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Ed Walker: A Kinder, Gentler Course


Ed Walker
Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences
University of Washington, Seattle Campus

A Kinder, Gentler Course

Ed Walker is one of the first professors medical students will encounter at the University of Washington. His course, HUBIO 516-526 Systems of Human Behavior and Developmental Medicine, offers an alternative to the drill of required anatomy and physiology courses that complete the typical beginning med student’s schedule. HUBIO 516 focuses on treating the entire patient, emphasizing psychological and social factors that relate to medical care. “I teach a course which tries to keep the medical students’ humanism alive over their first year,” says Walker. “Because it competes with several ‘hard science’ courses it had to be twice as good just to be considered half as good-I think the Web allows us to do that.”

Adding the Internet

Walker has employed the Internet to progressively add elements of innovation to the course since first teaching it in 1994. The first year of medical school is taught through the School of Medicine’s decentralized WWAMI program which trains students in a five-state region: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. This course demographic cried out for a Web-based solution. By 1996, Walker decided to test the waters of the World Wide Web, and started looking at what other professors had done with their medical education Web sites. Courses like anatomy and physiology had great Web potential with interactive images and simulations, but how would the Web work for a course that focused on human behavior

He broke the class of 105 students into 14 small groups and assigned each group to review a section of the class learning materials and post a summary, available to all students as a study guide. [image file: walker_en.gif] Additionally, each group offered five study questions designed to get at the heart of the week’s material as well as links to five Web sites relevant to the topic at hand. Walker also posted course readings, lectures and PowerPoint lecture presentations to the Web for student reference. Fearing a decline in attendance with so many resources available online, Walker was pleasantly surprised to find that attendance in lectures actually increased to 85 percent. “That’s because we were able to start using class time for what the students really wanted: applications of their learning with real patients,” Walker explains. “They actually came to class prepared.”

Virtual Clinics on the Web

Walker launched his next exploration into Web-based learning spaces during fall quarter 1998 with the creation of Virtual Clinics. Enlisting the aid of course faculty and attending physicians from area UW clinics, Walker transformed the 14 groups into “clinics.” Using a Web-based discussion board, Walker gave each of the clinic groups weekly “cases” and set them free to make sense of the case through online dialogue with other students and an attending physician. Dr. Walker contributes to each of the 14 discussions, adding further details or counsel when needed.

To encourage students to contribute freely to the clinic discussions, Walker insisted that each participant take on a pseudonym. Walker’s virtual clinics are teeming with comments and questions from the likes of Dr. Strangelove and the Witch Doctor. The pseudonyms have been instrumental in encouraging honest questioning and interplay between notoriously competitive students.

Epiphany in the Lecture Course

Walker foresees adding new features to the virtual clinic environment for next year’s course, including streaming audio and video of patients describing their situation, as well as inclusion of the WWAMI sites in the virtual experience. The addition of virtual clinics has shifted the focus of class time from lecture to discussion of patient/clinic issues, exemplifying the metamorphosis well-designed technology implementation can inspire in teaching and learning.