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Educator Spotlight: Dr. John Featherstone

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By Nicole Fauteux

A relatively few individuals choose the excitement of a motorcycle over the comfort of a four-wheel vehicle. Even fewer educators volunteer to step outside the comfort of the lecture hall to lead massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs. John D.B. Featherstone M.Sc., Ph.D., Dean of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry (UCSF SOD), has done both, and his recent journey into the world of global online education has altered his perspective on teaching in the traditional classroom.  

Featherstone BigSince MOOCs were first offered just a few years ago, millions of students have been able to access college courses for free through the Internet, prompting established colleges and universities to go on high alert. While most of these sit anxiously on the sidelines, a few have embraced the new educational paradigm wholeheartedly. UCSF has charted a middle course, providing technical support to encourage its faculty to explore the new medium. In 2012, the UCSF Teaching and Learning Center, which oversees clinical simulation and other educational technologies, hired two individuals to assist faculty in the creation of MOOCs. The university launched its first courses on the Coursera platform at the start of 2013.  

Even with this dedicated technical assistance and the help of others on the dental school staff, Dr. Featherstone says creating his MOOC required vast quantities of time. Slides produced throughout the years needed to be updated and rendered stylistically consistent, and permissions needed to be gathered to use other people’s data and illustrations online. Revising his lectures to reach those with and without prior knowledge of dentistry also proved challenging. In the weeks just before the course started last August, Dr. Featherstone reports that he and his team were working day and night.

Reflecting on the experience, he says, “When you’ve been lecturing for as many years as I have, you think you’ve got it down. I revise all my lectures every year, and it probably takes an hour to revise an hour of lecture. To be doing ten times that much was just beyond what I had even dreamed would be the time commitment.”

And yet, all that time and effort appears to have paid off. More than 6,000 students registered for Dr. Featherstone’s course on Caries Management by Risk Assessment (CAMBRA). About two thirds of the students indicated they were dental professionals or students of dentistry.

One of Dr. Featherstone’s goals for the course was to spread the word about CAMBRA among the other health professions. Only 6% of the course registrants identified themselves as non-dental health professionals, but given the volume of registrants, the course likely reached 200–300 people in this particular audience, far more than a traditional CE course would attract.

While Dr. Featherstone will always retain the distinction of being the first dental educator to create a MOOC, he credits Dr. Dorothy Perry, the UCSF SOD’s Associate Dean for Education and Student Affairs, with encouraging him to take on the challenge.

“She persuaded me to do this,” Dr. Featherstone recalls. Together they reasoned that “we could probably learn something to put into practice with our own teaching. I don’t think either of us really realized how big a statement that was.”

MOOCs break down lectures into short segments, punctuated with multiple choice questions and activities that allow students to test their understanding of the content presented. At the suggestion of a colleague at the UCSF School of Medicine who had previously created a MOOC, Dr. Featherstone also introduced patient cases early on rather than frontloading the course with all of the pertinent scientific information. He credits this approach with producing a high degree of student engagement.

“I was amazed by the posted comments,” says Dr. Featherstone. “I was expecting folks would say the course was boring, but people were asking and answering questions. People were participating.”

The MOOC experience has prompted Dr. Featherstone to consider breaking up his face-to-face lectures and introducing discussion periods and online components in his campus-based courses to allow for more classroom interaction.

“I personally don’t think there’s any substitute for person-to-person contact,” he says, “but our students now are a different generation. They’ve grown up with technology in their hands—literally. We have to be open minded that these people are learning in a different fashion and that every individual learns in a different fashion. I think it’s all part of doing better education.”

Last fall, Dr. Featherstone tried transferring the patient scenarios he employed in the MOOC to a CE course he taught on CAMBRA.

“I asked the people in the course, what would you have done with these patients? How would you assess? Would you know what their caries risk is? Would you know what therapy to use? And immediately they said, whoa! This is what we’re here for.”

By this April, UCSF will have created 10 unique MOOCs on a variety of health topics and offered them through Coursera. The site is currently registering students for Dr. Featherstone’s CAMBRA MOOC, which will be offered again starting March 31, 2014.  

For more information on MOOCs and on CAMBRA, see the July and November 2013 issues of Charting Progress. You can also register for and attend Dr. Featherstone’s course at no charge. Visit to learn more.

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