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8th November 2011

Medical Waste..?

Innovation in learning methods should always be embraced – cautiously

As previously reported in these pages (Issue 3, 3 Oct.), it seems that our humble Manchester is following in the prestigious footsteps of institutions such as Stanford University and UC Irvine Medical School in providing free iPads to our medical and dentistry students. While it’s tempting to rail against the waste of money, the blatant buying-off of dissatisfied students, and the privileging of some and not others (where’s my free iPad, you bastards?), I can see why this has been done. In all likelihood, the iPad and its descendents will be among the most important drivers of medical innovation in years to come; and it’s difficult to argue with the rationale of providing the devices to students on placement to facilitate access to e-resources. If the trend takes hold- and it looks likely to- it will have been admirably forward-thinking of the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences to encourage medical students here to take early advantage of the new generation of powerful, ergonomic touchscreen devices.

Although iPads currently lack many specialised apps for medical use, they will be coming, just as they did for the iPhone and similar devices – applications for anything from learning anatomy to viewing radiology results, to hunting down obscure symptoms and diseases, all will be accommodated by iPad and the increasingly powerful tablet computers that will follow. Innovation in learning methods should always be embraced, cautiously – if they prove maladaptive they can always be dropped.

With all of that said, there are a couple of problems with the scheme. Foremost is the cost – assuming that it is a good idea to do this, not deferring the decision until after the forthcoming iPad competitors arrive has made the equipment much more expensive; essentially, a massive gift of both money and prestige to Apple (not that they need either) out of our stretched University budget. Secondly, it’s been claimed that the pilot scheme has benefited a few final year students, and if successful it will be implemented with the medical and dentistry students arriving next year: in which case four years’ worth of students will miss out on the scheme. This seems unfair, although of course the argument over cost still stands – if this is to be done, perhaps it’s better for the University that those not on the pilot scheme get a tough break on this one. I’m sure they’ll survive, although if it were me in that position I’d be fuming too.

At heart I’m a supporter of this and other technological learning improvements – which of us now can imagine the University without its behemoth IT structure, ill-functioning as it sometimes is? I can access my lecture slides remotely, and ‘hand in’ work virtually, online – which is as good for me and my deadline-shaving ways as it is for others, who this way get to avoid encountering the twitchy, unshaven, half-dressed, coffee-infused mess that I am at those times.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all students at the University should be given free tablet computers – that would be silly. However, the ‘trial group’ for this scheme are a special case. They’re on placement off-campus, and need to access online resources remotely. If desktop computers are unavailable, this means either lugging a laptop around, or putting up with the less-adequate abilities of a smartphone. So it seems that the ‘solution looking for a problem’ (as iPads have been semi-affectionately termed by some) has found a niche after all.

Even more, in the near future it’s looking probable that textbooks will be made available in electronic form (read: lighter to carry, potentially much cheaper, and easily annotated, conceivably updated remotely in much the same way as a smartphone app is, meaning that instead of being out-of-date as soon as published, e-textbooks will retain their cutting-edge status for as long as the user’s subscription lasts). The possibilities of collaboration between practitioners at great distance, the ability for information regarding treatments to be disseminated incredibly quickly and then confirmed or refuted with equal alacrity, and for practitioners to develop their own software tools quickly and effectively to help solve whatever problems they face, remain tantalising to my mind. All these might lie in the murky future of medicine, but whether or not they come to be the mere possibility is enough to at least partially justify acquainting our students with the technology. If nothing else, they make awesome coasters…


What’s your opinion? @Mancuniondebate

Paul Haslam

Paul Haslam

Former Comment and Debate Editor (2011).

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