Sarah Esegbona-Adeigbe, Senior Midwifery Lecturer, London South Bank University, and steering group member for the Maternity and Midwifery forum, reflects on the changes experienced by educators and students through the COVID pandemic. She discusses the challenges of educating midwifery students online and questions what the future will look like.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the working lives of everyone including teachers in higher education institutes. Universities were advised to stay open during the lockdown meaning quickly adapting to alternative methods of teaching students.

The change to teaching was swift and options of how to deliver a taught curriculum was varied. However, It was suggested in a iSAGE report made up of 13 independent scientists who advise the government and public on minimising health risk in the pandemic, that online learning should be a ‘default option’ for all universities.

Online, distant or virtual teaching all more or less mean the same thing, no face to face contact with students. Hence, the triple challenge of engaging students, delivering quality teaching via online methods as well as delivering the curriculum. England’s higher education watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS), said it was “actively monitoring” teaching standards in universities shifting all their courses online amid COVID-19.

The uniqueness and challenge of maintaining standards in midwifery education is the ‘hands on’ elements of the course with the need to teach key midwifery skills, which does not lend itself to an online platform. The expectation for midwifery students to learn skills virtually such as abdominal palpation and examination of the newborn without face to face teaching is an important consideration. The question is how effective can this be in an online format?

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS (Office for Students) independent regulator of higher education in England, highlighted the importance of honouring promises made to students and ensuring that the quality of what was offered online remained high. I read somewhere that teaching students online is like herding cats. I would not necessarily agree with this, but the dilemma of holding students’ attention for long periods of time is a key requirement for online teaching. Picture yourself talking to a screen, the nature of online learning creates a barrier to the interpersonal skills that are required to teach. Usually in face to face teaching the mood of the classroom can be observed and cues can be picked up such as puzzlement and confusion on students faces leading the teacher to adapt their delivery of the session. There is also the risk that students will just log in to online sessions and appear to be engaged, but how do teachers know that students are actively listening.

I have found that encouraging student participation is crucial, by asking questions and challenging students throughout an online teaching session. A great way is to use case studies to link theory to practice and asking all students to respond by putting answers in the online chat. Students can be provided with equipment so that they demonstrate a skill virtually, although this is time consuming with large cohort sizes. There also are other issues, lack of digital skills for educators and access to technology has hindered online teaching, after that the unsurmountable issue of a poor internet connection can scupper any chance of successful interactions with students. In addition, attempting to do several thing online at once, such as providing pastoral support to students, online meetings, and administration activities, has been an issue for teachers internationally.

However, the support provided to teachers is crucial and it has been recognised by universities, resulting in tailored training and IT support and development of policies to adapt to this new way of teaching. On a more positive note the loss of the daily commute and transgressing the rush hour are things that many teachers will not miss. The need to continue to teach midwifery students and adhere to the laws of social distancing has changed the way of traditional teaching methods in midwifery education. There are thoughts that returning to these traditional methods may never reoccur.

Sarah Esegbona-Adeigbe
Senior Midwifery Lecturer
London South Bank University

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