The Invisible Golden Thread

By | January 21, 2014

About 10 years ago I asked my son (now aged 27) if he had to choose between either the family Internet connection or the television, which would he choose? For him it was a no-brainer, Internet every time. Now he has his own home with no TV but a large computer monitor in the lounge with the ability to stream music or films from any computer or Internet source. For him and his peers the Internet provides the communication, streaming music, streaming movies, news updates and the ability to share resources.

At the University of Bristol our medical students enrol in a five year programme. In the first two years of their study they are based in the University’s medical school. While they are on campus, in the libraries and lecture theatres or at their halls, they have high bandwidth Internet access via the eduroam1 WiFi.  In their clinical years (3 – 5) they are based in the large teaching hospitals around the region where Internet connectivity is a different story. On the whole, students have Internet access in their (University provided) accommodation and while at the NHS Trusts the University has provided computers in the hospital libraries where they can access all of their electronic resources.

When the IT in the hospital libraries was set up 11 years ago it offered the students very good connectivity – email, Internet browsing and access to their study resources, e.g. protected file storage and online journals etc. However, if the Internet age has taught us anything, for information technology and the Internet in general, the pace of change is rapid and standing still is not an option if you want to retain your user base.

It was only 4 years ago that a tablet was something the doctor gave you. Now, the tablet computer, starting with Apple’s iPad in April 2010, is found in many UK households. According to the Telegraph the tablet computer was set to outsell the PC in the last quarter of 2013. IDC, the technology researcher, predicts that in 2015 the shift in the balance between the PC and tablet sales will be permanent.

If our medical students are to more fully exploit the benefits of their mobile device (tablet computer or smart phone) they need the same good connectivity that my son valued in 2004. The difference now is they also need connectivity in the places where they work and study too. This will create seamless access to their own study and research notes which are often cloud based e.g. Dropbox, ebooks, web resources e.g. WebMD, journal articles, email, instant messenger and calendar resources. This mobile learning environment is well described by Joshua Harding in The paperless medical student which looks forward to using tablet computers as the future study and communication platform for the medical student.

To enable this mode of working, the current mobile data offering (3G or 4G) by the UK mobile operators can be both costly and patchy, especially in a hospital environment and rural GP practices. I believe that the preferable solution is to provide a seamless WiFi access throughout the hospitals as in the case of the pilot project at Weston area health Trust, where the medical students automatically connect to the eduroam SSID just as they do at the University campus. In this way, the issues of connectivity and the location of a fixed study space fade into the background, allowing the student to research a medical case or intervention, to reflect on their experience or to check the date of their next tutorial at any time. Of course, I believe, this should be the aim of all information technology, to seamlessly provide a fast and reliable access to electronic resources wherever they are. The task of the network engineers is to provide an invisible golden thread of connectivity wherever the students need to study.

1. eduroam is a fantastic worldwide federated authentication service for the international research and education community.