Pharm.D. Goes Online Making Fisher History with a Fully Online Doctoral Program

In August 2020, students in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy Class of 2024 will take their first steps on the path to becoming pharmacists. During a weeklong orientation program, they will meet faculty, engage in a service project, and, for the first time, earn their white coats before they begin class. Many will settling among the classrooms and offices on campus, but for others, this week is one of only two times all year they will set foot in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy.

As the first cohort in Fisher’s Pharm.D. online degree pathway, these pioneers will spend most of their time in the program pursing their degree from their homes/work offices.

The College is collaborating with 2U, Inc., a global leader in education technology, to deliver the first online or hybrid Pharm.D. pathway offered by an institution in the state. Fisher’s program is one of fewer than 10 such offerings nationwide.

“We are not simply taking our campus program online, we are developing a Pharm.D. pathway specifically designed for the online student,” said Dr. Christine Birnie, dean of the School. “2U is an exceptional online education technology provider, with extensive experience working with highly ranked programs around the nation providing high-level technology to meet the educational needs of today’s student. Paired with Fisher’s student-centered mission and outstanding faculty, we will create what we believe will be the premier online Pharm.D. program in the nation.”

Birnie said the new pathway comes at an opportunistic time. Pharmacy education has been particularly slow in adopting online education as a degree pathway. By moving forward with this initiative, Fisher has positioned itself at the forefront of the movement.

“Online education meets the needs of students that are interested in different modalities and have different needs. This new pathway provides an opportunity for individuals considering pharmacy as a profession,” said Birnie.

151 Total Credits

6 Elective Credits

6 Immersions

11 Clinical Rotations

While the pathway will be accessible to students across the country, Birnie predicts enrollment will be high among students who live within a few hours of the College, particularly from rural areas, where there is a need for pharmacists but dearth of pharmacy schools.

“There is an opportunity to reach students who would not otherwise be able to attend pharmacy school because they cannot commute or relocate; they have homes, jobs, families,” she explained. “Now, they have access to a school that matches with their mission and vision, and they can be a part of it because it is online.”

Creating the Courses

After Fisher and 2U made the public announcement of the partnership in September 2019, faculty immediately started working one-on-one with 2U course strategists to develop their uniquely designed online courses.

“My general teaching philosophy is to engage students and help them learn the science behind development and manufacturing of drug products, and I use traditional active learning strategies to optimize my teaching content to my students’ different learning styles,” said Dr. Vivek Dave, associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. “In online programs, success depends on the students’ self-motivation, and the student engagement with the course content is significantly more important than what you would see in an on-the-ground program.”

Dave said that factors such as the physical presence of the instructor and colleagues, and facilitated engagement activities, are good motivators connected to an in-class pathway. For example, a student might sit through a full 50-minute lecture in the classroom, but may struggle to stay engaged with a 50-minute video of a lecture. One of the strategies utilized in the online courses is to break down instructional content into 8 to 12-minute video segments interspersed with engagement activities, such as quizzes, probing/prior-knowledge questions, or demonstrations designed to mimic active learning activities used in a traditional campus pathway.

Drs. Vivek Dave and Melinda Lull

Students enrolled in the online pathway will spend at least a quarter of their time in synchronous live sessions, using web conferencing technology to interact with professors and fellow students. This gives class members an opportunity to connect and get to know each other. Course discussion boards will create additional avenues for students to engage with their instructors and peers.

Faculty members are in the process of mapping out the content that will be taught via video versus through engagement activities in the live sessions. For Dr. Mindy Lull, associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the process has opened the door to new ways to deliver content.

“The content is all mine, but 2U has suggested techniques and tools for delivery that were not available before,” Lull said.

Among those tools is BioDigital, a software program that can create 3D models. Lull is working with the 2U team to create a model to help her teach a unit on skeletal system anatomy, or the microscopic structure of a bone.

“It is hard to visualize what that is, and in class, I show pictures and describe it, but words have never felt good enough,” she explained. “Now, 2U can create a customized model of what I want students to see and learn, and I can create a video and walk them through the model, zooming in and out and turning it different ways. I can also create a second model that students can study on their own. These tools are strengthening something that was traditionally a difficult topic in the classroom. And all these materials can be used in the on-the-ground program, so those students are benefitting from the partnership, as well.”

Once faculty members have their courses mapped, they will head to 2U’s studios in Rockville, Maryland, where it will be “lights, camera, action” as they record their lectures. Then, it’s showtime.

High Touch, High Tech

As faculty prepare for this new teaching experience, Birnie is focused on ensuring that the heart of Fisher’s pharmacy program beats as strong online as it does in the classroom.

“Our philosophy has always been that a student enters the profession when they begin pharmacy school,” says Birnie. “While they are here with us, they will build a strong foundation in the sciences and clinical skills, while embodying professionalism, integrity, and diversity. Those three characteristics help create a unique Fisher pharmacist. We believe we can do the same thing in the online pathway because it will be a ‘high touch, high tech’ approach. We have learned to do ‘high touch’ very well, and 2U can help us translate it online with their high level of technology.”

Birnie said that the School’s culture, which starts with a strong orientation program for first-year students as part of their first campus immersion, will be woven throughout the online Pharm.D. experience to graduation. Online students will be able to join student organizations, engage in research, and participate in service trips and medical missions.

“Our online students will have the same access to faculty and resources as our campus-based students,” said Birnie. “From start to finish, we will be one community.”