A prosperous orthoptic profession depends on the number and calibre of students recruited and their retention in the workforce. PROFESSOR KATHRYN ROSE explains how UTS fits into the equation.
Orthoptics commenced at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2015 with two key aims: to build a sustainable Australian orthoptic workforce and to ensure our graduates were work-ready to meet the challenges of rapidly evolving ophthalmic technologies. This was in conjunction with strengthening core orthoptic specialisation in ocular motility, paediatrics and vision rehabilitation.
A sustainable orthoptic workforce depends on the number and quality of students recruited and their retention in the workforce. The UTS Master of Orthoptics has attracted more than 120 applications a year. As one of only two orthoptic courses in the Asia Pacific, around 7% enrol as international students. This reflects an increased awareness of orthoptics as a career and the reputation of the course.
Since 2016, an average of 55 students have graduated annually, representing a marked increase compared to the years immediately prior to 2015 and this has remained consistent. We are acutely aware of existing orthoptist shortages in Australian states, territories, rural regions and New Zealand and endeavour to address this through a compulsory out-of-Sydney clinical placement block for senior students. There has been some success in graduates accepting employment in these regions where placements were offered.
UTS has maintained a long-term focus on building relationships with industry and this has accelerated partnerships with employers and the ophthalmic industry. Led by the UTS Orthoptic Industry Advisory Board, chaired by Professor Frank Martin, we have been able to better engage industry to educate our students. These partnerships have created a significant advantage for the students and their future employers, by facilitating access to the latest technologies and enriched learning through provision of industry-run educational classes and workshops.
In early 2017 the Master of Orthoptics was fully accredited by the Australian Orthoptic Board after receiving favourable feedback from employers and graduates. In 2019, a three-year evaluation of courses at UTS placed the Master of Orthoptics on the UTS Outstanding and Commendable Courses list based on; low attrition rate, student satisfaction, graduate satisfaction with teaching and graduate workplace success.
With the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020, UTS Orthoptics has been in an almost constant state of change. The orthoptic staff had to simultaneously transition to a new online learning platform coupled with transferring most of our teaching online. Hopefully we are now looking towards a more settled future, however, as I write we are headed into lockdown again. While COVID-19 caused disruption and rapid transformation in ways of working, there have been valuable lessons learned for the future.
Online course content has firstly demonstrated students can learn well using this medium. This was exemplified by student comments about how they liked the ability to re-run videoed lectures to clarify any aspect they didn’t grasp at first viewing. However, there are some caveats. It was found that lecture content was best delivered via short (10 minutes) videos, coupled with online learning activities. Workshops worked well in small groups with students working collaboratively and engaging with case- based learning. However, not all content was applicable to online delivery.
The greatest impact was felt on our clinical laboratory sessions that teach and assess practical skills, and placements in external clinical sites. In mid-2020 – after lengthy preparation to ensure compliance with NSW Health regulations mandating social distancing and wearing of personal protective equipment – we could finally welcome back first year students to campus to undertake clinical laboratory classes.
Clinical placements remain an essential component of enabling orthoptic students to be work-ready and a big thank you to all those clinicians who provided placements in 2020, allowing all our second year cohort to graduate. The most recent lockdown will challenge us again but hopefully we are all better prepared. The loss of placement sites also made us look carefully at where our graduates are being employed and extend the scope of placements to include industry partners and the non-government sector.
Online education has found its place in the UTS Master of Orthoptics, while we continue to evaluate and refine its delivery. It has given us the advantage of increased flexibility in scheduling course content, giving additional days for clinical placements. This will be a win for all, leading to further improvement in the quality, competency and work- readiness of our graduates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Professor Kathryn Rose is the Head of Discipline (Orthoptics) at the Graduate School of Health, University of Technology Sydney. She’s a leading international researcher on the development of vision and refractive errors, in particular myopia. She has also published extensively in the areas of public health approaches and evidence-based practice in eye healthcare.