Tech syncs students, professors in real time

(Calgary) The University of Alberta’s physical therapy program will expand to Calgary this fall, allowing students and professors from three cities to stay in sync in real time over geographic distances.

The Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine on June 12 announced the expansion of its master of physical therapy program by adding a new Calgary satellite classroom to existing Edmonton and Camrose sites. Students and professors from all three cities will interact using real-time synchronous video conferencing technology.

“Expanding to Calgary ensures we are able to meet the expectations of Albertans and create a workforce that is going to serve the physical therapy needs of the whole province,” said Martin Ferguson-Pell, dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

The technology not only addresses a need for trained physical therapists throughout Alberta, but also avoids the challenges of creating standalone programs in other centres.

“We can expand our class size without building bigger classrooms or dealing with the logistical issues of getting larger and larger groups of students together,” said Ferguson-Pell. “There's a substantial efficiency.”

The faculty launched its first synchronous satellite two years ago at the Augustana Campus, where 12 students in Camrose and another 80 in Edmonton participated in the same classroom lectures and labs using live video conferencing. The technology allows specialist professors in Edmonton to teach students in both locations, in addition to professors with more general training in Camrose.

Ferguson-Pell called the technology a unique solution to the current scarcity of professors qualified to teach physical therapy specialities like pediatrics or cardiac rehabilitation. This program allows the faculty to use existing resources while meeting a growing demand for training.

He added that the technology far exceeds standard online or distance learning, and that the experience gained in Camrose proved the technology is reliable and on time, and is not a distraction to learning.

“It’s live, it’s interactive, it’s sort of like broadcasting—it’s nearly like being there. It’s a class in its usual form meeting in a usual setting. All the benefits of a class dynamic are preserved.”

Mary McEwan is not one to call herself technologically savvy, but any reservations she had about the technology quickly faded when she realized the power of the real-time capabilities allowed her and her fellow students in Camrose to learn and participate like their peers in Edmonton.

“We always get the front-row seats and the best view,” said McEwan, who just finished her first year in the program. “The mike goes both ways, so if we have a question or need something repeated, the professor is more than willing.”

An added benefit is the small groups of students in each location and smaller student-to-instructor ratios. “We definitely get the benefit of having that,” McEwan said. “When we go to the lab it’s a 12-to-one ratio of someone teaching us.”

As part of their training, students are required to work 31 weeks in a clinical physical therapy setting. Many choose placements close to school, meaning there’s a strong demand for spots in Edmonton, Ferguson-Pell said.

Expanding to Calgary gives students more flexibility and forges stronger ties to the clinical community, which tends to hire the best students from each placement, he said.

“We’re trying to make sure we provide a more equal opportunity across the province,” he said. “It’s a daring step to go to a third site, but we’re very confident it’s going to be as successful as the Camrose site.”