Harvard Reviews the Effectiveness of Its Pandemic Virtual Learning Models

Dentistry Today


As COVID-19 required dental schools to move to virtual and other alternatives to traditional learning models, the Harvard School of Dental Medicine examined what works well and what needs improvement as the pandemic continues to best train the next generation of clinicians.

“As we all know, dental education has a very interactive curriculum and invaluable aspects to faculty-student interactions that can never be replaced,” said lead author and project leader Hiroe Ohyama, DDS, MMSc, PhD, DMD.

“However, we needed to establish effective alternative educational environments and tools,” continued Ohyama, who also is an assistant professor of restorative dentistry and biomaterials sciences and director of predoctoral operative dentistry.

Ohyama immediately recognized that her students felt distant, both literally and figuratively, and realized her students needed more communication and to be included in the process of examining new learning models.

“We conducted several survey studies remotely, but together. We learned the importance of minimizing student fatigue and improving student engagement during remote lectures and the advantage of faculty giving lectures with more case-based interactive activities, among other findings,” said Ohyama.

In “Student Perceptions of Distance Learning Strategies During COVID-19,” the researchers documented the reality of “Zoom fatigue” that has led to student burnout and a perceived decrease in engagement and material retention.

“The major findings highlight the need to incorporate interactive components to online classes like case-based components, small group discussions, and ungraded quizzes, and utilizing technology to enhance the experience such as 3-D models and Zoom tools like polling and breakout rooms,” said Emily Chen, class of 2021, and Kristie Kaczmarek, class of 2023.

“The most surprising finding was that students reported similar comfort participating during recorded and non-recorded lectures. Students emphasized the utility of re-watching recorded lectures for clarification,” added Kaczmarek.

In “Students’ Perceptions on Dental Education in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” students Emily Van Doren of the class of 2022 and Jennifer Lee and Leela Breitman of the Class of 2021 examined the intersection of COVID-19 with the growing role of digital and internet technologies in dental academia.

The students discovered that digital and online technologies are playing an increasingly important role in predoctoral dental education but that their efficacy and application varied between class years. Their findings pointed to online educational tools being most helpful to students in the preclinical portion of their dental education.

“We believe that online educational technology is a powerful tool that can be harnessed to dramatically improve dental education in and beyond the coronavirus pandemic,” the students wrote.

“We hope that our research encourages dental educators to explore applications of these new and innovative technologies in the dental classroom,” they added.

While tackling online learning was one challenge, testing the retention of that knowledge is another, Harvard said.

The objective structured clinical examination (OSCE), an assessment that measures clinical competence by physically rotating students through multiple stations, can be daunting for students even in normal conditions, the dental school continued.

But with the school closed for in-person exams, faculty had to device a method to administer the OSCE remotely.

In “Implementing an Online OSCE During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” faculty authors Dr. Rahen Kakadia and Ohyama shared the tools and techniques they used to restructure the OSCE, while student Emily Chen of the class of 2021 provided a student perspective.

Along with supporting staff from the Office of Dental Education, Kakadia used Zoom breakout rooms and rotated students through private virtual sessions. 

“We rallied the efforts of faculty and staff to use Zoom in an innovative way, and the OSCE was a success overall for both faculty and students,” said Chen. “[With this publication] we wanted to provide other educators with our process and lessons learned so that this project could contribute to the improvement of dental education for years to come.”

Faculty and students continue to collaborate on additional publications that will inform the future of dental education, the school said.

“I greatly appreciate all the students from classes 2021 to 2024 who have participated in and supported this research,” Ohyama said. “I would also like to thank our supportive HSDM leadership and contributing faculty and staff who continue to make distance learning successful during the pandemic.”

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