How does a university cope with distance learning in the 21st Century?  Dublin Dental University was recently faced with such a challenge when demand for its Dental Nurse Training Programme came from further afield

Dublin Dental University Hospital has a 150-year history of providing excellent patient care and dental education. The Nurse Training Programme was developed in Ireland to meet demand from the profession for a programme to standardise dental nurse training across the country. Students are trainee dental nurses currently employed in practices, who complete the course part-time to gain theoretical, clinical and practical skills and ultimately a formal qualification.  Until recently, the University ran the course as a traditional distance learning programme using a combination of outreach centres and video conferencing. However, there was a growing number of queries from prospective students who wished to be part of the programme but who worked too remotely to make this a reality: even a 6:15pm evening lecture is impossible to attend when held over two hours away from a job that finished at 5:30.

To meet this need and enable more learner to reach their professional goals, the institution decided to implement a virtual classroom system, which had to be simple and user friendly in order to accommodate the varying levels of IT literacy amongst staff and students. Blackboard Collaborate “ticked every box”.

One of the main challenges was how to set up the lecture theatre to incorporate the virtual classroom without disrupting the current lecture delivery. After few tests, the team responsible for the project decided to keep the lecturer behind a podium and have the coordinators tasked with managing student interaction via the laptop.

The day before the first evening lecture using Blackboard Collaborate, distance learning students were invited to attend an online training session to introduce them to the software, while course coordinator received a guide for future reference as well as a checklist of the equipment to be used each week. This way the students were then confident they would be able to log in successfully the next day and were interested in the new approach.

Being a virtual classroom system, the lecturers usually have little idea about what is happening at the student’s location. Therefore they appreciated Collaborate features such as emoticons, which help judge what is going on and see whether students understand. The “raise your hand” button was also popular as it has the same effect as raising a hand in a classroom and the “away” button enabled lecturers that were polling students to see why someone might not answer or take part.

Throughout the implementation process the team continually sought feedback from staff and students and were pleased with responses received.  Lecturers reported that there was little or no impact on the delivery of their lecture, the coordinators were comfortable with the training and support they were given and the distance learning students were happy with the quality of the system. Moreover, the introduction of distance learning via Blackboard Collaborate has allowed the team to review and expand its online teaching and learning activities and webinar sessions have also been introduced for student training and lecture delivery.

The integration has been a success and the overall goal of the National Dental Nurse Training Programme of Ireland to offer dental nursing training to a wider group of students is being met.  There are the additional benefits of improving the community interaction between lecturers, students and staff and the team is positive about using Blackboard Collaborate to continue to expand the work and the reach of the programme.

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