AHS Technology

by Brad Anderson

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” sang Bob Dylan in his popular song of the same title in 1964. The saying still rings true today, especially in the UTHSC College of Allied Health Sciences (CAHS). Technological advancements are continually evolving and changing the landscape of education in the college. You may be surprised to know that in today’s classroom, a “blackboard” doesn’t involve chalk … or even a physical space. Imagine waking up with your morning cup of coffee, reading the newspaper, and then attending a live class … from your living room. The face of cytotechnology, the microscope, may soon be extinct as newer tools of technology with mind-numbing precision are replacing older ones.

Currently, students from more than a dozen states are enrolled in online programs in the college. “We are moving more and more to having less face-to-face contact with students, to more online,” explained Richard Kasser, PhD, PT, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy (PT). This evolution began in the early 1990s as Internet access began to expand into homes and campuses with the advent of a consumer-based browser, Netscape, and an infrastructure of dial-up protocol addresses (IP/TCP) to easily connect to the Web. The “information age” was accelerated through wide-scale access to technology combined with a user-friendly browser. This has had a profound effect on education – from learning to teaching.

Leonard Bloom, MPH, and Anand Kulkarni, MD UTHSC faculty members Leonard Bloom, MPH, and Anand Kulkarni, MD, analyze cells that were digitally scanned through the latest cutting-edge technology.

Today, nearly every program in the College of Allied Health Sciences utilizes some form of online course work. In fact, the Department of Health Informatics and Information Management (HIIM) program is administered completely online with no on-campus component. Online instruction is accomplished through a variety of ways including video conferencing and a Web-based electronic course management system called Blackboard.

In the Department of Occupational Therapy (OT), the use of video technology and Blackboard allows courses to be administered online to the program’s two campuses in Memphis and Chattanooga. Students from both locations attend live lectures simultaneously from their respective classrooms equipped with video screens, microphones and a view of the instructor’s presentation and slides. Post lecture, instructors provide course materials, discussion boards, online quizzes and other academic resources made accessible through Blackboard. Instructors can also record and post video and audio “podcasts” of their lectures and techniques from which students can then download to their computer or portable devices.

Leonard Bloom, MPH, associate professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences (CLS), is the online instructor of a multidisciplinary course that includes doctoral and master’s level students from CLS, HIIM and PT. Bloom and his students interact live in a virtual classroom through the use of software titled Adobe Connect. Unlike Blackboard, which is designed to complement face-to-face teaching, Adobe Connect allows real-time, long-distance, two-way communication through chatting features, microphones and Web cameras. HIIM Department also uses Adobe Connect to interact with their students in a number of other courses and also provides advising through the Adobe Connect technology.

The virtual lab prepares students for clinical experiences by giving them an idea of what they will see at the clinical sites and allowing them to practice those skills in a virtual setting first.
 -HIIM Professor Beth Bowman

For Bloom, the experience has been a positive one. “The use of online technology enables the student to feel that they are in a classroom and offers them the opportunity for immediate feedback.” He continued, “It also provides immediate feedback to the instructor to ensure that students comprehend key concepts. Overall, it has been a valuable experience, which will help further the reach of our programs.”

The ability for the college to expand its reach online has played a very important role in the OT program. “The distance teaching initiative allowed UT to return OT education to East Tennessee,” noted Lawrence Faulkner, PhD, OT/L, associate professor and interim chair. “We are one program, in two locations,” he added. For students, especially those at the master’s level, distance learning is especially beneficial. “Many of the students working on master’s have to be a certain health care worker. The online programs help them achieve the balance of work and school,” explained HIIM Professor Beth Bowman.

Chattanooga Occupational Therapy students Chattanooga Occupational Therapy students participate in a class administered from the Memphis campus through video conferencing technology.

Even traditional textbooks are not immune to this technological shift. The Department of Dental Hygiene will implement an electronic textbook system during the summer. Textbooks will be available for purchase as software through which students can make notes and highlight sections of the text, all on computer. Through an instant purchase and download, students can now avoid heavy backpacks and the race to the bookstore in hopes of finding many of those elusive titles.

This shift to online coursing and electronic information is not just about convenience, but rather out of the necessity to adequately prepare and familiarize CAHS students for today’s technology-driven, health care setting. For example, HIIM students are training in a virtual lab that provides the same software systems used by the majority of hospitals. It includes electronic health records and additional software that they will use in the workplace as health information professionals. “The virtual lab prepares students for clinical experiences by giving them an idea of what they will see at the clinical sites and allowing them to practice those skills in a virtual setting first,” stated Bowman.

Technology has adapted to create equipment that can produce and deliver images in infinite clarity at break-neck speeds to a multitude of both portable and stationary devices. Simply put, UT CAHS students are training on today’s most cutting-edge technology.

In cytotechnology, students rely upon microscopes to diagnose disease processes. Recent technology such as the Aperio Scanscope XT scans an entire glass slide and converts it into a digital format to be evaluated via the computer. By converting glass slides into digital slides, professors can teach students how to spot patterns and trends, by viewing an entire slide in the lecture room. The technology allows instructors to show multiple slides side-by-side, and make slide annotations – all of which is viewable on large flat screen monitors and easily archived and transmitted to a virtual audience.

“Although, we continue to teach via the traditional manner, the microscope, we concede that the future of microscopy and cytotechnology is in the virtual realm. By digitizing our glass slides, we hope to preserve them for future generations and avoid the costly nature of replacing faded glass slides. Our hope is to have a multifaceted educational approach based in light microscopy but supplemented by virtual microscopy,” stated Bloom. The physical therapy program also utilizes electronic tools that precisely measure upper and lower extremities for evaluation and progress, then exports the data to a computer for statistical analysis that can also be archived and shared. These are just a few examples of how these future allied health professionals are learning to do things never thought possible before.

While the notion exists that technology may be taking away from the human element, and even replacing jobs, many experts in the college have a different view. Diane Wyatt, retired assistant dean and faculty member of the CAHS, believes that there is nothing to fear. “What I have learned in my 43 years of observation is that automation never replaces anyone in the long term. What it does is allow us to be able to do more things faster, therefore the expectation increases.”

Linda Ross, MS, MLS (ASCP), chairman and associate professor in CLS, agrees with Wyatt’s assessment and added, “It takes the human mind, eye and expertise to determine what is normal, abnormal and what abnormality is. Instruments alone cannot do that.” She further elaborated, “You have to have problem-solving skills and critical thinking to interpret the data being generated.”

As we continue to move forward in the digital age, the teaching methods, learning and delivery of information are constantly changing and evolving … however the spirit and desire of students who choose a career of caring for others as allied health professionals remain the same. After all, the biggest beneficiaries of technological advances in education may be the patients who they will serve.