Review of the Physiopedia Professional Ethics Course by Michael Rowe

This is a copy of Michael’s post on his own blog. View the original blog post here.

This is a short review post for the PHT402 Professional Ethics course that was recently completed by physiotherapy students from the University of the Western Cape and qualified physiotherapists who participated through Physiopedia. We believe that this is the first time that a completely open, online course in professional ethics has been run as part of a formal undergraduate health care curriculum.

In total we had 52 UWC students and 36 external participants from around the world, including South Africa, USA, United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, Estonia, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The context of the courseobjectivescourse activities andparticipant learning portfolios are available on the project page, so I won’t go over those again other than to say that the course was aimed at developing in students a set of attributes that went beyond simply teaching them about concepts in professional ethics. In other words, it was about trying to change ways of thinking and being, as opposed to teaching content. It’s too early to say whether or not we achieved this but if nothing else, we do seem to have made a significant impact in the personal and professional lives of some of the participants.

One of the most interesting things about this course has been the enormous variety of perspectives that emerged, which on a personal level have driven my thinking and reasoning in different directions than if I had engaged with the topic in isolation. From one of the participants, “…it brings on thoughts that I find unsettling“. This is a good thing. One of the points of the course was to put people into those contested spaces where the “right” and “wrong” answers are ambiguous and context dependent. The more we explore those spaces within ourselves and with others, the better prepared we’ll be to navigate difficult ethical situations in our professional practice.

Running the PHT402 Professional Ethics course in this way has been an enormous learning experience for me and many lessons emerged during the course that were unanticipated. Here are some of the things we did that I’ve never done before and which challenged us to think about different ways of teaching and learning:

  • Participants were mostly unfamiliar with how the internet works and so had no experience with following the work of others. We needed to give very explicit instructions regarding setting up blogs and following other participants. Email support was extensive and many participants were regularly in contact. I learned that email is still an essential aspect of working digitally.
  • Participants were geographically distributed and most had never had any blogging experience. We needed to figure out how to teach them how to blog without being able to get them all into a classroom. We wanted not only to teach them how to simply write blog posts but to also include embedded media, linking to other participants, using tags and categories. We wrote a series of posts that were designed to not only give instructions on how to blog but also how to write engaging posts on the web. Every participant was encouraged to follow the participants to ensure that they were exposed to this input.
  • It wasn’t possible for the facilitators to comment on every post of every user (although I gave it my best shot) but we had to make sure that everyone got feedback of some kind on their posts. We designed a form in Google Forms and asked every participant to review the work of 3 other participants. Then we aggregated that feedback, which was quantitative and qualitative) and sent it to each participant. In this way, we ensured that everyone got feedback in one form, even if they weren’t getting comments on their posts.
  • It’s difficult to give a grade (this was part of a formal curriculum, so grades were unfortunately a necessity) for participants’ perceptions of topics like equality, morality and euthanasia. We decided the students would be graded on the extent to which they could demonstrate evidence of learning in their final posts. We said that this could be in the form of identifying personal conflict and resolution (one of the aims of the course), linking to the posts of others with analysis and integration of those alternative ideas (learning collaboratively), use of the platform features e.g. tagging, categories, Liking, Commenting, etc. (using technology to enable richer forms of communication). I created a rubric that is more extensive than this list, but it just goes to show that the assessment of a course like this needs to be about more than simply asking if the student covered the relevant content.

Now that this course has been completed, I plan to do research on the data that was generated. This was always part of the project and as such it had ethical clearance from my institutional review board from the outset:

  • I designed the learning environment using principles that I had developed as part of my PhD project. This course could be seen as a pilot study aimed at further testing those design principles as a way of developing a set of Graduate Attributes in an online learning space. To this end I’ll be doing a series of focus groups to find out from students whether or not the course objectives were achieved.
  • In addition to the focus groups I’d like to try and triangulate that data with a content analysis of the blog posts and comments that were generated during the course. I’ll qualitatively analyse the course outputs that were created by participants.
  • I’d like to survey all of the participants to get a general sense of their experiences and perceptions of having completed a course that was very different to what they were used to from a traditional curriculum. I’d like to find out if offering a course in this way is something that we should be looking at in more depth in our department.
  • During the course, a significant number of connections were made between people on the open web. I’d like to use social network analysis to see if there’s anything interesting that emerged as a result of how people connected with each other. If you have any suggestions for methods to analyse a set of blog posts on WordPress, please let me know.
  • Finally, I want to interview the other facilitators who helped me to develop the course and who were based in different countries at different times in the project. I want to see if there are any lessons that could be developed for other, geographically dispersed teachers who would like to run collaborative online courses.