Using Technology, New Approaches, Dental Schools Transform Education

Nov. 11, 2003
Emphasis shifts to Web-based programs and patient-friendly care.

Dental schools across the United States are remaking the traditional discipline-based curriculum to create a new, more integrated approach to teaching. From digitized textbooks to emphasis on treating the underserved, the definitions of dentistry and dental education are changing, according to an article in the November issue of AGD Impact, the newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

Many schools also have focused on student experiences outside the lecture halls and pre-clinical labs by emphasizing patient-friendly and community based care. Getting to this point wasn't easy-and there is still a long road to travel, educators say. Change is often painfully slow at any institution and dentistry is no exception. Politics, faculty resistance, cost, a densely packed curriculum-all weigh down progress.

"Teachers teach the way they were taught," says William D. Hendricson, director of the Division of Educational Research and Development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Dentistry. "The curriculum tends to reflect what people had in their own education."

The creation of several new dental schools in recent years, all with state-of-the-art digital technology and a fresh emphasis on the importance of community based service, has pushed many older institutions to invest the time and money to implement real change.

While dental educators play a decisive role in implementing changes to the undergraduate curriculum, external forces, such as advancements in technology and shifts in the country's demographics, wield considerable influence in reshaping the way educators teach and students learn.

Considering the wealth of information that must be absorbed and mastered in a saturated four-year curriculum, dentistry has one of the toughest requirements for graduation of any health care profession. When courses can't be added, one- and two-day events are squeezed in wherever possible. When educators are not mulling over what to teach their current crop of students, they spend their hours trying to figure out the best and most effective way to educate them.

"Students spending hundreds of hours in the classroom could be spending it elsewhere," says Mr. Hendricson. Many dental schools "have a lockstep curriculum, students move though at same time and do the same things even though we know there are differences between people.

But the days of harried dental students carting armloads of textbooks and supplemental materials to lecture halls, labs and clinic are yielding to students strolling about campus holding lightweight laptop computers and a shiny CD-ROM or DVD.

Most schools have at least some Web-based courses, Web-exclusive course manuals, Internet chat rooms, and electronic testing. A slim majority also have Web-based evaluations and DVDs or CD-ROMs available for students in libraries or student resource centers.

The idea behind the e-curriculum is more than just digitizing course manuals and textbooks. It's a new way to teach and learn and, at the same time, trim repetition and redundancies in the curriculum. It allows students to collect and collate a diverse amount of information quickly. Advocates of the technology say that it ultimately promotes a more integrated curriculum.

More dental schools are refocusing their clinical programs to emphasize patient-friendly care. This is a significant gesture in the face of the severe budget shortfalls most states are experiencing. The aim of several schools is to get their students working with patients earlier in their education.