Delivering curriculum in a pandemic

Course directors leverage technology resources to teach online for summer

by Michele Berhorst  •  September 23, 2020

Right to left: Clare Lassiter, OTD/S '22, and her 9-year-old daughter, Camila, demonstrate a gross motor development position they learned during a Zoom session for the Evaluation and Intervention: Children and Youth course.

In 2019, a new class was created as part of the Program in Occupational Therapy’s curriculum renewal – Evaluation and Intervention: Children and Youth. Course directors Wanda Mahoney, PhD, OTR/L, associate professor of occupational therapy and medicine, and Betsy Hawkins-Chernof, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SCSS, occupational therapist, worked with two other faculty members, Jessie Bricker, OTD, OTR/L, and Lauren Milton, OTD, OTR/L, for about a year to plan the intensive, six-credit course to be taught to first-year students in the summer.

“In the legacy curriculum, the intervention piece of pediatric content was spread out among several courses. In the renewed curriculum, we wanted a course focused specifically on evaluation and education with children and youth,” Mahoney explains. “The plan was to send students in small groups of 10 a couple times per week to sites such as daycares, summer camps and agencies to observe typical development, peer interaction and help set up activities to engage with the children.”

But as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the St. Louis region in March 2020, the sites were unable to commit to summer programming. Mahoney and Hawkins-Chernof had to let that part of their plans go even before Washington University made the decision to move all their summer courses online.

“At that point, we asked ourselves: What essential learning experiences do the students need, and how do we recreate them virtually?” Hawkins-Chernof says. “We were adamant to keep the small group experience for feedback and discussions with a clinical mentor. To make it work in the Zoom environment, each mentor had two groups of about five students in two-hour blocks. One group worked on an activity for the first hour while the mentor worked with the other group, then they’d switch for the second hour.”

Another challenge they faced was curating a video library to replace the in-person experiences at the sites. Mahoney and Hawkins-Chernof enlisted Program colleagues and a doctoral student completing her capstone to review and help compile the video library from various sources.

“We relied on Simucase, subscription sources and YouTube videos to find short occupational therapy sessions and videos to demonstrate typical child development,” Mahoney says. “The textbook we used had a case video compendium as well.” The process of creating an online course was familiar to Mahoney but not to Hawkins-Chernof; however, she leveraged her professional development background, where she had created training videos. “There is a lot of work on the front end. It’s almost like designing a website and a textbook all at once,” she says. For many students, [attending] online-only courses was a new experience as well. “Some had taken self-directed online courses such as medical terminology for one or two credits, but nothing like this intense, six-credit course.”

Mahoney and Hawkins-Chernof started the course with the whole group participating in activities in one large Zoom meeting. “I taught the gross motor activity in this format so we could all be ‘on the floor’ together completing the movements. The students worked out their computer logistics ahead of time to get their devices set up to participate,” Mahoney recalls. “A fun thing that spontaneously happened was the young children of some of our students decided they wanted to do the activity with their parent, so they ended up demonstrating the movements too.”

To keep the course engaging, Hawkins-Chernof used apps such as Padlet to virtually recreate activities such as her popular Assistive Technology Maker Day. “It ended up making the activity more authentic because, in reality, there is no ‘pop-up makerspace’ with all these materials at your disposal. The students had to use whatever they had at home, and they made devices with rubber bands and cardboard. We will still have an in-person Maker Day, but this put a real twist on what we normally do.”

Throughout the course, Mahoney and Hawkins-Chernof were cognizant of how the pandemic and the societal unrest following the death of George Floyd were affecting the students’ stress levels and mental health. “To accommodate, we built in a lot more flexibility than [we] would typically do such as granting extensions for assignments. We held Zoom office hours twice a week so students could ‘check in’ with us about any concerns they were having. Most emails were answered within two hours.” Mahoney says. Hawkins-Chernof adds: “I spent a lot of time checking in with my lab students and having individual meetings with them. I even mailed a student a Green Bay Packers mask that I made since she saw mine and wanted one. Whatever we could to support the students, we wanted to do it.”

That commitment to providing the best possible learning experience for students is what drove Mahoney and Hawkins-Chernof through the process. “As occupational therapists, being flexible and adapting to unexpected situations are what we do best. We wanted to make the online course intensive, robust and interactive as much as we could using the technology and resources available. I think we accomplished that and more,” Mahoney says.

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