Search for a pharmacy set which works

March 10, 1995

David Mottram asks if there is a formula for computer-assisted learning in pharmacology that works for both student and teacher.

Undergraduate pharmacy degree courses encompass a wide range of disciplines, which include pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacology, pharmaceutics, pharmaceutical microbiology and professional studies.

In line with other courses, the ever-increasing knowledge base of the subject makes it difficult to avoid over-burdening students with an excessive teaching load. This problem has been compounded by the need to introduce "top-up" tuition for students entering the first year of the course, having come from diverse academic backgrounds.

In part to offset these difficulties, colleagues in schools of pharmacy have been developing computer assisted learning (CAL) programmes over a number of years. Other factors driving these developments have been a dwindling resource base and a desire to capitalise on new information technologies.

This groundswell of interest and expertise was instrumental in the setting up of a pharmacy consortium which won funding in the first round of Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP1) bids in 1992.

The Pharmacy Consortium for Computer Aided Learning (PCCAL) has operated successfully since then. Schools of pharmacy with an established track record in CAL have been involved in program development, with all schools of pharmacy receiving the material produced by the consortium.

Twenty CAL programmes have been completed and 26 are under development. Staff in other academic disciplines and schools of pharmacy abroad are interested in the material.

A second round of TLTP bids was invited in 1993 and a consortium formed of academics from departments in which pharmacology is a taught subject, either in its own right or as a component of a degree course such as medicine or pharmacy.

This consortium won funding from TLTP2 to establish the PharmaCALogy group. There was an overlap between the PCCAL and PharmaCALogy consortia in that pharmacology is a common subject area. This has been recognised and links forged between the two groups. The PharmaCALogy consortium has adopted the PCCAL "house style" with consultation to avoid duplication of effort.

Between the two consortia, there will be a considerable wealth of high quality CAL programmes produced in the next few years. The subject matter will encompass all disciplines within the pharmaceutical sciences. Programmes already developed by PCCAL have included remedial studies for new intake students, material suitable to supplement lectures and simulations of laboratory practical classes. These CAL packages can be incorporated into class situations or used for student self-directed learning.

With all this material available to pharmacy students there are two main questions which need addressing. The first is, to what extent, if any, should CAL-based practical simulations replace hands-on laboratory work? The second is, how should CAL, in its widest form, be incorporated into the pharmacy curriculum, if at all? On the first question, there are many arguments for and against the proposal.

The arguments for replacement Laboratory classes are expensive in terms of staffing (academic and technical) and resources.

l Specialised accommodation is required which does not lend itself to alternative use and which may be occupied for relatively short periods of the academic year.

l Specialised equipment is frequently required which is often expensive and requires periodic upgrading.

l The growth in student numbers may require repeat sessions of laboratory classes adding further to expense.

l Animals or animal tissues are required for many pharmacology-related classes with associated ethical and attitudinal considerations.

l Students often perceive practical classes as being "unsuccessful" due to failure in obtaining "positive" results.

l Using CAL, exercises can be repeated as often as necessary with little additional cost.

l Simulated practicals can be introduced in schools where either the academic expertise or the appropriate facilities are not available.

The arguments against replacement The laboratory provides an active learning environment.

l Students benefit from the staff/student and student/student interactions in the laboratory. Staff/student discussion about CAL programmes tends to occur outside the computer room and can be expensive in staff time.

l Computer simulations do not reflect the "real world" of experimentation.

l By replacing laboratory experimentation, students are ill-prepared for a career in research and/or industry.

l Will students have adequate access to hardware?

l Are students sufficiently motivated for self-directed learning?

l Is the software being produced sophisticated enough and transportable between schools?

Clearly, most arguments in favour of replacing practical work by CAL are driven by resource implications while those against tend to be on educational grounds. If the schools of pharmacy are to continue to produce high-quality pharmaceutical scientists, laboratory skills must remain paramount. There are tremendous differences in the way in which pharmacy is taught. For our European colleagues the general trend is towards a higher staff-student contact time, especially in the laboratory. There are many factors, not least of which is the level of pre-university training.

However, the United Kingdom schools of pharmacy should not further distance themselves from the European trend. A sensible approach would be to use CAL in practical laboratory classes where there is a specific indication.

Indications for the use of CAL may include: l to introduce students to a practical exercise before entering the laboratory.

l to develop experimental design skills.

l to instruct in data collection and handling.

l as a back-up to provide missing or alternative data.

l to provide additional experimental situations otherwise unavailable due to resource and other constraints.

l to encourage group and/or tutorial discussion.

Turning to the second question, of incorporation of CAL programmes into the curriculum, the issues are manifold and relate to quality of presentation, acceptability of the principle by students and staff, finding entry points in the cycle of course development and pressures on curriculum content.

The initial feedback on PCCAL packages by undergraduate pharmacy students has been positive.

To what extent will this enthusiasm be sustained?

If CAL is not part of the timetabled programme of study, how committed will students be to self-directed learning, especially if such study is not directly assessed? How willing are academic staff to embrace a CAL package which has been produced at another department and which may not entirely complement existing course presentations?

Programmes of study are periodically reviewed, though to a variable extent and on a non-standard timescale. It may not therefore be easy to incorporate CAL into the mainstream curriculum, especially with conflicting demands on curriculum time from the constant expansion in subject knowledge base.

There is a proposal to change the pharmacy degree courses in the UK from a three-year to a four-year course of study. This is, in part, to bring the UK in line with pharmacy programmes in Europe.

This would require all UK schools of pharmacy to undergo a radical course review exercise and would provide an ideal opportunity for a planned integration of CAL into undergraduate programmes of study.

With most TLTP1 programmes entering their third year, it is time to reflect on the opportunities presented by the establishment of the initiative.

Some might simply perceive this as being a means to reducing costs in higher education by replacing staff and laboratory facilities with CAL programmes.

A more optimistic view is that it is an opportunity to provide a fully-integrated, high technology platform for face-to-face and self-directed learning.

In the short term, the pharmacy consortium believes the initiative has been highly successful. based on comments from staff and students.

In the longer term, success may be judged on the extent to which some of the issues raised in this article are fulfilled.

The indications are that the short-term gains by PCCAL will be translated into a successful long-term strategy for pharmacy education. However, this will depend on financial support of this venture through continued TLTP funding.

David R. Mottram is reader in pharmacy practice at Liverpool John Moores University.

This article is based on a paper first published in The Pharmaceutical Journal (Educational and Careers supplement, Pharm.J. 1994, 253, E15-E16).

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