July 2013

Neuroanatomy e-Learning Project Registers More than 16,000 Global Views

Wed, 3 July 13 04:24

A suite of neuroanatomy e-learning tools, designed and produced by UCD School of Medicine & Medical Science, has registered more than 16,000 views since its launch in September 2012. The videos have been viewed in 110 countries around the world and have played for more 19,400 cumulative minutes.

Comprising nine interactive animations, the AXON (Animated Exploration of Neuroanatomy) project was designed as experimental new approach to teaching in neuroanatomy; a topic that is widely recognised as one of the most difficult and complex aspects of undergraduate medical curricula.

While improved textbook illustrations and three-dimensional models are constantly being developed, students still struggle to achieve a deep comprehension of functional neuroanatomy.

Dr Tom Flanagan, Anatomy Lecturer and academic lead on the AXON project, explains:

Studies have shown that more effective and innovative teaching methods may be necessary to deliver better educational outcomes in neuroanatomy. The AXON project is a direct response to the challenge of conveying the incredible complexity inherent to the spatial relationships of brain anatomy. Through these interactive tools, we aimed to greatly improve functional understanding of neuroanatomical concepts.

Adam Tattersall, Educational Projects Manager and AXON design lead, described the challenge from a design and production perspective:

We knew that traditional ‘2-d’ methods of teaching really didn’t deliver in terms of students’ understanding of neuroanatomical concepts. We aimed to develop interactive animations to demonstrate complex sensory pathways in four-dimensions, i.e. by ‘animating’ the pathways of impulses initiated at the skin and other external structures in response to specific stimuli (e.g. touch, pain, temperature) to the regions of the brain where they are perceived at a conscious level.

Dr Flanagan explained further:

As impulses from different parts of the body, and initiated by different stimuli, travel via distinct routes to the opposite side of the brain, sensory pathways and their spatial relationship are not easily understood by medical students. With that in mind, we agreed that interactive animations offered the best solution to the problem of how to illustrate these complex concepts.”

The e-learning package was developed as an interactive website, and subsequently integrated into the undergraduate medical core curriculum as both a teaching and assessment tool with a dedicated practical slot in the module timetable.

The e-learning slot allowed students to study the material under the supervision of academic staff and demonstrators, while access to the practical content was also made available outside of class time. The students were then assessed on the material through a Blackboard image-based MCQ assessment, constituting 5% of their final module grade. The average mark scored by students (n=230) was 74% (A grade).

Carol Chan

Image: Carol Chan, UCD summer student research awards finalist 2012

Students who participated in the first integration of the AXON project into the curriculum were asked to deliver feedback on their experience of using the animation tools as learning aids. As an overall resource, the vast majority of those students (88%, n=57) felt that AXON offered a better 3-D understanding of nervous system structures compared to other neuroanatomy resources. With regard to resource components, most students suggested that the graphics (91%), animated sequences (92%), mouse-over information (74%) and voice-over material (86%) were superior to those of other neuroanatomy resources. Suggestions for further development of the product focussed on classical lesions (34%), descending pathways (29%) and special sensory pathways (27%).

Following the pilot curricular integration, the project team decided to publish the series of nine animations as an open-source educational resource on the School’s YouTube channel.

The project forms one part of a School-wide initiative to enhance the use of technology in medical education. This programme of innovation is led by Dr Jason Last, Associate Dean for Educational Innovation.

We’re delighted that the AXON project has had an impact beyond our own programme. The organic traffic to the YouTube channel from all over the globe lends proof to our original contention – that there is a curricular gap in terms of neuroanatomy that can be bridged with innovative, technology-driven solutions, said Dr Last.

The project team also included Carol Chan, a stage four medical student who worked on the AXON series as part of the annual undergraduate summer student research programme (SSRA scheme). Carol was selected as one of eight students from a total of over sixty to deliver an oral presentation regarding her work on the AXON project at the SSRA final.

The AXON project was funded by a Learning Innovation Project grant from the Higher Education Authority (National Digital Learning Resources).

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