in the fiscal position pre-Covid-19 started to invest in remote learning technologies, software and hardware, and information technology (IT) teams.
This support was able to give pharmacy academics more options to adapt to their teaching and assessments.
Pharmacy academics around the globe had to respond quickly and efficiently by determining appropriate video conferencing tools that served both the lecturers and students. These included accessibility, user-acceptability and the subject’s learning outcomes.
Of course, all the challenges could not be overcome without the necessary pain of trial and error.
The main challenge was the fall in the motivation of both students and educators because students were not physically present in class and there was a loss of educational settings and contexts adversely affecting both.
Didactics in virtual learning need longer structuring times, and new ways are needed to reach students, which must consist of more than being in front of a computer.
Another major challenge for pharmacy education was in laboratory classes and experiential placements in healthcare attachments. How could you replace a hands-on learning experience when students could not leave their homes?
The Malaysian National Medicines Policy emphasises public access to medicines and reliable health systems, and these needs are amplified in times of crisis. To address these needs, pharmacists in community and hospital settings are critical.
In the Professional Pharmacy Oath, pharmacists are called to place the needs of others above their interests. Our students are pharmacists in training who, now more than ever, are a critical part of our health care delivery.
In response to the pandemic, pharmacy faculties removed all students from practice sites to reduce transmission risk and allow practising pharmacists to focus on essential services.
Patient care scenarios depicting real health care issues in the Malaysian population were used in virtual problem-based and case-based learning to mimic experiential learning as much as possible.
Virtual role-play simulations were a vital part of pharmacy practice education. Videos and simulation of practical sessions were filmed, and in silico modelling or docking software was used to facilitate practical classes in engaging and innovative ways.
Additionally, interactive modules, assessments based on real-world scenarios, forums designed to discuss and solve problems, and synchronous learning sessions that involve discussions were used.
Pharmacy educators and students noted that not all virtual activities could replace face-to-face learning in wet laboratory sessions and experiential placements in healthcare environments.
There were difficulties in developing hands-on skills and behaviours, as these activities were often designed to apply and practise the knowledge delivered in lectures.
Students missed having face-to-face interactions as they were unable to focus on online classes. They also missed the socialisation process in the university environment.
As such, the hybrid learning model seems to be the best option for moving forward post-pandemic.
It integrates virtual and face-to-face learning into a cohesive experience. Advanced teaching and learning methods are related to the future of pharmacy education in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0). Certain factors such as the intended learning outcomes, student needs, access to technology and digital literacy need to be assessed and balanced to determine if this approach fits the pharmacy educational goals best.
Higher education is changing and disruption is inevitable.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught pharmacy academics that tailored education with technological impact is possible. The existence of four generations of educators and students in 2020, namely, baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z, propelled the government and higher education providers to tackle the generational shifts.
Moving forward, the government needs to relook at the implementation of such learning and equity in the access to digital learning platforms at all economic levels.
ASSOC PROF DR MOGANA SUNDARI RAJAGOPAL
Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences