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Creating Virtual Virtuosos

At Oregon State, veterinary students display flexibility and a determination to succeed in a Zoom-dominated learning environment.

Creating Virtual Virtuosos
Oregon State veterinary student Brooke Weinstein studies in her off-campus apartment with fellow student Adi Oz.

The text from my daughter Brooke early in her second year of veterinary school read, “Do you think Sundance had a splenic hemangiosarcoma?” The smile on my face when I got the text could have lit up the world during a blackout. Sundance was a golden retriever we had to euthanize because of a large abdominal mass. We didn’t pursue a precise diagnosis due to his age (almost 15) and comorbidities. Years later, Brooke nailed it! Despite virtual learning, there was learning.

Having passed the one-year point of the pandemic, we also pass a year of virtual education to one degree or another for all veterinary students. At the time of this writing, Brooke has spent more than half of her time at Oregon State University in a Zoom-induced fog. Concurrently, I have spoken to large numbers of veterinary students, mostly online and during one visit.

The simplest way to look at things is that a COVID-era education is different from what anyone expected.

All Quiet in Corvallis

Brooke and I spoke about life as a veterinary student, about what works and doesn’t, and about what she misses and doesn’t. Oregon State pretty much shut down large-lecture learning in March 2020. Small group lab sessions, when they occur, use all possible precautions.

The campus felt like a ghost town when I visited in October 2020. The usual hustle and bustle around a veterinary school and a Pac-12 campus were replaced by an amazing quiet. My efforts to enter the Large Animal Clinic and Small Animal Clinic were met with signs about shutdowns and access being limited to faculty and students. Walking around the outdoor barns, even if the clinics were inaccessible, was nice.

I noticed that Brooke didn’t seem to act or feel as frustrated as one might be when the education you are getting and what you expected aren’t the same. She is routinely laid back, but she has taken the challenge as just that, a challenge, and has adjusted her approaches to work with what she has been given.

The traditional veterinary school experience puts highly competitive students in a highly competitive academic environment. It’s a graduate school version of “Survivor: Outwit, Outlast, Outplay.” The social experiment that is the “Survivor” TV show is now the socially distanced game of survivor.

Whereas a roomful of classmates generates pressures, a Zoomful of classmates has its own, too. Students in a professional school are expected to develop individual methods of studying, preparing for labs and taking tests. Some students work well with others; some prefer isolation. Some study in groups; some in a vacuum. Without being able to readily socially interact, the dynamics of a class are challenged.

Brooke reported having very limited chances for students to meet in groups and catch up with each other. Some of the “-ology” labs permitted 20 or so students to come in and learn hands-on. These are the rare chances to see how your cohorts are doing.

Introverted by Necessity

With much of Corvallis and the state shut down at different times, clubs and other social components of veterinary school have been limited. For a profession rife with introverts, such an environment might be comforting given the lack of interaction with the competition. But in a world where networking can greatly impact one’s net worth, socialization allows people to build a successful team. One shortfall that Brooke noted is a lack of collegiality.

In speaking with Oregon State’s veterinary college dean, Dr. Susan Tornquist, and with other deans and veterinary faculty, I’ve learned that they have great empathy for their students. They also miss the interaction. The deans have had to increase to unheard-of levels the amount and frequency of communication to veterinary school families. Communicating with people you routinely saw in hallways or classrooms is not easy. What’s much more challenging is ensuring that everybody is on the same page when they rarely cross paths.

Brooke noted that the faculty’s  enthusiasm waxed and waned from person to person and from week to week.

“You could tell they were trying to make the most out of it,” she said.  “You could hear a little sadness that they couldn’t see us, that they knew we weren’t getting the education in the way we were expecting to get an education.”

Roads Less Traveled

Veterinary clinical practice is all about using one’s senses to diagnose and treat patients and communicate with clients. Veterinary students frequently use their breaks, long and short, to enhance their hands-on skills at practices and other clinical settings. Externships provide opportunities to travel and expand a person’s life experiences.

Brooke had hopes of working in far-off places like India, Costa Rica and New Zealand. The coronavirus not only hamstrung travel, but it also made local work experiences more difficult as businesses were reluctant to allow new people to enter their protected environments. Brooke got experience at the Large Animal Clinic and during a paid research project, but her travel plans are on hold. Oregon wildfires created an opportunity to triage and contribute at wildlife evacuation centers.

“A disaster response team, which our school doesn’t have, was put together in 24 hours,” Brooke said. “I would enjoy working with the Oregon FEMA and the veterinary school to develop a disaster response program.”

What Will Emerge?

In 1993, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson wrote a paper called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Fifteen years later, Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin each referred to 10,000 hours in their tomes “Outliers” and “Talent Is Overrated.” Generally speaking, all three men believed that virtuosos — elite performers — achieved their level of expertise after about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Is that true? Can we still create world-class talent through other types of practice and experience? It’s hard to say, but in speaking with Brooke, comparing my years in veterinary school and thinking about my many years of visiting veterinary schools, I am intrigued to see whether we can create virtual virtuosos.

I am optimistic and excited about what this generation of students will contribute to the reimaging of our profession. Stay tuned.

Dr. Peter Weinstein owns PAW Consulting and is the executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association. He serves as chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee. The podcast “Peter & Phil’s Courageous Conversations,” a dialog between Dr. Weinstein and Dr. Phillip Nelson, is available through all major podcast providers.


THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

In the blink of an eye, didactic lectures in packed classrooms were replaced with laptop learning, laboratories were modified and the face-to-face world became a virtual one. The value proposition of veterinary school changed during the pandemic. Students and parents are having trouble measuring the return on investment. Faculty and administrators are wrestling with their own budgetary challenges.

As clinical practice adapted, so has the education of our future veterinarians. The long-term impact of the coronavirus on educators, students and the veterinary profession might not be discernible for years, but to borrow a now trite phrase, we are all in this together.

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