The pandemic has forced universities to completely digitalize existing teaching formats. Some academic institutions were completely unprepared, while others had already prepared well for online teaching. This cross-sectional study aimed to evaluate the teaching offered for oral and maxillofacial surgery at our university during the pandemic and to investigate the students’ perceptions of the current situation.
Overall, the participants evaluated the teaching offer for oral and maxillofacial surgery to be fairly good. The students highlighted that, compared to other dental clinics at our university, the department for oral- and maxillofacial surgery was well prepared for the pandemic. The participants confirmed that the previously developed blended learning concepts contributed to the good preparation, and the change from face-to-face to online teaching worked very well. During the first pandemic year, only minor parts of the lectures and the internships were canceled, and, in the case of cancelation, it was possible to replace the courses.
Most students stated that they would have liked to have continued their internships normally from the start, despite the risk of infection. This confirms the results of a study by Harries et al., in which participants stated that they would like to return to clinical rotations regardless of the risk of infection . In relation to the lectures, however, the students rated face-to-face attendance to the contrary and stated that they would like to keep the digital courses (e-learning programs and digital lectures) in future. Overall, the participants confirmed that the online courses motivated them to study more. This confirms the results of other studies indicating high motivation due to e-learning [10,11,12]. Although most students indicated that they would prefer to further reduce face-to-face events and replace them with online courses, a minority negated this, as they preferred face-to-face teaching.
From a technical point of view, the changeover went well at our institution, as there were rarely technical problems with the online events. Although most students had no prior experience with online courses, they successfully participated in most of the online events. The participants in this study stated that the digitalization of dental education itself was not a stressful factor for them. Rather the opposite, as the students indicated that effective knowledge gain increased with online teaching compared to face-to-face teaching. However, it is clear that this aspect depends on the faculty’s readiness and expertise to employ technology to facilitate the learning process. In a study by Khalil et al., there were several technical problems, including poor internet connectivity or educators’ deficient basic computer skills, which caused stress for the students as the learning goals could not be achieved .
In addition, several studies have indicated that, apart from digitalization, the pandemic itself has been stressful for dental students [14,15,16]. For example, Agius et al. reported that the pandemic caused a fear of losing manual dexterity skills and influenced examinations . However, the participants of our study stated that most students were not concerned that the marks of their final examination might be influenced by the pandemic. The responses to the concerns that single courses might not be passed due to the pandemic were rather ambivalent. Regarding the overall impact of the pandemic on the students’ education, the participants also had very divergent attitudes. While some rated the influence positively, others stated that the influence was rather negative. These differences can have many different causes. It certainly depends on the type of learner, the stage of training, and social circumstances. In a study by Klaassen et al., similar results were found, as about half of their participants were extremely concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their education while the other half worried less . The statement, that the pandemic made it easier for the students to focus on their studies as there was less distraction from leisure activities was negated in the present study.
In this study, students stated that the pandemic had a somewhat positive influence on the acquisition of theoretical skills and a somewhat negative influence on the acquisition of practical skills. In a practical profession like dentistry, the acquisition of practical skills is extremely important. Possible solutions to overcome the lack of practical training could be virtual simulation technologies or computer-based models of real-life processes. The advantage of such methods is having a controlled setting in a safe environment and the exclusion of risk to patients [13, 17]. Despite these digital solutions, a resumption of the courses needs to be considered under appropriate hygiene conditions [18, 19].
From the teachers’ point of view, the teaching atmosphere has changed a lot over the past year. At our department, the lecturers agree that the online courses were a good solution to continue teaching during the pandemic. Still, teaching in online courses has become impersonal and the interaction between the lecturer und the students has decreased. Nevertheless, thanks to the e-learning material, the students seem to be better prepared for the lectures and internships. The teachers in our department therefore agree that classroom teaching cannot be replaced by digital formats, but that e-learning is a perfect tool to support the courses in a blended learning concept.
The major limitation of this study is that the cross-sectional survey took place only at a single institution. Further studies including multiple institutions are needed, although the comparison might be difficult as the stage of digitalization is different at each university.
Digitalization of teaching oral and maxillofacial surgery in dental education is possible but depends on the institutions preparatory work and technological possibilities. Thanks to the comprehensive blended learning offer created beforehand, our department was well prepared for the pandemic. In future, cooperation between universities should increase so that more institutes can benefit from the digitalization that has taken place at single institutions. Students declared a high acceptance of the digital learning formats and indicated an increased motivation to learn due to the e-learning materials. The pandemic influence on the students’ education was rated ambivalent.