Are 3D virtual classrooms the future of radiology education?

Can a virtual world instill the same level of knowledge in radiology students as a traditional face-to-face classroom approach? Researchers of a new study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology think so.

“A virtual world is a 3D space reproduced on the screen of a computer, where the user interacts by means of an avatar, a character that represents him or her, moving through the virtual world, communicating with other users, or interacting with the objects of the environment,” wrote Rocio Lorenzo-Alvarez, with Universidad de Málaga in Spain and colleagues. “Virtual worlds are an emerging method used in both traditional classrooms and distance education in disciplines such as health care education, teacher education, and language development.”

The researchers developed “Medical Master island” within the popular virtual world called Second Life. The island has the appearance of a university campus, with buildings, auditoriums and meeting places.

Two-hundred and fifteen third-year medical students were randomized to attend the same workshop on abdominal radiography interpretation in a virtual classroom and in real life. Lorenzo-Alvarez et al. conducted pre-and post-training knowledge tests at the beginning and two months after the seven total workshops.

Overall, 53 students participated in the virtual world and 103 in the real-world group.

After reviewing 46 slides including 25 clinical cases of abdominal x-rays, students were asked to interpret various cases and comment on them. Short questions were provided to participants who had to answer if they agreed with their partner, and if not, provided their own opinion. In the virtual world students participated through voice chat or through written chat.

The pre- and post-testing revealed no significant differences between the virtual group and the real-world classroom cohort.

Additionally, in the virtual group 13.2% said they preferred virtual versus face-to-face learning.

“It is interesting to compare traditional and face-to-face teaching and learning methods with the Second Life educational platform to further recognize the educational value of this 3D virtual platform,” the authors noted. “Our study has shown that synchronous educational activities, such as radiology interpretation workshops, can be reproduced exactly as in real life and that there are no differences in learning outcomes in both real and virtual environments.”

However, virtual worlds should not take the place of physical classroom learning, the researchers wrote.

“Virtual worlds do not replace face-to-face classroom teaching; however, they offer the opportunity to practice communication in a novel and nonthreatening way and are particularly useful for students who do not have the ability to attend in person and lack opportunities for face-to-face communication,” the team concluded.