An Interview with Michael Rowe on the use of Technology-Mediated Teaching and Learning in Physiotherapy Education.

This week we spoke to Michael Rowe who is a physiotherapy lecturer at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and has a keen interest in the use of technology-mediated teaching and learning practices.  His doctoral project was on the use of social media and other emerging technologies to enhance teaching and learning practices within a physiotherapy undergraduate curriculum. The project aimed to develop a set of design principles for learning environments in healthcare education.

You’re a physiotherapy lecturer at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, tell us a bit about your work?

I’m a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at UWC, which is also where I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. I teach a variety of subjects, although in my department we offer staff the opportunity to rotate through the curriculum in order to ensure that everyone has a sense of how it all fits together. That means that most of us have one or two subjects that we teach more or less permanently, and then others that change over a period of time. The module that I hold on to is “Professional Ethics in Physiotherapy”, which I teach to 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students. We also have a system in my department where each of us gets 20% of our time to do research on whatever projects we have going at the time and I generally use that time to conduct research into teaching and learning practices. In addition to my work in the physiotherapy department, I also recently started working one day a week for the Directorate of Teaching and Learning at the university. I work with a small team of academics from across the institution, looking at providing support and guidance for lecturers and researchers who are interested in changing their approaches to teaching and learning.

What inspired you to start using technology in physiotherapy education?

I’ve always been fascinated by computers and the internet. When I was in Grade 9 (in 1992) I took “Typing” as a subject in school and when I received an award for it there were a few people who laughed at that because at the time, typing was “for girls”. I remember being baffled because they didn’t seem to understand that soon, typing would be the new “writing” and they were choosing to be illiterate. In 1999, when I was a 3rd year student at UWC, I created a physiotherapy reference website called Perfect Reference, which was linked to practice management software I was writing with a friend, called Perfect Practice (You can still see the home page that was captured by the Internet Archive in 2003). I used to spend hours at night hand-coding the HTML because there were no Content Management Systems or blogging platforms that existed yet. I remember being blown away when I saw my site being shared on a physiotherapy forum in the States, and that’s when I realised that this “Internet thing” was going to be huge. Sadly, Perfect Practice was never released and physios all over the world were denied the opportunity to manage their practices with efficiency and style 🙂

Where do you get your ongoing inspiration? (role models, mentors etc).

I’m inspired to continually improve my teaching and learning practices by the incredible role models I come across in both my formal and informal networks. I spend a lot of time reading the teaching and learning literature from a range of disciplines, including medicine, allied health and social science, and have found the work of certain authors to be profoundly influential on my own thinking and practice. In addition to the formal literature, the internet has also enabled me to connect with educators in more informal contexts. This means that every day my news feeds are filled with innovative ideas and their practical application by teachers and students from around the world. This is both inspiring and scary because I’m constantly faced with the idea that, right now, there are people who are doing interesting and creative work on problems that are relevant to me, and they seem to be working harder than I am.

What challenges do you face as a physiotherapy educator?

I think that one of the biggest challenges (not only from my perspective, but higher education in general) is that many educators and almost all students operate under the assumption that “teaching=telling” and “learning=listening”. Teachers want to come to class and talk to students, who come to class to listen. When you try to change this practice to something that’s more active and which requires deeper levels of engagement and interaction, both students and staff resist because it challenges their beliefs about what “teaching” and “learning” mean. I’m very lucky that I have (mostly) supportive colleagues in my department who have embraced our institutional mandate to elevate teaching and learning to the same level as research. Having said that, I would still suggest that resistance from students and colleagues whose beliefs around teaching and learning differ from my own, are probably the things that challenge me the most.

What opportunities do you envisage for the future of physiotherapy education?

In my opinion, physiotherapy as a profession is a relative latecomer to the “teaching and learning” discourse. Of course, there are arguments against this but I would suggest that medical and nursing education has a well-established history of innovating in curriculum design and pedagogy, whereas physiotherapy seems to have fallen behind a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t many physiotherapy educators who have been doing great work for many years. I’m simply suggesting that, as a profession, I don’t believe that we’ve really embraced teaching and learning as an activity worthy of scholarship. I’ve had colleagues tell me that I’m not a “real” physiotherapist because I’m interested in developing a better understanding of my students, rather than patients. I think that we’re only really starting to explore teaching and learning as a legitimate aspect of professional practice, which means that we have so many opportunities to develop and grow in this important area.

Anything else you would like to add?

I would like more physiotherapy educators to embrace the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as a valid component of their practice. We acknowledge the importance of evidence-based practice in all aspects of our clinical lives, yet we’re often content to teach using methods that haven’t changed in a hundred years. Evidence-based practice as a concept is not only applicable to the clinical context but should be applied to the pedagogical context as well. Do you know what theories of learning inform your teaching practices? What teaching frameworks do you use in the classroom? Do you know what the best available evidence is saying about your interaction with students? I think that many physiotherapy educators would struggle to answer these questions, which is problematic when you consider that the people responsible for teaching future generations of physiotherapists may not be making the best choices around how to go about doing it.