Saturday, February 27, 2010

Virtual birthing unit goes international

Last week I was invited to join Associate Professor Lisa Hanson and her two midwifery students Milwaukee, USA, as they had a class in the virtual birthing unit. This was a significant event for the virtual birthing unit because it was the first time it had been used for a 'formal' teaching session, as opposed to being part of a evaluation project. It was also the first time (to my knowledge) that it was used by midwifery educators and students outside New Zealand.

Some thoughts about teaching in the Second Life birthing unit

This was the first time I was able to observe the scenario being played out without taking an active part as the 'teacher'. A few things struck me during our two hour session.
  1. Things work so much better if the teacher and students have had a little experience in Second Life before they start to work in the birth unit. The scenario is very complex and will be extremely off-putting to people who have had no experience of Second Life. Lisa and her students had done some preparatory work, and it made things run a lot smoother.
  2. Students and teachers should make themselves familiar with how the scenario works before they come into Second Life - full instructions can be found in the project pages in Wikieducator - so they have some idea of what to expect.
  3. Each scene takes about two hours, which includes getting orientated to the scenario, working through the scene and debriefing afterwards.
  4. The two people working through the scene can be supported, 'coached' and prompted by private instant message - the coaching can also be done in local chat so everyone sees the comments and questions that are being asked.
  5. The debrief session after each scene was really valuable because Lisa was able to ask the students questions and give them supporting information which enhanced what happened during the scene. This was especially interesting for me to observe. I had designed the scenario so that students could work there without a lecturer. However, I felt that valuable learning went on with Lisa, who is an experienced educator and midwife, who was able to coach and stretch the students to go one step further in their thinking, both in the scene and in the debrief. I was thinking that matching senior students with junior students might work really well - that the senior student is the coach in place of the lecturer. This would give the senior student the opportunity to develop 'teaching' skills and provide ongoing support for the junior students.
  6. The first scene that enables students to work through a phone call from a woman in early labour is really valuable. Students do not often get the opportunity to assess women on the phone, so this scene gives them an authentic learning opportunity. That first phone call can set the scene for a woman's labour and birth, so it is important that midwifery students know how to assess a woman's progress by telephone, and make decisions accordingly.
  7. The scenes need to be developed and further variables added to give the scenario more depth and complexity - this will make the scenario even more re-usable and prevent students getting bored with seeing the same information time and time again.

Personal thoughts
I am thrilled to say the least that the birth unit is being used by midwifery educators. I would have been gutted it became an empty virtual relic after all the time, effort and money that went into its development.

I had heaps of fun working with Lisa and the students, and felt very privileged to be included in their lesson. I also marvel at the wonders of modern technology that allowed me to sit in my kitchen in Dunedin, New Zealand and be part of the learning experience of students based in the USA. To me, this international collaboration and cooperation is a very powerful learning opportunity for the midwifery profession.

Future collaboration and research
Lisa and I are looking to develop a research proposal so that we can look at learning outcomes when Lisa uses the birth unit later this year with a bigger class of students. What I want to know is exactly how it helps students and what effect, if any, it has on grades, levels of knowledge and understanding, and clinical competence and confidence.

There is a need to obtain funding to further develop the scenario without taking outside the realms of normal birth. This is something I feel I need to look at fairly urgently this year.

Further reading
If you are interested in teaching and learning in Second Life, I would suggest you have a look at this free, online book: Best practices in virtual worlds teaching.

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