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Beyond the Clinic, Technology

How Technology Is Transforming Veterinary Education

From virtual reality to virtual dissection, technology in veterinary education is kicking into high gear.

Kristi Fender

Kristi Fender, former editor of dvm360 magazine, has spent 20 years covering animal health and veterinary medicine. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and lives in Shawnee, Kansas, with her family, including 2 feisty shelter rescues: an old shepherd mix and a young calico-tabby.

How Technology Is Transforming Veterinary Education
Veterinary students are able to perform virtual dissections with clinical applications, thanks to technology such as BodyViz. Courtesy BodyViz; bodyviz.com

The year 2020 was one of upheaval in education, and veterinary colleges were by no means exempt from the need to adapt to challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the veterinary profession is nothing if not resourceful, and in some cases the need for social distancing merely accelerated the adoption of innovations already in play. Here is how a handful of schools are changing the way students are educated—and transforming the landscape of veterinary education.

University of Georgia: Virtual Dissection

At the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Professor Puliyur MohanKumar, BVSc, PhD, was already investigating ways to maximize students’ access to anatomy resources based on an anticipated increase in class size. After all, the dissection lab can accommodate only so many bodies at one time. Then COVID hit, and space became even more scarce. Suddenly the future need became urgent and immediate.

Based on Dr. MohanKumar’s recommendation, and with the support of departmental leadership, the college implemented software from a company called BodyViz (bodyviz.com), developed out of Iowa State University. This program reconstructs virtual 3D animals based on clinical cases that have used computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. These models can then be virtually dissected, with students able to “cut” in different planes to access, visualize, and identify anatomical structures.

When preparing to lead a dissection lab session, Dr. MohanKumar identifies an actual case from the veterinary teaching hospital and builds an anatomical rendering based on imaging data from that case. 

“Let’s say we are dissecting the front limb of a dog and there is a bone broken or a tumor,” Dr. MohanKumar says. “We link that clinical scenario with whatever the students are dissecting. That way when they ask, ‘Why am I dissecting this? Why am I learning this thing? Why do I have to memorize this specific fact?’ This is the reason. We constantly bring it back to clinical relevance.” 

Students also get a chance to work with real cadavers—on a given day in the laboratory, half the class does actual dissection while the other half works with virtual models at special workstations, all in accordance with social distancing guidelines. But the limitations imposed by the pandemic could very well be helping these students be better prepared for practice when they graduate.

“Anatomy is not going to show up in the clinic as an embalmed animal with an open body,” Dr. MohanKumar says. “This is a living creature, and the organs are on the inside. This gives students real-life experience of appreciating anatomy using images.”

Dr. MohanKumar says his students have taken to the technology readily. “The cool thing is, this is Xbox controller–based,” he says. “These kids are so good with Xbox controllers—they started having fun the day after I introduced the technology. My second-year students are jealous that they didn’t get to use it.”

A Pioneer in Educational Technology
Back before virtual dissection was a twinkle in any software developer’s eye, Jim Moore, DVM, PhD, DACVS, and a talented group of artists were winning awards for their work on The Glass Horse. This interactive CD-ROM, unveiled in 2001 and featuring a detailed exploration of the equine abdominal tract and its diseases, earned a Frank Netter Award for advancing medical education and set Dr. Moore firmly on the path of making veterinary education a visual endeavor.

“Early on I came to the conclusion that students can memorize anything you throw at them,” he says. “Trouble is, when you memorize material, you tend to do that for an exam and then it’s gone. But if you make it so they can envision it, they’ll remember it.”

Dr. Moore is now director of the Educational Resources Center at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Veterinary Medicine, where he works with medical illustrators and a photographer to develop interactive e-books for veterinary students (books.apple.com/us/author/educational-resources-university-of-georgia/id1021256510#see-all/books). These books, which are available for free to anyone who wants to download them for use on an Apple device, each focus on an area of veterinary education where students tend to struggle or instructors find it challenging to get their concepts across. They are concise (averaging 1500 to 2000 words), loaded with interactive elements and other visuals, and feature assessments at the end to measure learning.

“Probably 75% or 80% of these books are on topics or concepts that are out of my area of expertise, so I’m probably at the same level as a lot of the students,” Dr. Moore says. “I’ve got some background but I may not have looked at this stuff in a long time—or I memorized it and forgot it. So if we get it to ‘Jim level,’ then it’s student level.”

Dr. Moore’s colleagues speak highly of the interactive books and their utility in the learning process. “What Dr. Moore’s group has been doing is just phenomenal,” says Dr. Puliyur MohanKumar, who teaches anatomy at UGA. “I make all of my students download and use the books because they are so useful. Dr. Moore has been groundbreaking even before we all knew what groundbreaking even meant, to be honest.”

Scott Brown, VMD, PhD, DACVIM (SAIM), former associate dean for academic affairs, agrees. “There is no one else at any other vet school in the world doing anything like what Jim’s doing. Both Dr. MohanKumar and Dr. Moore are so far ahead of anyone else in vet med that it makes me proud to call them colleagues.”

Texas A&M University: Virtual Reality 

Jennifer Schleining, DVM, MS, DACVS-LA, a professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, loves it when a first-year veterinary student from, say, Dallas feels a tingle for agricultural medicine after performing their first bovine exam. But how does a kid from the suburbs become versed in the nuances of rural life? If they’re in one of Dr. Schleining’s classes, they start by donning a virtual reality (VR) headset.

“Here at A&M we’re very agricultural focused, but we’re in South Texas and all of the true production cattle are up in the Panhandle,” Dr. Schleining says. “That’s a 9-hour drive, which presents some significant challenges. And now with COVID, those challenges are even greater. How do you get a large number of students up into the Panhandle in the preclinical years?”

To meet that challenge, Dr. Schleining partnered with OP McCubbins, PhD, a former classmate from Iowa State who also ended up at Texas A&M, where he founded a VR lab for the ag school. Together they shot hours of 3D video in west Texas, which led to the development of 3 modules for Dr. Schleining’s Rural Practice class. One module helps build observational skills to determine if an animal is sick. Another surrounds judicious use of antimicrobials, and a third covers field necropsy. 

Wearing their VR goggles, students follow a pen rider as he identifies sick cattle, pulls them from the herd, and places them in hospital pens. In subsequent modules they continue to follow along as those same cattle are examined, treated, and tested. Conversations along the way address chute safety, body positioning, protocol development, and dealing with state labs.

Dr. Schleining has had to make some adjustments—in her first year using VR, she purchased very inexpensive headsets and the students complained of queasiness reminiscent of carsickness. This year she upped the quality of the hardware and is hopeful student surveys will reflect an improved experience. Despite these glitches, she says, students appreciate being part of an educational trendsetting experience. Plus, many are starting on the ground floor when it comes to knowledge of agricultural life. “If you are from the middle of Houston and decide agriculture is your passion and we put you into a rural community without preparing you, it can be a disaster,” Dr. Schleining says. “Part of what we’re doing is changing the perception that rural practice is archaic. We do a tour of a practice that has in-clinic bloodwork, an isolation facility, and digital radiography and use that to have a discussion and dispel myths.”

Dr. Schleining says she’s not necessarily a technology enthusiast, but she does have a passion for educating in innovative ways and thinking outside the box. “I get bored with just lecture; students get bored with just lecture,” she says. “So how do we engage students in a way that’s exciting and where they learn something in the same process? That’s the part that gets me really excited—trying something new in the classroom.”

Colorado State University: Virtual Anatomy

The Colorado State University (CSU) College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences also relies on a virtual teaching tool. Virtual Animal Anatomy (virtualanimalanatomy.colostate.edu/vaanopcomm) serves multiple purposes, says Christianne Magee, DVM, PhD, DACT, who helped develop the program. One, it reduces reliance on cadavers, which is especially important as the availability of specimens dwindles and ethical concerns about cadaver use increase. Two, it lets students study at the pace and in the manner they choose—even when the lab is closed at 2 a.m.

“Students want to be able to study the cadaver when they’re not with the cadaver,” Dr. Magee says. “This lets them do that. It’s about improved learner control.” 

Rather than relying on imaging data or artistic renderings and animations, Virtual Animal Anatomy uses photographic images of actual cadavers, which sets it apart from other virtual anatomy systems, Dr. Magee says. The program grew out of the work of Ray Whalen, DVM, PhD, who developed Virtual Canine Anatomy at CSU and brought Dr. Magee on to help expand the program to include equine and other species. Lately, the team has focused on exporting the program from Adobe Flash, which is no longer being supported, into another programming language.

“Fortunately, we started that process early enough that we could launch it with our own students [in 2018],” Dr. Magee says. “Then when COVID hit in March 2020, we were able to give 148 other schools and 12000 students worldwide access to the program.” 

Like the other instructors interviewed here, Dr. Magee is passionate about the student experience and finding new ways to inspire a lifetime of learning and curiosity. In fact, she and her colleagues have conducted research on students who use the Virtual Animal Anatomy program, finding that those who do use VR spend less total time studying anatomy than those who use a more traditional approach. When they have control over the process, they study in the way that prepares them most effectively, so they’re more efficient, she says. Next, she wants to find out whether an immersive, augmented reality approach can be even more effective than the 2D experience on a handheld device.

Dr. Magee insists that she’s not an anatomist or a technology expert—she calls herself “a horse OBGYN who stumbled into developing veterinary anatomy software.” In fact, she glazes over when her husband starts rattling off the specs of the latest VR headset. 

But, as she says, “Very few of us are practicing veterinary medicine the way we thought we would when we wrote that application for veterinary school. I followed things that were interesting and let them take me places I never thought I would go. As it turned out, one of those was anatomy software.”

What Is Next?

While the technology being used in today’s veterinary classroom is flipping conventional pedagogy on its head, these experts say more mind-blowing advances may be just ahead—with or without COVID restrictions. Perhaps 2 students will be able to stand together in a virtual environment and discuss the “specimen” lying on the table in front of them. Perhaps haptic feedback will let future veterinarians experience the feel of a scalpel as it slides through tissue. Whatever is next, veterinary professors and students will be there, figuring out how to best utilize it to improve the health of animals.