You’re going to do what? Teach massage therapy online? Is that even possible? How’s that going to work? These are just a few reactions I received from faculty and students when we were approved to begin moving to online education and an increased reliance on technology in the classroom due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

At Pacific College of Health and Science, we were already accustomed to using technology in the classroom, such as Moodle, to host all of our course handouts, online quizzes, assignments, grade books, and more. In addition, some of our faculty regularly used PowerPoint, YouTube videos, and other media in their lectures and presentations.

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However, our massage faculty had never taught or held an online class. It was a new concept for us, and frankly, a new concept for massage therapy education in general. Because massage education leads to a licensed profession in most states, each state determines what is allowable when it comes to the delivery of this education. Under “normal” circumstances in Illinois, massage education has only been exclusively allowed in-person and onsite (never via online education). As a result, the world of teaching massage therapy online was new to us all.

As mentioned, each state determines the rules for what needs to be taught and how it can be delivered when it comes to massage therapy education. Illinois made an exception to its rules, temporarily allowing online education for non-hands-on courses in massage therapy programs so students could continue attending classes remotely during the stay-at-home orders. This meant that didactic courses could continue, but those with a hands-on component were not allowed to be taught online.

At first, this was a big dilemma for me, as a large portion of our program requires students to combine both theory and practice in the classroom. However, I was already used to program development and change. We had moved from a traditionally-structured massage program to a modular approach several years ago and I was comfortable thinking outside the box when it came to re-designing our program.

For us to continue teaching our students during this unique time in history, I needed to separate the didactic portion of our courses from the hands-on lab portions. Then, I needed to create new course numbers for these two “new” courses that originally were one. For example, our Western Clinical Massage (Module A) course originally had both lecture and lab components in every class session (2.5 units/45 hours). Now, it became two courses: Western Clinical Massage (Module A Lecture) (1.0 units/15 hours) and Western Clinical Massage (Module A Lab) (1.5 units/30 hours). We scheduled the lecture-only portion for the upcoming term, while reserving the lab portion for a future term when we could return to campus.

Ultimately, I needed to create more than a dozen different new courses by separating out the didactic and lab portions. From an administrative perspective, it worked.

But even though it looked good on paper, would it really work in real life? How would we be able to teach our students who were used to combining theory and practice on the ground?

Most importantly, it was essential that my faculty understood the new curriculum and course schedules for the upcoming term. Luckily, I received buy-in from my faculty, who were eager to experiment and learn new ways of engaging students online. Second, our school devoted many hours of both synchronous and asynchronous training to our faculty and students when moving from on-ground teaching and learning into a virtual online classroom. In addition, my faculty and I have continued to touch base regularly throughout the term regarding what is working and what needs to be tweaked or changed in our delivery approach.

Lessons from teaching touch-based therapies remotely

For a couple of my courses, I decided to flip the script: I pre-recorded video lessons and posted them into Moodle to be viewed ahead of our scheduled class time. Then, during our class time, we were able to go more in-depth in our discussions related to the topics covered that week. It also allowed students to re-watch and pause the presentation for better comprehension overall.

In terms of other technology beyond Moodle, Pacific College of Health and Science uses Zoom as the virtual classroom meeting space. My faculty and I have explored various options in Zoom, including the use of chat; polls; breakout rooms for small group discussions; streaming YouTube videos as part of a presentation; large classroom discussions; and games such as a basic quiz bowl, Jeopardy, and Kahoot!; to engage students while having some fun.

One especially positive aspect of our new online teaching approach is that we have been experimenting with how to present material in new and compelling ways. In the future, when we will most certainly be returning to on-ground teaching, many of us will continue to incorporate some of these tools such as Kahoot! and other similar online programs into our classrooms. Additionally, as both an administrator and educator, I have found online teaching more enjoyable and engaging for myself. I have found that students — including those who are usually less vocal in the on-ground classroom — seem to be more present and willing to ask questions through the chat function in Zoom. Finally, for attendance purposes, it is much easier to know who arrived at what time and for how long they stayed.

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About the Author:

David R. Sol (DAc, LAc, LMT, and Doctor of Acupuncture) is the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Pacific College of Health and Science in Chicago, teaching both the massage therapy certificate program and the doctoral degree program.