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Today we associate the word “virtual” with video-conferencing solutions like Zoom, GoToMeeting and Webex and others. Birthday parties, dinner engagements, holiday gatherings and, unfortunately, even funerals, have all become virtual events.

Yes, it has been good to virtually “see” our families, friends, and neighbors, but it has been challenging to “feel” the connections. Like it or not, virtual interaction is now firmly part of our lives — and this will only become more a part of our “new normal.”

Last year, I wrote a Spear Digest article titled “The New Virtual Realities of Spear Study Club.” My intent was to highlight the purpose and benefits of organizing and participating in virtual Study Club meetings. Prior to the pandemic, in-person club meetings were a given for many interdisciplinary teams to share educational material and interact in case discussions and treatment planning dialogues. In-room conversations and interactive “table talks,” accompanied by hands-on models and materials, as well as small group “breakouts,” allowed for productive and energetic sessions.

Our club utilized tools like Zoom and GoToMeeting to maintain our connection virtually. As much as we were able to continue to interact to discuss PPP, PPE and practice outlook and dynamics, these virtual sources had their own set of problems. Disconnections, poor audio and video, and limited features to maintain member engagement and interaction were some of the setbacks that added to the frustrations of virtual connection.

Fortunately, my colleagues at Spear heard our frustrations and have designed an entirely new integrated meeting platform that allows us to meet efficiently and seamlessly online — and to provide hybrid learning as we begin to once again open our meetings to live, interactive learning.

I had the opportunity to preview this new Spear Study Club interactive platform and I am excited to share some the outstanding new features it offers.

The advanced features of your new Study Club experience

The new integrated virtual study club meeting platform makes meetings as efficient as possible in this dual dynamic of meeting in-person and online. To conduct meetings, my club now has the option to use our Video Library to play Study Club learning modules with a higher caliber video and audio. I think you’ll find it very helpful to be able to leverage new advanced features that encourage collaboration and engagement, including:

Recording: Capture parts of your meeting, or even the entire discussion, to reflect on later or share with members who were unable to attend.

Quizzes/polls: Keep the discussion lively with periodic questions about the module and updates about upcoming meetings.

Interactive whiteboard: Use digital drawing tools to help "draw in" your club and illustrate your ideas.

Screen-share or upload files: View related meeting documents, decks, graphics, and PDFs together simultaneously.

Breakouts: Split your large group into smaller ones to explore treatment planning strategies and more technical concepts in depth.

I encourage you to experience this new integrated format at your next scheduled club meeting. These features listed above will really make a difference in your meeting organization and interaction. If you’re a Study Club leader or member, make sure your club has a future meeting scheduled so you can experience the new platform in action! If you're not part of a Spear Study Club, you can learn more about joining or starting a club in your community.

Finding more solutions for the new ‘virtual realities’ of dentistry

My article last year emphasized the importance of virtual study club meetings to maintain a supportive and supplementary venue to exchange thoughts, ideas and direction as COVID-19 altered our lives. For me, I found virtual study club meetings a valuable, flexible tool in addressing the effects and implications of the pandemic. I was thankful my club members were in attendance and supportive of the meetings throughout a challenging year.

However, “the new virtual reality” is that we are beginning to “zoom out” from virtual meetings in both the professional and personal context. I don’t know if it is “zoomed out” or “zoned out,” but virtual meetings no longer carry the lure or the fascination that they did earlier in the pandemic. You can also read more on this topic in Dr. Ricardo Mitrani’s Spear Digest article “Moving Beyond Dentistry’s Zoom Boom.”

As much as I anticipated and relied on my virtual study club meetings for interaction and engagement with my peers and colleagues, I noticed a decreasing involvement and enlistment of members both attending and interacting. While it was a challenge to maintain excitement and create meaningful interactions through video screens and a muted microphone, the new Study Club experience takes so much of that frustration away.

Group learning is essential in online interdisciplinary dental education

Small-group learning is an important tool in the educational toolbox of methods and techniques to enhance our clinical knowledge. We need collaboration and interaction with our specialty colleagues to increase our learning and our understanding of complex cases.

Sure, we have all dealt with tech-related snafus, glitches, and conundrums. But the common frustrations and challenges of study club members have been addressed through updates to the Study Club website.

The enhanced Study Club experience makes it like having a single site and one-button connection for my club. This new club platform brings greater opportunity for interaction and connectedness, as I have noticed in my early foray into the new features.

First and foremost is the fact Spear is now hosting and delivering Study Club meetings from its own site. The new platform does not require downloads or registrations from outside video conferencing providers like Zoom or Webex.

Now, by going to your Spear Study Club website, clicking one button will seamlessly connect you to the scheduled virtual meeting that is present and clearly visible on the dashboard.

It’s all about ease of navigation with updated Study Club meeting features

By logging into your Study Club website, you have complete access to the time, title, and details of your next scheduled meeting. When the time is right, you’ll be able to start or join your meeting and see your case module with vastly improved video and audio quality. My first impression was that it was absolutely what my club has been clamoring for.

Another powerful key feature is how different types of meetings can be formatted. Virtual meetings remain necessary, at present, to maintain safety and distancing. But as COVID-19 inoculations continue and social restrictions are lifted, more clubs can begin to organize live meetings. Personally, I cannot wait!

That said, the new study club format offers the possibility of hosting live, in-person meetings, virtual meetings, or a combination of the two in a hybrid format. This capability allows for clubs to choose the type of meeting interaction in which their club members are comfortable.

As live meetings begin, members may attend at their designated meeting location. But for those members who prefer less interaction, the hybrid format allows for continued, seamless interaction between the groups. This feature will be an extremely valuable addition to our study clubs as we move forward in this pandemic and eventually return to regular live interactions.

Interactive whiteboard, breakout groups and improved audio-video for club meetings

Study Club advanced features include an interactive whiteboard that allows you to easily highlight and document discussions and concepts, just like having a live “chalk-talk” interaction.

For my “Inspire” study club of clinicians in the Chicago area, the whiteboard was an integral tool that stimulated conversation and promoted group interaction by highlighting words, phrases or concepts outlined from a presentation or module, as we had in our in-person format. Participants were drawn in by the interactive nature of contributing to the “chalk talk” conversation. I can’t wait to use this interactive online feature on a regular basis. You can learn more about my Inspire club and the value of small-group learning in Spear Digest.

Additionally, the new format allows for the easy creation of breakout groups for smaller and more intimate group discussions around planning and technical concepts. Small-group learning is a critical component for improving knowledge and understanding of concepts. One 2016 article in the Journal of Dental Education showed how researchers noted that small, breakout group sessions “make learners feel more like partners in the educational process.”

This is a key phrase, in that study clubs are organized and designed to be a safe, supportive, trusting learning environment. The small-group format supports and enhances that opportunity. A breakout within a small-group environment enhances the level of learning and creates a sense of confidence among learners. This breakout feature will surely augment the live and interactive feel of our virtual study club meetings.

“The enhanced Study Club experience makes it like having a single site and one-button connection for my club.” -Dr. Jeff Bonk, Spear Resident Faculty

Again, I am excited to try more of this new format for these highlighted reasons and the many other improvements and additions that have been included in the Study Club experience. I encourage all members of the Spear Study Club community to try the website updates and take advantage of this enhanced format.

I want to close with a quote from an article from the Journal of Anesthesia and Intensive Care. The author writes, “Individuals within groups have a greater chance of identifying what they do not know, clarifying what they do not understand, and correcting misconceptions. It is difficult for an individual working in isolation to realize what they do not comprehend.”

Humans are social beings. We thrive on interaction and relationships. Study clubs are a great source for interaction, learning and both personal and professional growth. Don’t allow the pandemic to keep you isolated from your peers and colleagues. I wish you well! Be safe!

Jeffrey Bonk, D.D.S., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.