Georgia CTSA Successfully Transitions to Online Learning

"Classes relatively seamlessly have transitioned to an online platform." "Online classes are equally good. Instructors have adapted." "Clear communication about changes." "Everyone has been very flexible." These are comments from MSCR and CPTR students who transitioned to online learning.

Halfway through the Spring 2020 semester, the Georgia Clinical & Translational Science Alliance (Georgia CTSA) Master in Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) and Certificate Program in Translational Research (CPTR) programs made a quick, yet smooth, transition to online learning. When COVID-19 hit, the students were on Spring Break and the Research Education program had two weeks to plan and move all courses online for remote learning for the remainder of the semester.

Several MSCR faculty already had extensive experience teaching online classes. While the switch to 100% remote learning in Spring 2020 was sudden, professors sharing their prior online experiences helped allow for a smooth transition. Azhar Nizam, MS, Senior Associate, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, Emory University, who teaches the MSCR Biostatistics and Data Management courses has a 7-year history of distance learning through teaching his MSCR courses to students in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the country Georgia. Nizam gave a “lessons learned” presentation to other MSCR faculty before the switch to online learning. Tips included how to use pre-recorded or live web class sessions with a moderator, Zoom meetings for office hours, and Canvas for homework and tests.

A Georgia CTSA KL2 Scholar enrolled in the MSCR program, Andrea Sikora Newsome, had been piloting the use of Zoom since she works at the UGA campus in Athens, Georgia over 65 miles away from the on-campus classes at Emory. Newsome’s experience was especially helpful to the Georgia CTSA Research Education Program in making the quick transition to Zoom.

“The transition to e-learning was almost seamless and went extremely well. I appreciated the faculty's ability to gather feedback during the transition to online learning. For example, we had a lab where we used to do it live. The first time virtually, we just watched someone else go through it. After receiving our feedback, the professor added time for independent work so we could try it out which was valuable,” remarks Andrea Sikora Newsome, PharmD, Clinical Assistant Professor, and Critical Care Clinical Pharmacist, University of Georgia, and current Georgia CTSA KL2 Scholar and MSCR student.

After a few weeks into remote instruction, Robin McGee, PhD, MPH, Research Assistant Professor, Emory University, and Lead Evaluator of the Georgia CTSA Research Education Programs conducted an interim assessment for students to provide feedback on their experience to make changes if needed. The students responded to a short questionnaire focused on the transition to remote learning, what challenges they were facing, and any additional steps to take, which informed the teachers’ work for the remainder of the semester. This assessment provided a good point to see what was working well, areas that could be improved, and an overall check-in. Most students reported the Research Education program’s response to the transition to remote learning was “Excellent” (71%) or “Good” (25%). Students reported perceiving a high level of support provided by the program. While some students reported connectivity issues and difficulty determining the best way to ask questions, the students reported being moderately engaged and motivated.

At the end of the semester, two open-ended questions about the experience with remote learning were added to the normal end of course evaluations. The students mentioned clear communication about the changes and the flexibility the instructors were offering. Although some commented that discussion and engagement were harder in a remote environment, other students responded that the online classes were equally as good.

“According to the qualitative feedback we received in the evaluations, some instructors did pre-recorded lectures and posted those for students to review, which were appreciated. Students said that it was helpful to be able to go back and review the content that was shared on those recorded videos,” comments McGee. “Overall, the students’ feedback was positive. They said online learning worked well and transitioned well. Some students also appreciated the added flexibility to complete the courses from their location. Instructors also stated how well the students transitioned. The professors were grateful for the students’ flexibility and commitment. It was a mutual appreciation in many cases.”

Nizam adds, “Moving forward, it is clear that remote learning will be with us to stay, for at least a while. For students in the MSCR program, the opportunity to attend classes remotely, watch recordings of sessions for reinforcement or to make up missed classwork, and to get timely help from classmates and instructors through discussion boards or live online office hours provides important flexibility as they try to balance heavy schedules and work demands with courses. For instructors, the continued move to remote learning provides a valuable opportunity to re-evaluate course materials - to think about whether course notes and assessments will be as effective in the remote learning world as they would have been in a traditional classroom setting, and to update and improve them where necessary.”

A recent NCATS supplement also helped lay the groundwork for Georgia CTSA’s ability to go online due to the pandemic much faster than expected. In December 2019, Georgia CTSA announced a new online educational exploration, Introduction to Clinical and Translational Research. This freely available educational resource was funded through an NCATS supplement and was designed to reach a broad audience interested in learning basic, foundational knowledge regarding clinical and translational research, including trainees engaging in science for the first time, research workforce looking to advance their knowledge, and those beginning to think about applying for more advanced, formal training. Other CTSA hubs including Columbia University have expressed interest in using all or part of these materials for their online education programs.

The creator and instructor of this online exploration, Jordan Kempker, MD, MSc, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Emory University, says, "The Georgia CTSA continues to develop its expansive vision of providing diverse and excellent educational opportunities in clinical and translational science across the entire state of Georgia and beyond."

The Emory Master of Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) degree program, in the Laney Graduate School at Emory University, provides innovative didactic and mentored research training to those interested in pursuing a career in clinical and/or translational research. The MSCR degree is designed for predoctoral, postdoctoral trainees, and junior faculty from Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Tech and UGA.

The Certificate Program in Translational Research (CPTR) is a formal 16-credit Emory Laney Graduate School program for trainees who seek to conduct research at the interface between basic and translational science and clinical medicine. The CPTR enhances and transforms translational research training for predoctoral PhD and PharmD students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty at Emory, MSM, Georgia Tech, and UGA College of Pharmacy.

The Georgia CTSA is a statewide partnership between Emory, MSM, Georgia Tech, and UGA and is one of over 60 in a national consortium striving to improve the way biomedical research is conducted across the country. The consortium, funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Translational Science Awards, shares a common vision to translate laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research efforts, and train the next generation of clinical investigators. For more information, click here.