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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: January 2018

6 - Using computers to teach undergraduate psychiatry

    • By Elizabeth Hare, General Adult Consultant Psychiatrist, Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Paul Hopper, Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist, Hampshire Partnership Foundation Trust, Southampton
  • Edited by Tom Brown, John Eagles
  • Publisher: Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • pp 66-84



Medical students’ time is precious; they have a lot to learn. As psychiatrists, we are inclined to think psychiatry is a crucial part of the undergraduate course. We also have an important role to play in helping students to develop communication skills with vulnerable people – a key task identified by the General Medical Council in Tomorrow's Doctors (2003). Many of the ‘facts’ will change in the course of their careers, so as well as providing training in specific skills, and providing positive role models as clinicians, our role as medical teachers should include laying down strategies for knowledge to sustain the capacity for new learning. This chapter will address the areas in which information technology can assist, and where it might be an irrelevance, or even a costly distraction.

We realise that many medical teachers will come to this topic with an appropriately sceptical eye. We have all seen computer projects start out promising to change everything, but then failing miserably. E-learning can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be – the key is to ask yourself and your colleagues the right questions before getting stuck in.

Why bother with e-learning?

The ‘e’ in e-Learning stands for education – we too often forget that – it is not about bandwidth, servers, and cables. It is about education – first and foremost (Gaines, 2004).

Information technology (IT) is only an educational medium, namely a means of delivering an experience which can encourage learning. Its success is predicated on the use of established teaching methods: taking students from the known to the unknown, clearly delivering the relevant content, and checking their understanding (Chan & Robbins, 2006). Consider first what you want the students to be able to do after the activity or, from the learner's perspective, consider how any one particular lesson will help them accomplish their goal of being a good doctor. One of the long-established principles of e-learning is that however much work the developer puts in, the only real value lies in users performing their role better afterwards (Kirkpatrick, 1998).

It is interesting to consider how much of a difference there is between the processes of being taught by and with a human being, as opposed to by electronic means. These differences are highlighted in Table 6.1.