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ISU physical therapy program offers high-tech distance learning options

Physical therapy students take advantage of new distance learning offerings at ISU. Photo by Pete Grady Photography.

While physical therapy is a decidedly hands-on field, students in Meridian and Pocatello are finding that their professional training is getting a boost from technology.

When Idaho State University’s Meridian campus expanded its physical therapy program this year, the school also invested in real-time distance-learning technology that connects students and instructors at the two teaching sites.

“I can tell you that not many PT programs are doing this,” said Evan Papa, assistant program director and associate professor in ISU’s department of occupational and physical therapy.

He said instruction via distance-learning technology is used by about five Doctor of Physical Therapy programs around the U.S.

ISU’s Meridian campus has expanded its programs. Photo by Pete Grady Photography.

ISU has offered the program at the Pocatello campus for over 20 years and is now doubling the size of the program – from 24 to 48 – to expand classes to 24 aspiring PTs at the Meridian campus. About 500 people enrolled for the available slots, which are in high demand, said Papa.

“A student hits the button on a microphone (mounted on the desk) and the camera zooms in on him or her,” said Papa about getting used to teaching students at a distant site. For the most part, students are interactive and engaged in the process, he said.

“For me, it took a good month” to get used to teaching distant-learning style, said Papa. “The images are clear. The sound is fine.”

Cameras at the front and back of the lecture halls, large-screen TVs and a crisp sound system not only give students a chance to share lectures with other aspiring PTs, but allow the instructors “from afar” to gauge how students are conducting an examination during lab times.

“The very first thing we teach students is proper body mechanics” so they can avoid injury, said Papa. The instructors guide students in the right techniques, such as correct stance, which can help future clients achieve greater physical function and mobility.

By helping retrain and restore joints and muscles, a PT can help cut down recovery time and the lasting effects of injury or illness, said Papa of a profession that is No. 8 on Idaho’s Hot Jobs List through 2024.

Sharing resources between the two campuses has gone surprisingly well, said Deanna Dye, program director, who is based in Pocatello.

She said the department spent about $500,000 to purchase equipment from two vendors – Avodex and Shure – that are active in the in the instructional technology space to link the two campuses. But the greatest cost – about $1 million – was for construction costs to ensure the best acoustics possible, she said.

The construction planning (at the two campuses) was spot on, she said, referring to cables and ports that had to be in place to accommodate the various equipment.

About Steve Sinovic

Steve Sinovic covers health care, construction, real estate and transportation for IBR.