E. Ennever1, J.A. Kelder2, C. Zimitat3, J. Walls2

1University of Tasmania (AUSTRALIA)
2University of Tasmania, Faculty of Health Science (AUSTRALIA)
3University of Tasmania, Medical Education Unit (AUSTRALIA)
“Perspectives on Ageing” (POA), is a unit of study that medical, nursing and paramedic students undertake at the Faculty of Health Science, University of Tasmania. It focuses on health issues and health care for aged people in an Australian context. POA enables students to “skilfully engage with peers in a respectful inter-professional dialogue” where they can critically appraise attitudes to ageing, address topics in aged care and gain insight into physiological, social and psychological processes of ageing. The three student cohorts study POA in parallel content mode, with live lectures used in tandem with online content delivery. Asynchronous online discussions and postings are employed to facilitate dialogue and form thirty per cent of POA’s final mark.

In 2011 the Medical School at the university undertook a research study regarding student experiences of POA. An embedded researcher experienced POA as a student would, and six interviews and two focus groups were conducted with students to illuminate common experiences and topics. In addition to this data seven of seventy POA discussion groups and forty students consented to permit their online discussions and postings to be included in the research, and documents related to the unit were also examined. The research informed an internal report in early 2012 which found, among its recommendations, that communication of expectations and characterisation of inter-professional learning (IPL) were somewhat inconsistent in POA and this was reflected in student opinion of the unit.

The amount of textual data available for POA, and the possibility of bias in thematic analysis, led the research team to consider the use of critical discourse analysis (CDA) for examination of textual and sociolinguistic interactions among the students. A CDA framework as developed by Fairclough (1995, 2003, 2010), as employed by Loke, Colquhoun and Lee (2011), using a four stage approach to account for semiotic aspects of social issues or problems, identification of possible obstacles, identification of a problem or issue with its network of order or practice, and identification of possible ways of addressing the problem or issue, was used to uncover whether the term “meaningful” applied to the asynchronous discussions from the students’ standpoint.

“Meaningful” dialogue appeared to have been achieved within the confines of strict interpretation of POA’s aims in 2011 but wider Faculty and School aims for IPL interaction between undergraduate professional students appears to confuse “meaningful” dialogue with more transformational interpretations of online IPL interaction. The identification of confused rhetoric has resulted in revised unit aims and outcomes for POA in 2012, and the involvement of a new advisory board for renewal of the unit and better alignment of unit goals with actual teaching. CDA of student online asynchronous discussions and postings is uncovering underlying assumptions in setting and language that have helped engender misapprehension, and CDA has shown potential as a tool for unpacking the sociolinguistic, hierarchical and institutional norms embodied in student interactions. This will help inform targeted IPL experiences in the Faculty of Health Science into the future and redefine what is considered “meaningful” to students.