Components of an Online CLS Course

When interviewing prospective candidates for Mayo Clinic’s program in medical laboratory science (MLS), I provide an overview of one of our blended courses and compare and contrast it to one of our more traditionally taught (lecture-based) courses. This gives me the opportunity to emphasize expectations and recommended study habits based on some of the “best practices” we’ve learned from our students.

Our online MLS courses include the following components:

  • Syllabus
  • Weekly calendar
  • Online lessons
  • Homework assignments
  • Discussion boards
  • Study guides
  • Self-assessments
  • Practice exams
  • Resources (links to related online resources)

Our students are expected to review each online lesson before coming to class as preparation for their laboratory session. Since we teach “immersion style” courses, two at a time (where a typical four-credit course is condensed into six weeks), we recommended that our students plan to study a minimum of 4 to 6 hours per day.

Each lesson is presented in a written format, following instructional-design recommendations for online learning that includes “chunking” of the content—using bullets to convey information instead of complete sentences (where appropriate) along with concisely written text that emphasizes “key concepts,” graphics, and images. The lessons are straightforward and present basic knowledge, and the higher learning concepts are integrated into the discussion-board assignments.

Each online course is easy to navigate and is presented in such a way that it’s intuitive and requires little “outside” instruction. All the courses in our program follow the same format, so once the students become familiar with navigation of their first course, they do not have to re-learn the lesson format each time they start a new course.

We provide a study guide of objectives for every written examination. Our students are encouraged to create a learning document from the study guide that they can use for review over the duration of the program and to prepare for their national certification examination in medical laboratory science offered through the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

To give you an idea of how our online courses are designed in Blackboard Learn, I have taken a series of screen shots demonstrating the layout of a course and lesson plan (shown below).

When our students log into Blackboard Learn and open a course, they land on the home page, which includes a navigation menu and links to the syllabus and introductory discussion boards. The home page discussion boards include “student introductions,” “faculty expectations,” “updates and handouts,” “ask your instructor or classmates,” and an “MLS Café” (for social interactions).

1_Welcome

From the menu, our students can open the course content. The first page opens to the weekly course calendars. At a glance, our students can examine the week’s activities.

2_Weekly Calendar

Clicking the “Course Week” link opens the week’s lesson plans.

3_Lesson Plan_Week 2 List of Lessons

Each lesson is formatted the same way and begins with a brief description, overview (goals or learning objectives), author, and references.

4_Lesson Plan_Overview

The second page is a table of “steps to completion” so that our students know exactly what is required of them.

5_Lesson Plan_ Steps to Completion

The lesson is presented in a written format. A table of contents allows the students to navigate the pages of the lesson.

 

 

6_Lesson Plan Introduction

The lesson concludes with a self-assessment. The self-assessment is embedded in the lesson, includes feedback loops, and is also linked to the home page menu. The students are able to take the self-assessments as often as they’d like, and the course grade book is set to record their highest score.

7_Example of Self Assessment

In this course, there is a weekly discussion board. The students are directed to work as a team in assigned groups to answer the questions in the discussion. Credit for this discussion is based on participation in the thread and “substantive” contributions to the dialogue. Students are encouraged to build upon one another’s commentary, generating comprehensive answers to the questions. Each group member must contribute at least two to three substantive answers to receive credit for the assignment. One group member is designated to post a summary of the discussion on behalf of the group.

8_Example of Discussion Board

There are 15 didactic courses in our MLS curriculum. All of our courses have an online component with approximately one-third of the courses applying the “reverse-lecture-homework” paradigm, one-third are lecture based (traditional), and one-third are a combination of both.

This variation in presentation of content provides our students a mixed learning experience, and the online format allows for us to map everything out for them. Additionally, the curricular model itself lends to the formation of study groups, which in turn helps our students build upon their teamwork and communication skills.

Since our program was instituted 10 years ago, we have seen excellent outcomes, with 100% graduation rates, 100% employment of our graduates, and 96% first-time pass rates on the national certification examination (based on a three-year average). Notably, the breakdown of the certification results by category demonstrates that overall student performance in content areas of the curricula that apply the reverse-lecture-homework paradigm are, on average, higher than those categories following a traditional course format (i.e, lecture-based).

 

Lehman_small

-Susan M. Lehman, MA, MT(ASCP)SM graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983 with a BS in medical technology. She is program director for the Medical Laboratory Science Program and course director for Clinical Microbiology I and II; her areas of interest include distance education and education methodology.

 

The Unsung Heroes

I have been very pleased to see our professional societies, such as ASCP, become truly active and engaged in bringing attention to the field of pathology, reminding our clinical colleagues that we are in no way the “Doctors-of-the-Lesser-God.” We certainly represent a valuable part of the healthcare team even if our care is provided in a more indirect than direct fashion.

Indeed, I applaud this effort, however, there seems to me to be another missing element that we pathologists, not just our professional society, should embrace. I would hope that we look to expand this to acknowledge the significant role our laboratory staff plays each day on behalf of patient care. The laboratory staff, whether certified MTs, MLTs, phlebotomists, or administrative personnel are the unsung heroes, often forgotten or neglected and without recognition for their much-needed skills and responsibilities. Our laboratory staff represents the legs upon which we stand.

Sadly enough, in my many years in private practice and subsequent consulting, it is apparent to me that pathologists often have very limited interaction with the staff outside of the Histology/Surgical Pathology suite. This is unfortunate as it limits us both professionally and personally. Some of my favorite memories and shining moments from my practice were those that involved getting to know and being a part of the lab team. There is nothing more rewarding than feeling you have learned and participated alongside these co-workers! And there is nothing sadder to me than hearing laboratory staff members say that they have not laid eyes upon a pathologist in weeks or see their physicians only if they seek them out.

Pathologists should be actively interacting with staff in all areas of the laboratory, whether Surgical or Clinical, fostering good relationships and also acting as ambassadors for these staff and their services. We should encourage our clinical colleagues to understand the importance of this group and utilize their expertise as part of the medical team. This helps us all to grow and learn via sometimes differing perspectives which work together to bring quality patient care.

So, while we are utilizing our professional society to grow our own outreach and highlight the important role of pathologists, let us not forget to include our laboratory staff members and what they bring to the table. Make every day the day to support one another and put our cumulative best efforts to quality safe laboratory practice and patient care.

Burns

-Dr. Burns was a private practice pathologist, and Medical Director for the Jewish Hospital Healthcare System in Louisville, KY. for 20 years. She has practiced both surgical and clinical pathology and has been an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Louisville. She is currently available for consulting in Patient Blood Management and Transfusion Medicine. You can reach her at cburnspbm@gmail.com.