ACSME Panel – Roy Hall, UQ

Virtual Virology

My name is Roy Hall and I’m Professor of Virology at the University of Queensland. I co-ordinate the third year virology course (125-150 students) in the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences.

In addition to the weekly lecture series, a key aspect of the course is a 6 week laboratory component that consists of practical sessions that teach the students basic virology techniques and actively involves them in research (based around these techniques) where the students perform some of the experiments of an actual research project that is carried out in my lab and the lab of another lecturer in the course.

We were 3 weeks into the semester and half way through the 6-week practical component when the COVID-19 restrictions came into force at UQ in late March 2020.  The course then went completely online for the remainder of the semester and all contact sessions for the course ceased – this included face-to-face lectures and all lab practicals.

For lectures we had the option of delivering live Zoom sessions in the normal lecture time slot or, where appropriate, uploading recorded versions of the lectures from the previous year. So this wasn’t a big issue.

However, the interruption to the practical sessions was a bigger problem.  The only resources available to the students for the remaining 3 weeks of the practical sessions (that they could not attend) were the notes in the practical manual. In an effort to provide the students with sufficient exposure to the practical aspects they would miss, and give them a reasonable technical understanding, we decided to provide a virtual “over the shoulder” perspective of the practical work to give them the closest possible experience to doing it themselves. This would also allow them to complete their practical report write ups which were a major part of the course assessment. 

With the aid of our lab tutors, practical prep staff and other teaching colleagues in the course, we produced a series of short videos that covered the 3 practical sessions the students could not attend, including the technical practicals and the experiments involved in the research project.  This was a serious rush job – all conceived, filmed, narrated and edited in 2 weeks.  Filming was done with a mobile phone with narration inserted later by me and then the whole thing edited by my resident media expert (my son Tobias). The edited version included “still frames” that captured all the raw data they needed for their calculations, results descriptions and figure preparation and for discussing their results. At appropriate places in the video I also posed relevant questions for the students to consider on a specific concept or to provide an answer in their reports. Each week in place of the practical session we conducted a live zoom tutorial (with Q&A) on the practical after the students had the opportunity to view the video for that session. The youtube videos can be found here for reference:

Considering the limited time and lack of production quality, the outcome was surprisingly effective with very positive feedback from the students. We will now make more polished, and more generic versions of these videos for use in subsequent semesters so the students can view them before coming into the lab and performing the experiments themselves. It should prove a much more effective preparation than simply reading the notes in the practical manual.

Of course the other big change for the course was the online exam format – one of the options included ProctorU – a closed-book, online “invigilated“ format  where students were monitored for possible cheating via the camera on their computer. For obvious reasons the proposed use of this format did not go over well with many students (and teaching staff) in the course so we opted for a non-invigilated, open book exam that is undertaken online at a set time. While the requirement for the students to type their answers and the ability to edit and better organise their thoughts makes for easier marking for the examiners, the format also allows students to cut and paste sections of text from any source into the answer box – a bit of a plagiarism issue.

The online exam marking, which was new to me and most of the teaching staff in the course, turned out to be a lot easier than I had expected and went quite smoothly – also a lot easier for the admin staff to collate the results – a good way forward for the future.

The short essay and MCQ exam questions were mostly framed and formatted in a similar way to last years closed-book, invigilated exam. In retrospect, they could have been better formulated to the open book, online exam style. As you might expect the grade distribution was skewed significantly to the right – but the students weren’t complaining.  

While we had some major unexpected challenges through the semester, with a lot of help from the teaching and admin staff in the school we eventually got there.