A Seamless Transition

DPT@USC’s hybrid pathway eased the transition to online instruction during COVID-19.

BY MICHELLE McCARTHY
April 15, 2020

“I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t had a meeting in a robe,” says Didi Matthews ’99, DPT ’02. The clinical associate professor of physical therapy at USC is among millions of Americans who are adapting to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t have a home office, so I set up a makeshift space in my bedroom so I can close the door,” Matthews adds. “I have three small children, elementary age, and one junior high school student, as well as a husband who’s working, and we’re all at home together.”

When DPT students started online coursework on March 23, Matthews found herself prepared for the transition to online instruction for residential pathway students normally taught on campus — thanks to the fact that the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy had converted virtually all doctor of physical therapy courses to accommodate online consumption over the past three years for its hybrid online/on-campus DPT pathway.

“I felt really quite confident,” Matthews says. “I, along with a team of faculty, had already developed my course into an online format, and I knew what we had developed was pedagogically sound.”

Although Christopher Powers PhD ’96, associate chair and professor of the Movement Analysis series, considers himself a novice at teaching online, he says his switch was also quite smooth.

“We have great IT support,” he says. “We already have the infrastructure in place for this, so it’s just been a really easy transition.”

The hard part is not being able to see his students. “With a class of 98, it’s hard to see who you’re talking to,” he says. “In person, you can read whether or not students are engaged.”

Fortunately, online summer courses will now run with a 12-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio for the residential pathway. This ratio — used in the hybrid pathway for the past two years — has shown to be highly effective for creating a successful learning environment.

Life off campus

Tuesday, March 10, was the last day students reported to campus for normal class activities. The university used the subsequent three days as a test run to ensure everyone was able to utilize Zoom, a remote conferencing service, to hold and attend classes.

To better prepare residential students for online learning, first- and second-year hybrid pathway students held a “Zoom Crash Course and Transition to Hybrid Learning” for their peers.
During the course, the hybrid students shared creative study habits, time management skills, tips for navigating Zoom and strategies to avoid feeling cooped up at home, explains Jason Tabor DPT ’22, a hybrid pathway student.

“With 70-plus students in attendance, we received great questions and engagement throughout the session,” he says. “It’s a great example of how amazing this Trojan Family is at coming together to aid in everyone’s continued success in the program.”

Residential pathway student Gagan Sidhu DPT ’21 is sheltering in place with her family in a small town outside of Salinas, Calif.

She is now using the common area in her family home as a workspace, which has a long desk with enough room for her and her sister, Aman, who attends UC Davis. “I do have to say refilling my coffee cup has been a lot easier with me being at home,” she says, with a laugh. While Sidhu had experience watching lectures online in the past, the change to full-time learning has had its set of pros and cons.

“The time between waking up and showing up for class is a lot shorter and requires less energy,” she says. “I’ve found ways to be able to make sure I’m mentally ready for class and alert and ready to learn. I’ll walk around my house and get myself a cup of coffee. The hardest part is the amount of screen time and that you’re doing classes alone versus having 95 other people around you doing the same thing.”

A new kind of normal

As an extrovert, Gary Chen, DPT ’22, says he misses the face-to-face interaction with classmates and professors. While sheltering in place in Currie Hall across the street from campus, he’s been making a concerted effort to go through his normal morning routine. “It sets me up for the day versus just rolling out of bed and then getting to work,” he says. “But there have been days when I don’t change my clothes because I reason to myself, ‘I’m not leaving the house.’”

For Chen, the most difficult aspect of learning from home is not being able to practice hands-on skills. “The profession of physical therapy relies heavily on our ability to use our hands and eyes and observe what our patient needs to be treated for,” he says. “Getting the repetitions in for skills and manual therapy is what’s hard about moving online.”

To follow California’s “Safer at Home” mandates, the division has frontloaded all didactic instruction, moving hands-on clinical skill instruction back to when it’s safe to return to the school and clinical education sites.

Students who are taking Matthews’ course, Clinical Management of the Patient with Neurologic Dysfunction, are receiving 80 percent of the course online. “We’re going to do the remaining 20 percent they would get in immersion at a later time when they can return back to campus,” she explains.

Working together through change

Using the hybrid online class structure, students will typically watch several short (5- to 8-minute) pre-recorded lectures on their own in combination with recall and reflection activities to promote retention and depth of learning. They then attend a scheduled Zoom session with a professor and classmates.

“It depends on the class, but if there’s a lab component, we’ll go over a case that’s presented that day,” Sidhu says. “And we’ll break out into smaller groups like we did during our regular lab sessions and pass any key points from the lecture we watched or the assignments we’ve submitted and collaborate with our peers.”

Some classes are using Google Docs so groups can work together on assignments. Chen says it’s helpful to be able to go over them on someone’s screen and then have a discussion within a sub-group. “In our Patient Management class, we act out body positioning and body mechanics for certain skills,” he explains. “Our professors have been providing their 100 percent support. If we have any questions or we’re having problems, they’re being generous and lenient as far as taking time to help us out or making sure we’re not rushing to get things done without addressing the problem.”

Sidhu agrees and says faculty have been open to feedback from students. “It shows they’re really making us and our education their top priority.”

While it’s still too early to judge how residential pathway students are performing based on test scores, Matthews says discussions within the live session have been very engaged. Past experience has demonstrated that hybrid pathway students perform just as well as residential pathway students on exams.

“Everything going on in the world right now is very challenging and concerning,” she reflects, “but at the same time there are so many silver linings. Just slowing down, and my family is all at home together. And because my work is amenable to being remote, to feel stability at this time is really nice. Since I feel that stability, I’m better able to extend that stability to my students.”