Enjoying my front row seat to the changing technology landscape

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Recently, I heard Steven Luck, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, speak at a symposium sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Gateway Sciences Initiative. He talked about the process of hybridizing one of his giant lecture-style undergraduate introductory psychology courses into a blended course where students watch video lectures independently and then attend face-to-face seminars. Because I’m in the process of adding teaching to my professional skillset, I was particularly interested in his talk.

The story he told about the transformation of his course was interesting and instructive. But what piqued my curiosity was his comment about his students’ inability to understand and explain journal articles. He seemed surprised at their inabilities, whereas I thought it seemed expected. If you don’t know how to use a hammer, after all, how do you synthesize the meaning of a nail?

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I certainly wasn’t proficient in these skills. In fact, I didn’t achieve proficiency until my PhD coursework was completed last year. At first, this realization was a little embarrassing. Then I lined up my early academic pursuits and professional experience with a technology development timeline and realized that peer-reviewed literature is simply more accessible now.

Let me put this comparative timeline in perspective. When I was studying to be a nurse, the Internet as we know it did not exist and personal computers were not widely available. The University of Michigan School of Nursing—where I pursued my bachelor of science in nursing from 1983 to 1987—provided students access to Apple Macintoshes that had just debuted in 1984. They were essentially fancy calculators and typewriters that had to be booted with a floppy disk. In other words, they were not networked to the world. As a result, researching material for course papers was time consuming because it was done by hand. Believe it or not, I used giant periodical reference volumes to identify articles. Then I combed the stacks in the library to find them.

Commercial Internet providers didn’t enter the scene until the early 1990s while I was doing graduate work at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (now the Bloomberg School of Public Health). Despite these apparent obstacles, I used peer-reviewed literature in my nursing and public health studies, but the process of obtaining journal articles was arduous.

Following graduate school, I worked as a public health consultant working for John Snow, Inc. and our full-time reference librarian magically conducted Medline searches for staff and obtained the articles we requested. When I look back on those days, I realize that I was spoiled. Of course, I searched the Internet for grey literature myself, but peer-reviewed literature was essentially available only through the gateway of the librarian. That is, of course, until the era of Open Access dawned. At first, my U.S.-based colleagues were skeptical of the quality of papers published for a fee. But because I worked with professionals in low- and middle-income countries and lived through the era of limited access to peer-reviewed literature, my feeling was that Open Access was a blessing—as long as quality could be maintained.

Now I’m deep into my doctoral studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and I have ready access to peer-reviewed literature in a snap. The Welch Medical Library provides a vast array of electronic material with just a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes. It’s amazing! This unparalleled access has transformed my ability to obtain journal articles.

Every day, I’m grateful for the technological advances that have made accessing the literature a snap. When I’m faced with a scientific question or the need to substantiate a point for a grant application or manuscript, I can quickly lay my eyes on a set of recently published or classic articles. What was previously a rather cumbersome process is now fast and fluid. Advances in technology ease the process of mining for articles. However, high-quality instruction is responsible for my ability to analyze and use the peer-reviewed literature.

These reflections mirror key points from Dr. Luck’s presentation on hybrid courses. Technology contributes to providing content and old-fashioned face-to-face instruction teaches you how to evaluate and use it. Simply having online access to lecture videos does not enable undergraduate students to thoroughly learn introductory psychology. And simply having online access to millions of peer-reviewed papers does not enable graduate students to understand and apply content. The hybridization of education is inescapable. Students need both rapid access to information through technological platforms and they need high-quality instruction from educators dedicated to developing students’ capacity. I’m fortunate to have access to both.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: PAULA NERSESIAN

Paula is a Johns Hopkins School of Nursing PhD Candidate. Her research focuses on the relationship between loneliness, and other social determinants of health, and systemic inflammation linked to cardiovascular disease.

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