Ryan Downey, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Graduate Physiology Program
Team Leader, Special Master’s Program in Physiology
Department Pharmacology and Physiology
Georgetown University Medical Center
The Chinese Society of Pathophysiology hosted the 2019 Human Functional Experiment Teaching Seminar and the Second Human Physiology Experimental Teaching Training Course 25-27 October. Across two and a half days, educators from across China met at Jinzhou Medical University in the province of Liaoning to discuss and workshop the latest ideas in active learning and interactive teaching techniques. In many ways, especially in terms of the esteem in which this meeting is held by its attendees, this meeting was not dissimilar from the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning, which will hold its next biennial meeting this coming June in Minneapolis. For the 2019 meeting, the organizers decided to invite an international speaker, which is how I found myself on a plane headed to China. As part of my visit, not only did I get to attend the workshop hosted at Jinzhou Medical University, but also I was hosted by several of the meeting organizers at their home institutions to see their facilities. In this writeup, I will reflect on some of the observations that I made during the many different conversations that I had with the educators participating in the meeting.
The most common question that I got from my hosts was, “What kinds of technology do you use in your classrooms and labs and how do you use them?” What surprised me the most about this question wasn’t the actual question itself, but the perception that many of the educators at the meeting held that they were lagging behind in the implementation of using technologies as teaching and learning tools. The large majority of teaching spaces that I visited were equipped with much the same technology as any classroom or lecture hall that I would find in an American university: computers, projectors, large-screen LCD displays, and power at every seat to accommodate student personal electronic devices. While there was the occasional technological oddity, such as a computer here or there that was still running Windows XP, the technology available to these educators was very much on par with the technology I would expect at any modern university, which is why I was surprised that the educators had the perception that they were behind in implementing different technologies. In my conversations with them, I discussed the use of audience response systems like iClicker and PollEverywhere as well as interactive elements like gamification through websites such as Kahoot!, but my emphasis in these conversations was exactly the same as I have with educators at home: we need to make sure that there is a sound pedagogical basis for any engagement we use with our students and that the technology doesn’t matter. I can use 3×5 colored index cards to create an audience response system that functions as well as (or sometimes even better!) than clickers because no one has any problems with the WiFi while using a 3×5 card. The technology facilitates our instruction and should never drive it for the sake of itself.
A common thread of many discussions was the use of internet technologies in teaching. While there is much to be said about the limitations of the ‘Great Firewall’ of China and the amount of government regulation that occurs over their communications, it’s important to note how little these limitations affect the day-to-day activities of the majority of citizens. There are Chinese versions of almost every single internet convenience that we would take for granted that function at least as well as our American versions. Their social media system has grown to the point that many international users are engaging on their platforms. There are food delivery apps and the local taxi services have all signed on to a common routing system (at least in Beijing) that functions in a similar way to Uber or Lyft. In a side-by-side comparison between my phone and one of the other meeting participants, there is near feature parity on every aspect. From an educational standpoint, however, there are some notable differences. The lack of access to Wikipedia is a notable gap in a common open resource that many of us take for granted and there is not yet a Chinese equivalent that rivals the scope or depth that Wikipedia currently offers. Another key area in which internet access is limited is their access to scholarly journals. This lack of accessibility is two-fold, both in the access to journals because of restrictions on internet use as well as the common problem that we are already familiar with of journal articles being locked behind paywalls. The increasing move of journals to open access will remove some of these barriers to scholarly publications, but there are still many limits on the number and types of journal articles that educators and learners are allowed through Chinese internet systems.
The most common request that I received while attending the educators meeting was, “Tell me about the laboratories you use to teach physiology to your medical students.” I think this is the largest difference in teaching philosophy that I observed while in China. The teaching of physiology is heavily based on the use of animal models, where students are still conducting nerve conduction experiments with frogs, autonomic reflex modules with rabbits, and pharmacological studies in rats. These are all classic experiments that many of us would recognize, but that we rarely use anymore. One key area of the workshops were modules designed to replace some of these classic animal experiments with non-invasive human-based modules, such as measuring nerve conduction velocities using EMG. My response that the majority of our physiology teaching is now done through lecture only was met with a certain degree of skepticism from many of them because the use of labs is so prevalent throughout the entire country. Indeed, the dedication of resources such as integrated animal surgical stations runs well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per laboratory room set up, and to facilitate the entirety of students each year, there are multiple labs set up at each university. As the use of non-invasive human experiments expands, an equal amount of space and resources are being given to setting up new learning spaces with data acquisition systems and computers for this new task. In this area, I think that we have much to gain from our Chinese counterparts as many of the hardest concepts in physiology are more easily elucidated by giving students the space to self-discover in the lab while making physiological measurements to fully master ideas like ECG waves and action potential conduction.
Upon returning home, I have been asked by nearly everyone about my travel experiences, so I think it may be worth a brief mention here as well. I cannot overstate the importance of having a good VPN service setup on all of your electronic devices before traveling. Using a VPN, I had near-normal use of the internet, including Google and social media. My largest problem was actually trying to access local Chinese websites when my internet address looked like I was outside of the country. I have had good experience with NordVPN, but there are several other very good options for VPN service. Carrying toilet paper is a must. There are lots of public restrooms available everywhere in the city, but toilet paper is either not provided or available only using either social media check-ins or mobile payments. For drinking water, I traveled with both a Lifestraw bottle and a Grayl bottle. This gave me options for using local water sources and not having to rely on bottled water. The Lifestraw is far easier to use, but the Grayl bottle has a broader spectrum of things that are filtered out of the water, including viruses and heavy metals, which may be important depending on how far off the tourist track you get while traveling. My final tip is to download the language library for a translator app on your mobile device for offline use so that you can communicate with others on the streets. When interacting with vendors and others not fluent in English, it was common to use an app like Google Translate to type on my device, show them the translated results, and they would do the same in reverse from their mobile device.
One of the themes across the meeting was building bridges — bridges between educators, bridges between universities, bridges across the nation and internationally. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to participate in their meeting and contribute to their conversation on building interactive engagement and human-focused concepts into the teaching of physiology. Overall, the time that I spent talking to other educators was useful and fantastic. Everyone I met and interacted with is enthusiastic and excited about continuing to improve their teaching of physiology. I left the meeting with the same renewed energy that I often feel after returning from our ITL, ready to reinvest in my own teaching here at home.
Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Co-Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches cardiovascular and neuroscience in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons