Technology: Deus Ex Machina

By: Jonathan Thigpen, PharmD; Emmeline Tran, PharmD, BCPS; Damianne Brand, PharmD; Vibhuti Agrahari, Ph.D., M. Pharm.

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backward.”

― Aldous Huxley

The news often portrays the harmful effects of technology, as it relates to social media and “screen time.” Less frequently, we discuss how technology could harm academia, only to remember before it is too late.  For decades, people have cautioned the increased use of technology. Even though technology is a divisive topic, it is an integral part of higher education. Technology will continue to advance and strengthen its hold on education. 

We can point to many instances where technology has failed or complicated matters to the point of utter frustration. The current COVID-19 pandemic, for example, showcases both our reliance on and struggle to use technology effectively. Simultaneously, we must acknowledge technology provides tools necessary to continue educating students during this disruptive pandemic. Technology continues to drastically change the way pharmacy education is delivered. As a result, more emphasis is warranted to assess its utility and employ guidance regarding further implementation.

Technology Burden

While technology seemingly helps streamline processes and makes our work more efficient, it can also overburden our time and remove focus from our most important goals. For instance, email is meant to increase efficiency by removing barriers to communication. However, email also can cripple our ability to focus, uninterrupted, on the most important aspects of our work, such as clinical practice, research, and teaching.1 How can faculty members be expected to deal with nuanced, difficult student issues while simultaneously being bombarded with work emails? Solutions to this issue include decreasing our reliance on email for communication, redistributing our time spent towards what we value most, or dedicating specific times for focused purposes. These solutions, though, will require establishing shared expectations of what is reasonable and effective, while maintaining a commitment to agreed upon expectations from multiple stakeholders (e.g. students, faculty, administration).

A similar argument can be applied to health information technology (HIT). In clinical practice, practitioners process a multitude of reminders, barriers, and paperwork. While this important guidance promotes safety, the ever-increasing burden of this technology has contributed to the burnout of practitioners.2  National efforts were created as a response to lessen the technological burden in healthcare.

Online Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a need to better appreciate the value of in-person teaching. With moving classes online, many faculty are challenged by losing face-to-face contact with their students. Along with social benefits, face-to-face instruction brings unique positives to learning in the health professions, primarily through direct contact with clinicians. While the convenience of online learning cannot be ignored, there are drawbacks to it, including concerns regarding exam integrity, student engagement (in class and outside of class), student accountability, and burnout.3 

The optimal approach to learning is likely a mixed method of sorts (“blended” learning), in which faculty and students still reap the benefits of face-to-face interaction while utilizing technology to convey concepts in interesting and engaging ways.4 One example of an innovative pedagogical method is “crowdsourcing”, where faculty leverage the skills and knowledge of an entire class of students to complete a project.

Online Learning Technology is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be useful if used appropriately. For instance, online instruction where faculty mediate learning and employ a “hands on” approach is more effective than students working independently.4 In other words, one cannot simply post materials online and leave students to independently learn. Another challenge is the overreliance of online education on media elements. A commonly purported idea is adding videos, audio, graphics, and images will better engage students and improve learning. However, having access to media nor the quantity of media available improves student learning. Instead, evidence suggests that the interactivity of the media is most important (e.g. to what degree the student “controls” the video).4 Other strategies showing effectiveness for online learning include simulations and reflection activities.4 Further guidance for best practices regarding online and blending learning include:

  • Utilize a student-centered approach
  • Assign group work and encourage collaboration
  • Use active learning
  • Allow for increased course flexibility
  • Provide immediate feedback
  • Ensure technical support and guidance
  • Be organized and purposeful
  • Be engaged and socially present

Without purpose and thoughtfulness, technology will only magnify our ineptitudes as exemplified in a recent higher education poll which noted that 77% of students said distance learning is worse or much worse than in-person classes. Thirteen percent said they would take time off from college if distance learning continues next year.5 

Technology is here to stay. Pharmacy education should continue to embrace it, but with a more discerning eye. Technology improving learning and teaching should be promoted. Technology  creating more harm than benefit should be cast aside. We must ask ourselves, is this increasing reliance good, bad, or somewhere in between?


The authors would like to acknowledge members of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Council of Faculty’s Junior Faculty Task Force for their help in encouraging and guiding this effort.


  1. Newport C. Is email making professors stupid? The Chronicle Review Web site. Published February 13, 2019. Accessed June 1, 2020.
  2. West CP, Dyrbye LN, Shanafelt TD. Physician burnout: Contributors, consequences and solutions. J Intern Med. 2018;283(6):516-529.
  3. Iwai Y. Online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific American Web site. Published March 13, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020.
  4. U.S. Department of Education. Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. 2010. Accessed June 1, 2020.
  5. Beschloss C. Most student jobs have been canceled, delayed or digitized by coronavirus. College Reaction Web site. Published May 12, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020.

Jonathan Thigpen is an Associate Professor at Notre Dame Maryland University School of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include assessment, curriculum, admissions, and public health. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children as well as reading and watching football.

Emmeline Tran is an Assistant Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. Educational scholarship interests include experiential education, metacognition, and mentorship. In her free time, she enjoys baking and crafting.

Dr. Damianne Brand-Eubanks, PharmD is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Student Success at the Yakima Extension campus of the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences since 2015. Her research interests are intrapreneurship/entrepreneurship and mental health care access.  She is concurrently practicing at a rural, independent community pharmacy.  In her free time, she enjoys hiking in the beautiful PNW and tasting wines of the Yakima Valley.

Dr. Vibhuti Agrahari is an Assistant Professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University Bernard J Dunn School of Pharmacy. Educational scholarly interests include student engagement, professional development, and help students improve their skills in scientific communication. In her free time, Vibhuti loves playing with her 21-month old daughter, enjoys cooking with her husband, and spending time with family. 

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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