Analysis

What social distancing will mean for mental health nursing education

A range of online teaching techniques are being developed for students who will have to adapt to spending little time on campus

A range of online teaching techniques are being developed for students who will have to adapt to spending little time on campus

  • Theory side of degree courses will be largely undertaken remotely online instead of on campus
  • Universities have accepted that some parts of the course cannot easily be done online
  • Some students will still meet lecturers face to face for small classes on clinical skills and simulations
Picture: iStock

Thousands of mental health nursing students are starting or returning to degree courses under strict social distancing rules that herald a new era for UK nursing education.

The biggest change will see the theory side of the degree largely undertaken remotely online, rather

A range of online teaching techniques are being developed for students who will have to adapt to spending little time on campus

  • Theory side of degree courses will be largely undertaken remotely online instead of on campus
  • Universities have accepted that some parts of the course cannot easily be done online
  • Some students will still meet lecturers face to face for small classes on clinical skills and simulations
Picture: iStock

Thousands of mental health nursing students are starting or returning to degree courses under strict social distancing rules that herald a new era for UK nursing education.

The biggest change will see the theory side of the degree largely undertaken remotely online, rather than face-to-face on campus.

Ben Hannigan

Mental Health Nurse Academics UK chair Ben Hannigan, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, says academic staff are working hard to develop creative combinations of digital and face-to-face methods.

‘Smaller universities may be able to arrange social distancing more easily’

Buildings are being made as safe as possible, but Professor Hannigan believes most student-teacher contact will remain online for the immediate future.

University of Manchester mental health nursing education professor Steven Pryjmachuk agrees. ‘Many universities – but not all – are doing entirely online theory for semester one or are offering only limited small group teaching.

‘Much will depend on the university – smaller universities with smaller student cohorts may be able to arrange social distancing much easier than larger universities.’

Steven Pryjmachuk

When it comes to online learning, a range of different techniques has begun to emerge.

Video conferencing has allowed universities to experiment with smaller group meetings

Popular video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have allowed universities to experiment with holding smaller group meetings after lectures, alongside other attempts to create a more interactive experience for students.

King’s College London lecturer in mental health nursing Roy Litvin says creating an environment that ‘promotes learning to the fullest’ remains the big challenge.

‘When you are delivering lectures in person you get to know your students and they get to know you and each other. That becomes harder online.’

Mr Litvin says universities need blended ways to deliver learning online.

‘We use a combination of recorded lectures and live online lectures or seminars.

‘You can facilitate breakout rooms during the live lectures where students go off in small groups to discuss various topics.

2,300

hours of practice learning and 2,300 hours of theory-based learning are required in a nursing course (Source: Nursing and Midwifery Council)

‘I know there is also some experimentation with live lectures whereby you deliver lectures to a small group of students and then there is a wider audience watching online. The idea is it creates a more traditional lecture experience.’

Students need to become confident in online settings

He says students need to play their part and learn to become confident in online settings – asking questions and using video functions to create a richer, more interactive experience.

Meanwhile, universities are working to make campus areas as safe as possible for students, accepting that some parts of the course cannot be done online easily.

These include clinical skills and simulations, such as blood pressure monitoring, taking other vital signs and manual handling, which will be taught in small physical groups.

Tips on coping with the new normal

  • Be realistic and accept that the environment has changed
  • Personal tutors and pastoral support will still be available – use them
  • Develop a routine and make your own timetable – students have a duty to engage
  • Take a break and enjoy hobbies or pastimes – some universities are running online relaxation and mindfulness classes
  • Reach out to local and national peer support networks online via social media channels – you are not alone

University of Central Lancashire school of nursing head Karen Wright says a lot of effort has gone into getting this right.

Professor Wright says: ‘Every classroom, corridor and toilet has been risk-assessed to ensure that safe distancing can be assured, and one-way systems and hand gel introduced.

Karen Wright

‘All staff have been risk-assessed and will be wearing masks – we even have clear ones for when we are seeing students with hearing impairment.

‘In the clinical skills labs all staff and students will be wearing personal protective equipment.’

Sessions will run into the evenings and at weekends

She says sessions will run into the evenings and at weekends to ensure all students get the teaching to become proficient in the skills they need.

RCN Students Committee chair Jessica Sainsbury acknowledges the level of preparation work by universities but is concerned about the impact that large-scale remote learning will have.

‘It will make it more difficult for new students to develop those support networks that are so important.

‘Your peers are vital: you go to them before you go to your lecturers, you share the same experiences.’

122

mental health nursing degree courses are currently offered (Source: What Uni?)

Ms Sainsbury says placement providers must be accommodating towards students in what is still a challenging situation.

‘More experienced students can support those doing their first placements’

‘We are more likely to find ourselves doing shifts with greater numbers of other students.

‘We perhaps need to be less competitive and work together to get as much as we can out of the placements. We’re suggesting a coaching model where more experienced students support those doing their first placements.’

Placement capacity may also be challenging.

Picture: iStock

The Council of Deans of Health – which represents university faculties engaged in education and research for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals – has warned of ‘additional pressure’ given that many students were unable to complete placements in the spring due to lockdown.

Some placements were pulled, while some students were unable to take part, either because they or the people they lived with were shielding, or due to childcare responsibilities.

The council says final-year students are being prioritised but some may still not be in a position to graduate next summer.

Before students start placements, universities will assess the placements for exposure and students for risk of complications, to find appropriate options.

‘Placement coordinators will need to be creative and innovative’

The council says some people, such as those who were shielding during lockdown, may be unable to continue with their courses because they cannot complete placements, and urges anyone affected to speak to their university.

25 June 2020

The NMC sets out plans to end emergency measures for students and replace theoretical distance learning with ‘blended’ learning, which allows face-to-face and online teaching, in line with social distancing rules

According to RCN professional lead for mental health Catherine Gamble, students' community placements could also be unduly affected because many staff are working remotely and some services are being delivered online.

‘That creates all sorts of difficulties organising placements and making sure that they are useful for students.

‘You’re also asking people to increase the number of placements at a time when organising services is logistically challenging.

‘Placement coordinators will need to be creative and innovative. But we have to all work together on this – students are the future of mental health services.’

Rebecca Hackfath

Case study: a volunteer on the front line

Student Rebecca Hackfath at De Montfort University in Leicester was part way through the second year of her mental health nursing degree when the pandemic hit.

Ms Hackfath volunteered to work on the front line and has spent the past few months working shifts as a healthcare assistant on a dedicated isolation ward at Leicester’s Glenfield Hospital, caring for mental health inpatients with COVID-19. She says it was ‘challenging but rewarding’.

‘As a mental health nurse, you don’t always get the chance to be so involved in the physical health of your patients.

‘Trust your university – they have your best interests in mind’

'But I learned a lot about how the two are so important and coping with the challenge of caring for mental health patients with personal protective equipment – it does affect the relationship you develop.

'This disease is here to stay and unless we get a vaccine we are all going to be seeing patients with COVID-19 at some point.’

Ms Hackfath is now having to catch up on placement hours, while the order of modules has been changed.

‘The university has been brilliant. It is unsettling, but I would say trust your university – they have your best interests in mind. You will get through the course and you will graduate.’


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