This spring, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy will celebrate a milestone by graduating the inaugural class of Doctor of Physical Therapy students on the hybrid pathway.

This was no small feat, as the entire DPT curriculum was re-imagined for a hybrid online/on-campus experience. Students on the hybrid pathway take the exact same courses as their residential counterparts, but they use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous content created through a partnership with education technology company 2U Inc.

In the early stages of the re-imagination, there was some uncertainty about the efficacy of this new pathway. “There was hesitancy, at first,” recalled Julie Tilson, PT, DPT, MS, professor of clinical physical therapy and director of the DPT@USC Hybrid DPT Program. “There were questions such as ‘How do you teach physical therapy when the students aren’t on campus all the time?’”

One of the biggest pieces of the program to re-imagine was how to create a connection among students. “Physical therapy school isn’t something you should do in isolation,” Tilson explained. “It’s something you need to do with a group of people as you go through this discovery of what it means to be a physical therapist. We needed to understand how to create that sense of community.

“It’s not often you get to step through every single component of a program, look at all the pieces and figure out, ‘Why is this here?’” she continued. “How does it fit? What’s the best way to teach this content? And how do I make it equally accessible to a student anywhere in the United States? That created a lot of new teaching strategies that have impacted all of our students — the students in the residential pathway, as well as the students in the hybrid pathway.”

Now with the finish line in sight, the initial uncertainty only makes the success of this program that much sweeter. “USC always tries to have vision and set the bar,” said Daniel Kirages, PT, DPT, associate professor of clinical physical therapy. “Now there are so many programs that are offering hybrid options. We were one of the first to have a doctorate degree. And now every school offers a doctorate.”


Expanding their reach

Creation of the DPT@USC Hybrid DPT Program allowed USC to expand its reach by attracting students and faculty throughout the country.

“This program provides access to students who may not otherwise be able to attend a DPT program for various reasons, whether due to financial or relocation issues,” said Valerie Teglia, PT, DPT, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy. “Particularly, that’s a challenge for nontraditional students — those with a spouse and children. Some of them want to practice closer to their community and establish connections locally. And it helps USC expand its reach with faculty who are not able to relocate.”

In fact, the Division has expanded its faculty roster to include 23 instructors living outside of the Los Angeles basin across 12 states.

The hybrid pathway allows USC physical therapy to have a larger national impact. “It has taken our community and instantly spread it across the nation,” Tilson said. “Our faculty and student body have grown tremendously. With larger numbers, you have more influence.”

For Utah resident and third-year student Justen Kho, being part of the inaugural class of the DPT hybrid program meant he was able to attend one of the top physical therapy programs and not have to uproot his family. “My wife has a good job, our family is here and we’re fairly established,” he said. “This is where I want to practice, so being able to network with physical therapists and do my rotations here was a really big factor in that decision.”

The most challenging aspect of the program for Kho was staying self-motivated. Since students are able to listen to lectures and complete work according to their own schedule (while adhering to set deadlines), he says developing discipline to stay on top of everything was crucial.


Different paths, same result

When DPT students on the hybrid pathway ventured to the USC campus for immersions focused on laboratory learning and assessments 11 times over the course of three years, they were able to see how their skills compared to those on the residential pathway.

“I was equally equipped when it came to hands-on activities in the clinic,” Melodie Daniels said. “I have everything I need to move on and be a successful entry-level physical therapist. What’s nice is we have all these recorded lectures forever. So on top of feeling prepared, I now have extra tools if I want to go back and review.

Kho agreed and said he doesn’t feel like he received any less of an education than DPT students on the residential pathway.

“In terms of academic performance and how they’re doing in clinic, we can’t tell any difference between the two pathways,” Kirages said.

Kho cites the time on campus as critical to his success. “The biggest thing about being on campus and in the lab was being able to work with different students and see different techniques and bodies,” he said. “The more joints and bodies we feel, the more we start to gather what’s normal and what’s abnormal and develop those skills. And it was important to experience the mentorship with the professors right there, guiding you.”

When he was back at home, Kho said accessing faculty was a breeze. “It was very easy to reach out, and I had resources and multiple people to call or get in touch with if I needed anything.”

Teglia was surprise by the flexibility and graciousness exhibited by this inaugural cohort. “They’re pioneers, and they came in knowing this was going to be different,” she said. They’ve been gracious with their feedback and understanding with some of the changes.”


Impact of COVID-19

Students on the hybrid path were uniquely prepared for the fallout from COVID-19 since they were already set up for online learning, but the program was still impacted. Participants in both pathways are typically scheduled for an eight-week clinical education experience in the summer of their second year. That was canceled altogether and needed to be moved into year three.

“We shifted some of the classes that were later in summer forward to keep them on track to graduate,” Teglia said.

Due to the pandemic, those on the residential pathway had to pivot to online learning as well. Luckily, they could reach out to their hybrid counterparts to ask for assistance.

Through it all, the inaugural class of DPT students on the hybrid pathway have shown resilience that will serve them well in their careers.

“We are incredibly proud of this group of students,” Tilson said. “They have far exceeded our expectations. I’m so happy for them and all the success they’re going to have in their careers and how well they’re going to represent USC. And I’m proud of the faculty whose bravery and dedication to delivering our outstanding curriculum in exciting new ways played a big role in the students’ success.”

— Michelle McCarthy