Virtual lab gives students rare insight into genetics

Posted by pt91 at May 09, 2012 11:45 AM |
University of Leicester academics study the effectiveness of virtual reality for teaching and learning

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 9 May 2012

Academics at the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics are testing the effectiveness of virtual reality to improve undergraduate students' learning experiences. The GENIE virtual genetics labs allow students to complete complex and time-consuming experiments in a matter of minutes, using virtual reality avatars and a simulated laboratory.

The SWIFT (Second World Immersive Future Teaching) project uses a virtual reality programme called Second Life to create tailor-made learning environments, helping teachers solve a variety of practical teaching challenges. Students can familiarise themselves with a laboratory setting in a risk-free environment and conduct genetic tests that would otherwise be too costly or time-consuming for an entire class to do.

SWIFT is a collaborative project between the Beyond Distance Research Alliance and GENIE - the Genetics Education Networking for Innovation & Excellence at the University of Leicester, which is a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The project is led by Professor Annette Cashmore.

Dr Suzanne Lavelle, Teaching Fellow on the SWIFT project, said:

"A lot of research has shown that virtual experiences can count as real experiences in people's minds, but there hasn't been any real research into how effective it is as a tool for education. We felt that using the virtual environment might help students engage more with the theory of what they're doing when they're working in the laboratory."

The virtual genetics lab is designed to demonstrate several genetic testing procedures to students - some of these tests would take up to three hours in a real lab. Thanks to onscreen displays and pop-up animations, the virtual lab can demonstrate the theory behind the genetic tests whilst allowing students to (virtually) complete the practical experiments.

Virtual reality environments have been used effectively by sales and marketing teams to train staff, but there is little research into its effectiveness as an educational tool. The SWIFT project aims to investigate whether  virtual reality can be used to enhance learning and improve students' understanding of complex subjects.

Dr Lavelle is positive about the early results of the research - the virtual lab is less overwhelming than a real laboratory, and students enjoy the Second Life experience, which is similar to a computer game.

"What we've mainly seen is that students love it," Dr Lavelle said. "And that's half the battle won, because then students turn up for their classes with a positive frame of mind. It also has an element of anonymity to it, because students won't necessarily know what another person's avatar looks like and who they're talking to in the virtual world.

"We found that because there is that anonymity, students aren't inhibited. They can ask all sorts of questions - and they do. They feel freer to ask the questions they really want answers to because they don't feel silly in front of their mates."

Other departments at the University have already expressed an interest in using the virtual learning space made available by the SWIFT project. Academics teaching about art, history and psychology have all found uses for the virtual reality setting.

"Second Life is used very successfully for language teaching," Dr Lavelle added. "Because you can go to virtual Paris and speak French with native French speakers. We've also used it to bring history to life, and for art projects.

"There are huge numbers of applications for it and it's really interesting to work with."

If the study proves a success, Dr Lavelle hopes to keep the virtual labs going and make them available to the public as an open educational resource.

Notes to editors:

For further information, please contact Dr Suzanne Lavelle on 0116 223 1588 or email spl11@le.ac.uk

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