Study backs effectiveness of UBC Dentistry workshop for the tech-tenuous

May 1, 2012

Having taught dental students for many years, Dr. Nancy Scott, a 1980 alumna and now clinical assistant professor, was confident in her dentistry, yet not particularity confident in manoeuvring through the online patient management system at UBC. Most students put their treatment plans and radiographs up on screen for Scott to review. All she was required to do was sign the record by swiping an identification card in the system. Scott, however, was secretly haunted by fears of clicking the wrong button and deleting an entire patient record, or worse, crashing the system and causing irreparable damage.

Her pent-up angst around digital technology emerged a few years ago when students began asking for document sharing and more immediate responses to emails (at the time she only answered email from her private office account). They wanted her to connect with them in the digital world. This was unfamiliar territory for Scott, and she realized that her skills didn’t match the expectations of these “digital natives.” She had no idea that webmail could be used from home to respond to students at any time. She didn’t know how to sign up for a blog account. “Attachments” were about feeling affection in relationships, not digital learning resources sent to students via email.

Fortunately, Scott found help for her digital illiteracy in a UBC Dentistry workshop that transformed her working life. “We noticed some discomfort among older graduation classes and retired dentists in Dentistry’s high-tech teaching clinic,” says associate clinical professor Dr. Karen Gardner. She points out that people can easily avoid digital technology if they are not particularly interested. “A dentist who graduated as recently as 10 years ago may have been left behind in the digital age because their support staff handled the technology in their practice.”

Dr. Ingrid Emanuels, clinical assistant professor and operative dentistry liaison, notes that low-level computer skills may discourage many experienced, competent and benevolent dental practitioners from returning to the university to teach new practitioners. “An unfortunate consequence would be the loss of great knowledge not handed down,” she says.

So Gardner and Emanuels designed a course to help get these dental practitioners and instructors up to speed with digital technology. Their aim was to re-ignite an enthusiasm for learning by reducing embarrassment.

And according to a pilot study led by Gardner and Emanuels, and conducted with dental personnel from the community and part-time clinical educators, the Continuing Dental Education course succeeds in bringing people over the digital divide.

A paper on the study, published in Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, attributes the success to presenting the information in a non-threatening way and demonstrating the relevance of the technologies to participants’ professional and personal lives.

Course participants, who ranged from 35 to 70 years of age, examined their perceptions of everyday digital technology (like writing an email, which is familiar to most people), then projected those perceptions onto their professional lives and its digital technology. The basic idea is that it’s not a big leap from writing and sending an email to calling up and updating an electronic patient record.

Third-year dental students, recruited as reverse mentors (a model whereby younger people teach older people), tutored course participants in a hands-on computer lab session, helping with real-life dental issues such as searching for peer-reviewed literature on Medline.

Says Gardner: “What we learned is that those with low-level computer skills just need a ‘bump’ to get over their bewilderment of all the bells and whistles.”

And of Scott’s bump into her newfound personal digital capability?

She is now fearlessly synching her new iPhone to her new MacBook Air and communicates effortlessly online. Paper documents—from that world of linear thinking—evoke a bygone era. Scott now moves easily among students in their digital learning communities. “Even from home I’m comfortable grading and providing feedback for my students online—in blogs, Google Docs and forums.” And the best part of Scott’s transformation after the course, according to Emanuels, is that she now has the courage to ask for help, if needed.


Gardner K, Emanuels I, Aleksejuniene J. (2011). Helping experienced professionals become tech savvy for lifelong learning. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 5(2).