Digital platforms and online teaching are revolutionising the delivery of educational programmes throughout the higher education sector.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are one of the latest developments and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ own online course on character education has had nearly 20,000 registered learners.

Such platforms allow institutions to engage with new learners in innovative ways and offer flexible approaches to teaching outside face-to-face formats.

However, research being conducted by the Jubilee Centre suggests trainee teachers, medics and lawyers still value traditional teaching sessions when it comes to understanding the complexities and value of virtue-based practice.

We have also discovered that tutors like to be involved with delivering interventions that seek to promote virtue literacy among the next generation of professionals. In fact, some university staff revealed their current programmes do not feature elements relating to ethics, which might surprise the wider public who typically view, and expect, GPs, solicitors and teachers to be role models.

The views of students and tutors towards virtue-based teaching materials was gauged during the Centre’s project Interventions in Trainee and Student Teachers, Lawyers and Doctors. The interventions centre on a course that seeks to enable trainees and early career professionals to understand what it means to be a virtuous professional and serve others in their discipline.

More than 1,400 law, medicine and teaching trainees either experienced or piloted the course and the data, including pre- and post-course surveys, is being processed. The surveys should indicate if the students’ ethical decision-making has become more virtues-based as a result of the interventions.

The courses are profession-specific, so key content relating to ethical dilemmas – a particularly popular element of the interventions – is tailored to practical scenarios that might be confronted on hospital wards, in the courtroom and the classroom. All the courses feature a general introduction to character, virtue ethics and phronesis.

The research team’s expectation was that tutors would send their students a link to the online course and then effectively take a back seat. Discussion boards are built into the programme, so students can engage in online conversations with fellow trainees about ideas and issues as they arise. The course also features animated films to create an immersive atmosphere.

Interestingly, a significant number of tutors said they would like to be more directly involved with delivery of the interventions. Some tutors even asked Jubilee Centre researchers to attend teaching sessions as they felt it enriched the students’ experience and added new perspectives to the understanding of virtue-based practice, a concept with which many trainees were unfamiliar.

The enthusiasm of tutors for face-to-face contact was matched by that of the trainees. Students said they liked the films and the interactive message boards, which allow engagement in anonymous online discussions about the issues. But they still like to be “taught” the course as well and wanted to take a “human” approach to an essentially human concern – the ethical practice of professionals.

It would appear that students and trainees are not confident undertaking a course like this entirely online. They like having an expert in the field alongside them to help them navigate the complex issues of character and virtues. For example, at the University of Leicester’s Medical School, 200 trainees took part in the course in class using iPads and had tutors present to offer assistance.

It is clear from our interviews that students feel the course has opened their eyes to the importance of character and virtues in professional life. One trainee teacher said the course was “massively important in education,” adding: “You need to display qualities that children are going to look up to at the end of the day… they are easily influenced and you need to be professional, but at the same time you need to try and be on their level in a way that they don’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another stuffy old bloke who thinks they’re better than me.’”

Participants also highlighted the value of reflective practice to help them understand that their actions have wider implications for others – for the lawyer and the client, the teacher and the pupil, and the GP and the patient.

Why does any of this matter? Well, ask yourself this: if you are a parent, don’t you want your child’s care and education to be entrust to a teacher you know has good character? Don’t our young people deserve at least that?

Dr Binish Khatoon

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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