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    Using student peer facilitators for asynchronous online discussion to extend professional development amongst undergraduate medical students

    Regan, Maria Angela (2013) Using student peer facilitators for asynchronous online discussion to extend professional development amongst undergraduate medical students. Doctoral thesis (EdD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    Professional development is an essential part of undergraduate medical training. Since the GMC’s (2003) document ‘Tomorrows Doctors’ underlined the need to provide support for medical students to monitor their progress as independent learners, reflective practice has become a significant aspect of medical student’s education and professional training. One method of supporting reflective practice amongst such students is the use of online discussion forums. However, the use of students as peer facilitators for online discussions in a medical education context is not well researched. Using such a student-centred approach, this two year multi-case study examined the use of Student Peer Facilitators for online group reflective discussion amongst third year medical students. A range of data collection methods was employed throughout the two years of the study. In the first year volunteer medical students were trained as Facilitators using generic group facilitation techniques (n=76). In the second year e-moderating strategies were incorporated into the training and preparation of Facilitators (n=79). To obtain medical students’ perceptions of this approach, quantitative and qualitative data was gathered through questionnaires, in-depth interviews and focus groups. Data was coded and organised according to the study’s research aims with interpretation of findings arranged by analytical themes, emerging theories and the study’s conceptual framework. The text output from sample online discussions (n=40) from both years of the study were also selected to explore the influence the Facilitators on the interaction amongst the sample groups. Primary methods included analyses of Cognitive, Social and Tutor presence levels in the online discussions as defined by the Community of Inquiry model devised by Garrison and Anderson (2000). Findings from the study suggest that as a pedagogical strategy, Student Peer Facilitators can assist in the development of reflective practice in online group discussion; the sharing of good practice; and creating a context to foster group collaboration and communities of inquiry. Introducing practical experience of e-moderating skills into the training of Facilitators showed marked enhancements in the online discourse within the three elements of the Community of Inquiry model. This was particularly visible within the Cognitive Presence levels analysed. By modelling these vital skills, it was possible for Facilitators to encourage other group members to emulate good practice in the online discussions. Other positive aspects of the amended training showed an increase in contributions from male participants to the discussions. Although students in this study noted several benefits in introducing the Student Peer Facilitators, various challenges were also observed including a perceived lack of ‘presence’ by Tutors; the social dynamics and learning culture peculiar to medical students, and building and sustaining an online learning community in a widely dispersed educational context. In this respect findings demonstrated the importance of embedding appropriate training and preparation into the introduction and delivery of Student Peer Facilitators to enhance the development of reflective discourse amongst online groups of learners.

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