Using Simultaneous Polls to Bridge Vast Distances

Sometimes even the experts need experts.

At the School of Medicine at Flinders University in Australia, lecturers connect with students not only on the campus in Darwin, but also with students in distant Adelaide, through e-learning technologies including interactive slides, videoconferencing, and polling software.

Connecting medical experts and students at these campuses over 1,880 miles apart (and some 35 hours distant by car) is not just a national, but a continental, challenge.

HelenEnter Helen Wozniak, Senior Lecturer and Academic Director of e-Learning for the Flinders University Medical Program in the Northern Territory. After working and teaching in the medical and health professions for over 20 years, Helen moved to her current position in order to address this challenge and answer the key questions.

How can technology connect people across a country so that they feel like they’re getting personal attention?

And, how can this technology be used so that the experts (in this case MD lecturers) can spend less time worrying about distance and more time sharing their specialized knowledge?

Familiar technology and processes

Stressing collaboration and interaction, Helen uses the tools at her disposal (including a Poll Everywhere account housed in Darwin) to make sure that learning in the program is consistent, efficient, and engaging.

The ease of use for instructors and 90% participation rate of students synchronously using personal laptops and mobile devices attests to the conclusion that her methods are working.

“The thing that attracted me to Poll Everywhere was that you could embed it into a PowerPoint, because for the doctors, that’s how they teach.” And students, she says, were already using things like Facebook to communicate, so the idea of long-distance interaction was second nature. As a result, the marriage of familiar technologies and specialized content was an easy one.

Flinders University employs practicing doctors who deliver specialized content each week. As a result, some doctors only teach one class a semester, and some have little to no teaching training at all. Where Helen comes in is to act as in intermediary, helping to increase the engagement potential between interesting content and interested students.

Personal mediation

Helen’s role is unique: she acts as a third party, connecting instructors delivering content to their students who learn through a variety of face-to-face and distance learning techniques. The preparation for the seamless process starts well before students enter the lecture halls.

Lecturers create course content which typically includes clinically based patient cases to illustrate key concepts and medical decisions (typically in the form of PowerPoint slides), and then share that content and suggested interactive questions with Helen. Though she is not an IT-person at the university, she attempts to assess the learning situation and best match the technology she’s familiar with to the intended learning outcomes.

Dr Jill Carr lecturing to year 1 medical students from Adelaide to Darwin

Dr Jill Carr lecturing to year 1 medical students from Adelaide to Darwin

In many cases, this involves Helen creating multiple-choice polls or open-ended question polls for students to answer in an embedded slideshow. She instructs lecturers on how to use the poll, but goes one step further: Helen, along with students, attends the lectures that she oversees, monitors students’ participation, and then takes screenshots of results to embed in final drafts of the slides which are provided to students in the Learning Management System along with a recording of the lecture.

The result is a personal interaction that spans a country, and allows lecturers and students to focus on the course content instead of the delivery systems and pedagogy.

Real-time adjustments

Some lectures comprise over one hundred students in multiple locations across the vast country, and lecturers who may “not know how to teach most effectively.” This is where Helen’s experience with e-learning can bring people together.

One particularly successful example involved Helen connecting lecturers and students across four separate locations synchronously and simultaneously.

The poll she created asked students to select what stage they had completed of a 6-step assessment task. As students responded anonymously via the Internet, tutors were able to display the results in a live poll embedded in a PowerPoint slide, assess and discuss their progress with the assessment , and adjust the day’s tutorial session to include the steps where the majority of students were in their assessment.

According to Helen, “this ensured that the remaining time in the face-to-face session[s] could be used efficiently by focusing specifically on students’ current needs.” In other words, live polling connected distant classrooms and enabled them to be more efficient and engaging.

Poll used to capture student progress in an assessment item

Poll used to capture student progress in an assessment item

Helping the experts

Connecting people with similar interests and experiences to one another across time and space is the utopian dream of social technology. It holds promise for deepening bonds, producing new knowledge, and driving behaviors in constructive and malleable ways.

Helen’s continuing experiences highlight the role that technology can play in connecting distant populations, and increasing collaborative decision-making. Her involvement with instructors and students before and after classes further demonstrates how even dispersed communities can successfully engage through challenging content and circumstances with the help of the right people and tools.