Sinclair: Technology only as good as the learning attached

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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For Barb Sinclair, technology – no matter how cool or cutting edged – is only as valuable as the teaching behind it.

“Although we really like technology in classrooms, as an instructor, you have to stop and think about it and look at it in light of your entire plan,” the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing professor said. “What is it you really want to accomplish? You cannot just want to use it because everyone else is and you want to be the coolest instructor in the building.”

At Western, technology has taken on a personal touch for Nursing students.

Among its two simulated teaching facilities, the Simulated Education Suite, located in the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Health Sciences Building, helps students develop the skills and knowledge needed to be successful health-care professionals. Among its most prominent features are programmable simulated patients – true-to-life ‘mannequins’ with vitals like a pulse and blood pressure, and some even blink.

In addition to the mannequins, students work with standardized patients – live people trained to simulate patients with health issues.

These practice runs in the simulation suite are vital to teaching students about the management of complex situations. They provide students with a platform outside the classroom to go deep and apply what they learned in the classroom.

“If students are not involved, they are not getting as much out of it as they could,” said Sinclair, who coordinates simulated clinical education. “I like to give students an opportunity to take ownership for what they are learning.”

Some simulations run 30 minutes; others run similar to a nurse caring for a patient as if they were in a hospital setting for a full morning shift.

“It gets students engaged and lets them apply what they are learning,” she said. “It helps them pull everything together rather than learning disjointed pieces of information they really don’t know how to piece together when they get to a clinical setting.”

Sinclair sees the effectiveness of getting the students out of the classroom and into a hands-on environment. It can be life-changing for them, she said.

“Often, they’ll come in and will be speaking softly or don’t want to speak at all. Then we’ll start seeing smiles. They begin speaking with more confidence; they engage more in the discussions; they start asking more questions,” said Sinclair, who often has students write a ‘one-minute paper’ on their take-aways from the simulation.

“You get some interesting thoughts that way. That’s how we know we’ve really got them – and the biggest thing is when they ask to come back and do this again.

“I love watching students who were struggling with something, who didn’t quite grasp it, then work through something in the simulation lab and all of sudden the lights go on. They come back so confident and wanting to try it again and do more. That’s the best reward of all.”

Sinclair is open to improving the program and, through her research, engaging other educators and her students. This includes embracing new technologies – but only to a point.

“Nothing replaces that human interaction you have with your students – that’s what they need,” she said, adding her students are “not wild” about online courses. “Technology is great, but it’s easy to get too caught up in it.

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and government policy-makers from around the world.

“I want to make sure we’re up to speed. These conferences are valuable to share ideas with colleagues. You learn so much from listening to the trials and tribulations of other people.”

Sinclair admitted she has revamped some of her lesson plans, along with a textbook, specifically from feedback from her students. It pays to get their input, she said.

“If you just think, ‘I know it all, you don’t, and you’ll learn what I tell you you need to learn,’ students don’t respond to that. I’ve learned a lot of things from them. When I thought I explained something clearly, turns out, I didn’t. They will let me know. They want to feel they’re part of the learning process, and they should be.”