The University of Minnesota Rochester and Google Cloud are teaming up to create an accelerated learning path for UMR's health care-focused students.

Called NXT GEN MED, the partnership combines elements of UMR's traditional health care program with virtual reality and Google's cloud computing expertise.

The program shaves almost two years off the traditional four-year degree, allowing students to graduate faster, spend less and work in the heath care sector quicker.

There is a catch. Students have to work year-round. But educators say that intensity could appeal to students eager to get a jump on their education and professional careers at a time when demand for health care workers is soaring.

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"For those who are certain that they want a health career, this gets them out and earning soon," said UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell. "And that is a draw."

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents this month approved $2.4 million for an online platform to be built by Google that UMR faculty and students will use.

Carrell said the platform will be a "highly interactive" space for students. It will feature a "dashboard" to help them organize their remote instruction and store course materials and resources.

It will also give students access to "all of the components of their education" as they progress through the various stages of their academic and work careers.

Google's involvement aims at helping students and faculty use technology more effectively. Educators right now struggle in using technology, and students feel "overwhelmed" by remote learning.

"The organizational challenge of this remote instruction period is overwhelming," Carrell said about the pandemic's impact on learning. "That's the word we hear all the time (from students). It's overwhelming just to keep track of everything. So on the platform, there will be a dashboard where all of that is pre-organized."

The pilot program is scheduled to kick off in summer 2022 with a 50-student cohort and, if successful, will scale up to serve more students in future years.

Carrell said the pandemic and its associated disruptions are causing health care and education to be more innovative.

Reliance on remote learning, the mental health challenges that have arisen from it, and higher education's financial challenges are among the disruptions "that have gotten us to a moment in higher education that requires innovation." UMR's faculty research focus on student learning and development is also part of its identity and mission.

UMR has demonstrated success in educating under-represented students and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. The new program will retain the elements that have been shown to work – including success coaches and living learning communities – but also be paired with a high-tech environment that "gamifies" the curriculum.

"Educators all over are doing the best we can," Carrell said. "We carry on with the circumstances we have and the technology we have. But what is possible with technology is not currently optimally serving education. So, what we're doing with Google is working to make teaching and learning optimally use higher tech."

Carrell said students in the program will learn in-person and remotely, depending on the lesson and the circumstance. Faculty still have to work out the details, something they will be doing this summer.

A lesson on anatomy and physiology, for example, might best be taught through virtual reality that "brings the interior of the human body to life" A discussion on medical ethics might best be taught in person.

"It's looking at course by course and components of courses. What can be optimally done virtually and what could be optimally done in person. That's what we're about," Carrell said.

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