Optimising Practice-based Learning & Simulation at AECC University College

Interview with Gary Francis

Gary Francis recently joined AECC University College as Head of Practice Learning & Simulation Lead. In this role, Gary will focus on working with students and staff to help optimise the student learning experience; specifically focusing on practice-based learning and simulation on campus.

After qualifying, Gary initially specialised in Intensive Care Nursing at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. In 2008, he moved into the first Practice Educator role within the organisation, working with Nursing and Allied Health Professional (AHP) students to support them while they were on clinical placement.

Prior to joining the University College, Gary worked at London South Bank University as an academic and spent the last seven years as Associate Professor of Practice Skills & Simulation. In this role, he had strategic oversight of all of the skill-based elements of the professional nursing and AHP programs with professional leads, and established the Simulation department.

In 2017, Gary won a prestigious scholarship from the Florence Nightingale Foundation to further his specialism in Simulated Learning. He travelled to Australia, visiting hospitals and universities that were demonstrating leading examples of simulated learning.

Gary also has two Masters degrees in Education and Research from London South Bank University. He is also a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  

He tells us more about his career so far and his passion for helping students to get the most from their learning:

Simulation in education

“Simulation-based education has been a big focus of my career: it’s an educational approach/technique that seeks to recreate real life, challenging or high-risk situations in the safety of the education environment.

“Learners get to apply their knowledge and tackle hands-on clinical thinking and communication skills. It’s about looking at how can we simulate different scenarios and cases to enhance the skills development of our students interprofessionally, across the courses that we offer at AECC University College.

“I’m keen to create new simulated spaces on campus and work with AECC colleagues to try new techniques to support practice learning through simulation. In my last role, I worked with a range of technology, moulage [professional make-up] actors, service users and clinicians to create the most realistic set ups for student learning.  

“This gives students a safe space where they can practice, independently or together, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and enhance their skillset before they go out into practice. This protects patient safety, whilst also ensuring that our students have got strong skills and are attractive to employers.

“I’m motivated by robust educational experiences that will prepare our students to deliver high quality care to patients. It’s giving students the right support and training to be able to make decisions that will keep themselves, colleagues, patients and clients safe at all times.”

Creating, optimising and maintaining placement capacity

“Practice placements are often restricted. Simulation and non-traditional practice learning opportunities can help relieve the pressure that placements can sometimes put on NHS teams, while still meeting regulatory and professional standards and providing an excellent experience for the students.

“I’m currently working on a research piece for publication where we took students out of practice for one day a week and substituted clinical time for simulated practice in order to rotate more students through the practice area.

“We used actors, make-up, mannequins, imaging, blood results, drains, and monitors to create four credible and authentic cases that these students would meet each week.

“We took them from Accident & Emergency all the way through to a complex discharge back home. We looked at each of the different elements of care that they would encounter through that pathway. That gave students a great insight into all elements of care that really challenged them in terms of applying their knowledge to ‘real’ situations.

“That’s always the challenge, because sometimes theory and practical application are quite different. We’re making it easier for students to move from knowledge to putting it into practice.”

Building empathy

“Simulation can also be so useful to help students understand what their patients might be experiencing. It might be putting on an age simulation suit, which lets students find out what it’s like to try and feed themselves with weights on their arms.

“Visual disturbance goggles can mimic conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts and tunnel vision so that students can experience what this is like, and what it’s like to be in someone else’s care when your vision is restricted.

“The more real we can make it; the more likely students will interact with it as if they were in a real-life situation and how the patient might feel.”

Supporting students on placement

“Great support is key for students on placement or on non-traditional practice learning opportunities, helping them debrief and guiding them to get the best from them.

 “I strongly believe in the importance of having conversations about what’s working and what isn’t to ensure we are supporting students and educators through that journey. Working in healthcare can be challenging and we need to be able to help support everyone to make sure it is an enjoyable and beneficial experience and relationship.

“We want our locally-trained students to stay within in Dorset and contribute to the health and well-being of the local communities.”

Preparation and reflection

“It’s about preparation for and reflection on clinical practice: that’s what I’m really passionate about. That’s what we need to get right on campus so that the bit in the middle – when students are on their placement – is as valuable as possible.

“Good communication, being a reflective and insightful practitioner, being willing to learn and open to feedback are all key to being a safe and intuitive professional.

“I’ll be supporting staff to seek and find new placements and practice learning opportunities as the AECC University College community continues to grow. I’m keen to have conversations with employers and external stakeholders about the kinds of opportunities that we can create for our students, and what we can do collaboratively to help support a sustainable workforce. I see these relationships as partnerships.

“I am very much looking forward to working with AECC University College colleagues and external stakeholders.”  

You can find out more about the courses we offer at AECC University College here.

Gary Francis

Above: Gary Francis