Does Virtual Microscopy Enhance Student Collaboration and Content Mastery in an Undergraduate Human Anatomy Course?

Presenter First Name: 
Presenter Last Name: 
O'Loughlin, PhD
Year of Presentation: 

Comparing Optical and Virtual Microscopy in the Classroom

Valerie Dean O’Loughlin, Ph.D.
Mark Braun, M.D.
Medical Sciences
Indiana University School of Medicine

Optical Microscopy

  • Glass slide viewed through microscope
  • Typically only one individual can view a slide at a time
  • In a class setting, students can view slides only in lab (b/c optical microscopes only found in lab)
  • Vision‐impaired students have difficulty

Virtual Microscopy

  • Slides digitally scanned
  • Computer interface simulates a standard optical microscope
  • Multiple students may view images on computer screen
  • Students may examine slides anywhere they have computer access
  • Better for vision‐impaired students

Virtual Microscopy (VM) incorporated in several medical, professional schools
Multiple reports of VM being incorporated in medical histology and pathology curricula*

  • Students supportive of technology
  • Student performance did not decline with switchover to VM

Yet there is little if any information about how virtual microscopy could impact the undergraduate anatomy classroom
* Blake et al., 2003, Braun and Kearns, 2008, Heidgeret al., 2002; Krippendorfand Lough, 2005;
McBride and Prayson, 2008; Scoville and Buskirk, 2007

Our research questions
Will the use of the virtual microscope in an undergraduate anatomy course:

  • Maintain or improve content mastery of histology
  • Be accepted and welcomed by undergraduate students and their graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs)?
  • Increase student collaboration in learning histology
  • Improve teaching and learning efficiency of histology?

What are the potential negatives to using virtual microscopy?

Our research data
Comparison of Fall 2007 and Fall 2008 lab exam scores
Survey re: Virtual Microscope given to Fall 2008 undergraduates

  • Anonymous and voluntary
  • Email survey given at end of semester
  • 101 of 390 students participated
  • Likert, structured, and open‐ended questions

Individual, hour‐long interviews with graduate TAs from Fall 2008 semester

  • 9 interviews to date
  • Questions about preference of teaching with virtual vs. optical scope, their perceived benefits/drawbacks of the technology, etc.

Overview of Anatomy A215 (Basic Human Anatomy)

  • Large undergraduate science course (425+ students per semester) - 1 large lecture; 12 lab sections –36 students per section, two T.A.s per section
  • Prerequisite for many health fields (nursing, allied‐health)
  • Very intensive and challenging for undergraduates
  • New lab facilities Fall 2007

A215 Laboratory Instruction

  • Multiple 3D models, 2 prosectedcadavers, histology slides - Histo: 25% of each exam; 4 lab exams per semester
  • Virtual lab (photos of models) developed 2007‐Spring 08
  • Prior to Fall 2008 –used optical microscope: 1 microscope per student
  • Virtual microscope implemented Fall 2008: 1 computer per 2 students

Virtual Microscopy Interface

  • Web server based: may be accessed from any computer location (and within lab)
  • Each web module is systems based, text linked to their lab guide
  • Most slides were scanned from our A215 collection
  • Virtual microscope (VM) slide may be magnified
  • Original slide view/reference point in upper left corner
  • May scroll around slide just as with an optical slide

Lab Testing Comparisons

  • Fall 07: histology tested with optical microscope
  • Fall 08: screen captures of VM used to test histology
  • All other components of lab testing remained the same

Comparison of Fall 07 (Optical) and Fall 08 (virtual microscope) lab scores
Improvement in lab scores, especially 1st and 2nd exams

  • Is this due JUST to the virtual microscope, or to other factors too?

No significant difference in later labs –why?

  • Perhaps: weaker students benefitted more with VM, but not enough to stay in class after withdrawal date
  • Perhaps: eliminated “learning curve” associated with using optical microscope early in semester

A215 students survey results –structured questions

  • Virtual microscope interface and web layout easy to use(98%)
  • Learning efficiency enhanced by using virtual microscope to study slides (90%)
  • At home download time was fast (81%)
  • Those who have used optical and virtual microscopy found virtual microscopy superior (60%)
  • Felt the virtual microscope was important tool for collaborative learning in anatomy (85%)

* Percentages based on responses of ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’

A215 student survey –students’ perceptions of VM strengths
Can be used off‐site
Easy to use

  • “It is much easier to use than the optical microscope and the results are much faster.”

Saves time and makes studying more efficient

  • “You can learn more material in less time because you aren't using a traditional microscope and spending so much time looking for a good image.”
  • “A huge advantage is being able to look at the microscope slides at home. This way we are able to focus our lab time on cadavers and models (things not available outside of lab).”

Increased confidence about what student is supposed to identify

A215 student survey –students’ perceptions of VM weaknesses

  • If a student doesn’t take other biology classes, they may never have a chance to use an optical microscope
  • A vocal minority were upset about NOT having optical microscope
  • Several students wanted both optical and virtual microscope in lab
  • Intermittent computer ‘glitches’ (program freezing, slower download times, etc)
  • Want all features labeled on the slide
  • Many said ‘no weaknesses’

What did our TAs have to say about the Virtual Microscope?

  • Virtual microscope provided more efficient use of time in lab (more efficient ‘time on task’)
  • Could use outside of labso some students spent more time studying ‘in lab’ materials (e.g., cadavers, 3D models)
  • Didn’t ‘waste time’ figuring out how to use optical microscope
  • TAs able to find examples much faster, easily
  • Consistency of slides - no more cracked, faded, lousy slides
  • More than one person can view a slide, be reasonably sure of what is being demonstrated
  • Could easily compare two or more slides at once
  • Majority of TAs felt the VM encouraged collaborative learning
  • Some students make their own study material with screen captures
  • Several students repeating the course verbalized the VM was much easier to use
  • No headaches, eye strain
  • VM less ‘intimidating’ than optical microscope


  • Some students reluctant to use VM in lab (b/c of 24/7 accessibility) and say ‘I’ll review at home’ –but did they?
  • On histology days, some students would leave much earlier than normal
  • Some TAs were proactive, would prepare histology quizzes or ‘force’ students to open the VM
  • Survey suggests students are using the VM outside of lab, but are they using it enough
  • Some students relied on demonstration/labeled slides only, were reluctant to view actual slide
  • Students don’t see a variety of different slides/staining -wanted more examples for their students
  • A minority of students had to be discouraged from opening email, Facebook - but most, if not viewing VM, were looking at Virtual Lab or other online histology sites for comparison
  • Students don’t have the opportunity to learn how to use an optical microscope
  • Want a printer in lab for students to print their own screen captures


  • The Virtual Microscope (VM) has been shown to be a useful tool for student collaboration and content mastery in Anatomy A215 - similar or increased lab exam scores
  • The ‘positives’ outweighed the ‘negatives’ of the VM
  • Students and TAs appreciate the 24/7 access, ease of use, website format
  • Students appear to make more efficient use of their time with the VM
  • However, instructors must be proactive in encouraging the students to use the VM in lab and not rely solely on demonstration pages
  • Assist students with appropriate time management
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