The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on pharmacy practice across the whole sector. The effect on community pharmacies and pharmacy teams working in NHS hospitals has been well documented, but what has happened to students and staff at pharmacy schools?
The stories of students — freshers in particular — consigned to their halls of residence, miles away from their homes, have made the national press. But pharmacy students are still being taught, just in very different circumstances from those that anyone could have imagined at the beginning of 2020.
The changes to teaching techniques have had to be introduced quickly and across the board, but what has this meant in practical terms for MPharm students and academic staff at the UK’s pharmacy schools?
Providing practical sessions under social distancing requirements clearly poses a significant challenge, and most schools are operating a mixed system of online and face-to-face sessions.
Where face-to-face classes are held, several schools reported that they were repeating sessions more frequently to allow for reduced numbers in teaching rooms.
A spokesperson for the school of pharmacy at Robert Gordon University said that “our laboratories accommodate up to 70 students at a time, but with social distancing, this drops to around 14–16 students. As such, we repeat classes to ensure no student misses out”.
A spokesperson for the University of Wolverhampton said that, on campus, a 25% occupancy limit had been set for classrooms and laboratories.
Only identified key laboratory or communication-related sessions have been able to take place on campus
“Due to the impact of this reduced capacity on both rooming availability and staffing, only identified key laboratory and communication-related sessions have been able to take place on campus, with the remainder being converted to online simulations,” the spokesperson added.
Similarly, at the University of Reading, “social distancing requirements have meant running each practical or workshop several more times than normal, but this has worked extremely well”.
Several schools reported that online alternatives were always offered to practical sessions.
“For any session that could not be delivered on campus, or for those students unable to attend due to COVID-19 circumstances, we created online alternatives to enable every student to meet the learning outcomes,” a spokesperson for the University of Portsmouth’s school of pharmacy said.
UCLan’s spokesperson said that, while practical sessions were mainly run on campus, with social distancing and repeated sessions, “we have also run online lab classes using Labster”.
Some schools had made adjustments to the practical schedule, pushing lab sessions further back in the academic year. “We have adapted our MPharm practical classes in semester A to an online alternative, using innovative technologies,” a spokesperson for the University of Hertfordshire said.
“Semester B will be a blended delivery of face-to-face practicals and an online lecture delivery.”
Huge shift to online teaching
Of the ten pharmacy schools that responded to The Pharmaceutical Journal, half said they had moved all their lectures online, and all said the vast majority were now held virtually.
A spokesperson for the University of Reading’s school of pharmacy said that online lectures had been supplemented with live interactive opportunities, “seminars, question-and-answer sessions and revision sessions”.
The school of pharmacy at the University of Wolverhampton had “worked hard to incorporate videoconferencing software, breakout room/group areas, shared file-creation features, and formative assessment and feedback into the sessions”.
Where schools reported a blended approach of online and face-to-face learning, the in-person elements were reserved for small group sessions.
The University of Nottingham reported that the majority of its lectures “were changed to suit online asynchronous teaching (i.e. broken up and with extra interacting activities added)”, and that synchronous live online lectures were also used. Smaller-group teaching [activities], such as workshops and case studies, were added, sometimes face to face and sometimes online, although “always with a full online option available”.
Final-year projects had been equally affected, with students working digitally, rather than in the lab or on placement. At the University of Brighton, students have been encouraged to use online surveys for data collection — no student has collected data face to face in hospital or community settings.
Some wet lab-based projects have still taken place at Brighton, a spokesperson said, “using a timetabled booking-in approach to maximise lab space and time, while observing social distancing”.
Other schools also reported increased use of similar data collection and analysis-type projects.
“We have tried to limit the requirement to run all traditionally laboratory-based projects on campus by converting them to online simulations,” a spokesperson for the University of Wolverhampton said.
Many science or practice projects can still be delivered, by requiring students to retrieve their results from existing databases
“In general, many science or practice projects can still be delivered, by requiring students to retrieve their results from existing databases.”
Another concern is the ability of pharmacies and pharmacy departments to provide the hands-on training that pharmacy students need, with the range of COVID-19 pressures that they are already working with.
At Cardiff University, a spokesperson said “we have limited our placements in the current semester to settings where our hosts are able to deliver appropriate learning experiences without compromising their delivery of pharmaceutical care, primarily in primary care”.
A spokesperson for UCLan said that it had adapted the way its students could interact outside of the university.
They said the school was “hopeful that some face-to-face placements may take place in semester two”, but said that other placement activities have been delivered. “Third-year students have attended a remote hospital placement; this involved filming prior to the session taking place in our clinical skills suite with staff, and small-group live online sessions with hospital pharmacists.”
Patient–public engagement activities, the spokesperson said, “have been moved online, but are delivered live with our patient members”.
End-of-semester assessments have had to change too. Students at the University of Brighton, Robert Gordon University, Keele University and UCLan will complete all such assessments online. Wolverhampton will run its assessments face to face, using social distancing approaches it piloted over the summer on resit assessments.
A spokesperson for the University of Hertfordshire said that all written exams “will be converted to online case-based assignments”. And at University of Reading, the decision about how exams will be run is still being finalised.
It has certainly been a challenging year for all in the pharmacy sector, not least for those teaching and studying pharmacy. The mechanics of the teaching programme has placed demands on students and teaching staff alike. Cardiff University has had to work with Public Health Wales, the Welsh government, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and Cardiff City Council to ensure its campus is safe — and all that is before any teaching can take place.
Temporary changes could become permanent
However, the necessary adaptations may have fast-forwarded a slightly different way of teaching MPharms in the future.
“We do understand that students’ experience at university will be different this academic year, particularly as we continue to adapt swiftly to the government’s latest guidance,” said a spokesperson for the University of Hertfordshire.
Our students found the transition to online learning earlier this year to be positive
“We are regularly seeking feedback from students, so we can adapt the digital elements of our courses, where needed, to fully meet students’ needs. Recent student surveys show that our students found the transition to online learning earlier this year to be positive, with good provision in place and lots of support available. We will continue to listen, adapting what we offer, and focus on delivering high-quality learning to all of our students.”
And it may be that some new teaching methods brought about in response to the pandemic find a long-term place in pharmacy education, at least at some institutions. “We have had some positive reports from staff and students, who have enjoyed having more small-group teaching,” said a spokesperson for the University of Reading. “We are therefore exploring how we might incorporate more small-group teaching into our programme when social distancing is no longer necessary.”
The student experience
Katy Beeton, a third-year student at the University of East Anglia:
We all learn about time management as students, but this is the ultimate test. You have to stay self-motivated and keep on top of the work. It can be hard to juggle work/life balance — before it was easy to differentiate between time to work and time to relax and do other things, whereas now the day is one big amalgamation.
Lecturers generally share our frustrations with working from home, and have been making the most of utilising online meetings. My advice for students who are struggling is to speak to their lecturers. It is great that at the University of East Anglia, our school has listened to us, and has acted on our feedback.
Liv Allen, a fourth-year student at the University of Huddersfield:
I think most of our module leaders have really understood how difficult the past semester was, and they have provided sufficient support. Only a handful of lecturers have struggled to understand how the pandemic is actually affecting students; they feel ‘online is easier’, so we are getting ‘an easy ride’.
Personally, I feel like the change from on-campus to online has been a difficult one. I saw university as part of my social life; it was a chance to see my friends. Not being able to see them through various lockdowns/tier systems, and also no on-campus teaching, has definitely been hard. The social aspect of my degree used to motivate me.
Vivien Yu, a fourth-year student at Robert Gordon University:
This year has been incredibly tough as a student. I have found it difficult to switch off in between ‘attending’ university and heading to my pharmacy jobs, and trying not to feel guilty having time to myself.
My learning has been impacted as I find it hard to stay motivated staring at a screen and attending online lectures.
Despite the difficulties, I believe the staff and lecturers at Robert Gordon University have adapted incredibly well. We are sent weekly updates of work that we should have completed and work we should complete over the next week. This means we have better control over what deadlines need to be met and when. I also have weekly meetings with my supervisors for my dissertation — an opportunity to ask questions, convey any concerns or receive some reassurance. The staff are always first to offer guidance or an opportunity for a chat, if and when we need it.