Using Digital Tools to Work Smarter not Harder

Results from a survey showed that all of our incoming students had an average of 2-3 devices, yet not one student had been taught how to use digital tools on these very devices.  As the Physician Assistant program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC begins its 1:1 iPad program, I lead a workshop for students on how to use their digital tools in an academic and professional environment. Our primary goals is to help students become critical thinkers who are creative problem solvers and problem finders, ready to meet their professional goals once they start their careers. 

For our graduates about to enter the health care industry, mastering a variety of skills is just as critical as acquiring knowledge.  While we cannot predict the future, we do know that the workplace environment is evolving and requires the merging of skills with knowledge to create solutions. Therefore, it is important to focus on assisting students to provide them with the necessary critical thinking skills to become the linchpin of their professional organization.    

Seth Godin says it best, “In an era where machines are replacing more and more people, linchpins are what we need to create and nurture.”  These individuals are unique, do emotional work, and are passionate about what they do.

In “Dancing with Robots,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argue that the kinds of tasks that computers can accomplish will influence the skills student’s need when they graduate. In this paper, Levy and Murnane identify the two areas that computers cannot replace, namely creating novel solutions to complicated problems and engaging in social interaction. 

Translating this vision into day-to-day classroom experiences is where the challenge lies.  Many of our incoming students have the industrial age mindset that as long as they work hard, get good grades, cross their t’s and dot their i’s, they will have a prosperous future waiting for them on the other side.  

Many students have yet to realize that the world of work is changing and so are the skills needed to be successful.  If we want students to reach the level where they are able to go into their professional communities and identify challenges and create solutions, as educators we must help them enhance and develop those skills. One strategy we have employed in the Primary Care Physician Assistant Program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC is design thinking. 

Design thinking is a problem-solving method and begins with focusing on empathy.  This ability to focus on emotions is critical in a PA program, where we dedicate a great deal of time to paying attention to patients and their care. 

The beginning of medical education is often described as water coming out of a fire hydrant. The initial thought in our students’ minds is how they will manage and master the amount of content that they will acquire. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we present incoming students with a design thinking challenge. In this case, “How can I design a learning system that will allow me to learn how to learn?” Introducing the idea of using digital tools in a context that is relevant, allows students to be more agile in the face of change.

It is here in this moment that we can begin cultivating problem-solving skills.  

At a time where there are questions about the role of mobile devices in higher education, some believe that these tools are an essential element in being able to enhance and develop the skills identified by Levy and Murnane. When students at the PA program arrive for orientation they engage in a two-day workshop called, “Using Digital Tools to Work Smarter Not Harder.”  

Prior to this orientation students are asked to download an iTunes U Course and watch a short video talking about the changing dynamics in healthcare. Part of the video includes instructions on which apps they should create accounts with and download to their devices.  This allows us to maximize our face-to-face time together for hands-on activities that focus on the implementation of these apps to develop solutions to critical thinking problems. 

After learning about a core set of tools they could use, students create a learning routine for a colleague using the design thinking approach. 

Students plot creative solutions by better understanding a partner’s study habits and observing their learning style. Next, each partner brainstorms a myriad of ideas to open them to out-of-the-box solutions and dream beyond the normal confines that judgment would create. Last, the students design and test a prototype for their partner that they could use to enhance studying and learning. This cycle goes through many iterations throughout the year.

At the end of orientation students were asked to respond to that prompt about their experience.

One student wrote, “I used to think that with all of the technology available on the market that more people would be technologically literate in the classroom, but now I think that people are not familiar with how to incorporate tech in the classroom, even if they are fluent with technology in other aspects of their life.”

This student is not alone in this line of thinking.  Terms such as “tech-savvy” and “digital natives” have created a set of false assumptions that we have about one another’s ability to integrate technology.  Many students begin higher education believing they are alone in not being able to use technology to enhance their academic and professional careers. 

Another student wrote, “I used to think I would be confined to taking notes and studying using primarily physical materials, but now I think taking and curating information electronically could be easier. I look forward to getting a system down that works best for me- testing, revising and refining it.”

Taking time to have conversations and courses on digital literacy is no longer a choice if we are to help guide students into being innovators and linchpins. If they are to be given a true return on their investment in our institutions, we must nurture these skills.

Providing students with opportunities to engage in design thinking challenges allows them to develop the skills identified by Levy and Murnane. Our students live in a networked world, where we hope they are able to use digital tools in a responsible way to better spend their time doing the work that computers cannot do and apply their knowledge in a context that is meaningful to them, their peers and to the patients they will serve tomorrow.