What is it?
In 2017 the university refurbished the specialist laboratory used for its physician associate course and introduced state of the art digital technology including an interactive digital anatomy table. the 156m² laboratory can be used by up to 30 students with facilitators.
The design of the space aligns with principles articulated in the university learning and teaching strategy including:
- Active participation of students during learning activities
- Empowering students to take responsibility for their own learning
- Developing and enhancing effective and independent learners
The university recognises the use of digital technologies as an important enabler and its learning spaces strategy talks about 'Providing spaces and the accompanying technology that enable and empower students to become active partners in the development of their learning.'
The room was designed/built to meet the needs of specific subjects including anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology. These are subjects with complicated terminology (including Latin and Greek terms) and a lot of content that is difficult to remember. Traditionally, investigation of the human body has been undertaken by dissecting cadavers which brings many practical and ethical issues that can act as barriers to learning.
The new space has been designed so that all of the equipment and learning content for the course is available in one place. The whole group can work together on the central interactive table and practice immediately afterwards in pairs or small groups.
An example of how this works in practice is that students first explore a topic, such as the position of cranial nerves, using the interactive digital anatomy table and then move to the clinical couches to practice how to test the cranial nerves. Each workstation is equipped with a computer so that students have access all of the learning content immediately at hand.
The fact that students stand together around the anatomy table encourages them to talk and engage - one member of staff compared it to sitting round a campfire. The touch-screen nature of the table encourages exploration and participation.
The university has learned from previous learning space projects and understands the importance of getting the right people involved from the start and ensuring that academic and student voices are heard.
The project was delivered through collaboration between the university estates and facilities directorate; faculty of education, health and wellbeing; college of learning and teaching and IT services.
Academic staff bring their ideas to the table and can rely on the estates department to assess the practicality and feasibility of their suggestions.
The staff teaching on the course come from both academic and industry backgrounds and bring a wide range of different perspectives about how to approach teaching this very specialised subject. The project team also had access to feedback from previous students.
Because of the high-tech nature of this development the university involved an external IT company to provide consultancy and technical support.
From the outset emphasis was made on involving the key stakeholders in the briefing and design stages of the project to allow an understanding of end-user requirements and expectations to be gathered; which were then utilised to inform the final design. All parties were encouraged to challenge ideas to try and provide an innovative solution.
It was evident during the design stage the existing teaching space was not sufficient and additional space would be required to accommodate the desired fixtures, fittings and equipment. Additional space from an adjacent store room was requested and granted which provided an opportunity to include a fully functional sink in to the design.
Due to delays in receiving approval of the budget, the overall construction programme was reduced by four weeks to six weeks, this put pressure on the project team to deliver in time for the start of the academic year and led to specification items with shorter lead in times to be selected. During the construction phase of the project key stakeholders were invited to visit the works area to make sure the vision for the project was being achieved.
As the building was an operational and live environment there were a number of constraints which prevented construction being completed as originally envisaged; noise and dust generating works were completed out of hours to prevent any disruption to students taking exams and staff working in adjacent rooms; and to accommodate the undergraduate open days.
Given the constraints the project was delivered within budget and on time with the exception of the AV installation. Unfortunately due to issues with the supply of some AV equipment not all the technology was available for the start of the academic year.
The room was designed as a response to feedback about the fragmented nature of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology when taught didactically and with a vision for a digital solution.
The design bridges the gap between theory and practice and enables students to learn within a collective or small group setting.
The interactive digital anatomy table (also known as a virtual dissection table) is positioned centrally in the space. Around the edges of the room are a series of workstations each with a clinical couch and its own wall mounted touch screen.
The decoration in the room is very minimalist - the walls are bright white to avoid creating any distractions.
The room has been designed with controllable energy efficient lighting to enable glare free viewing which is also bright enough when conducting clinical examinations. Environmental controls include internal noise suppression via the use of acoustic baffles and full air-conditioning.
The room entrance doors were changed from traditional timber doors to glazed doors to allow observers to see the space being utilised. The doors have door access control installed which have been programmed to allow all students on the relevant courses free access to the space to learn on their own.
The floor is slip-resistant vinyl floor that can be easily cleaned and maintained.
Each couch has power socket outlets to allow students to charge devices.
Each station has bring your own device capabilities.
The use of digital technology offers many benefits in this subject area and gets round many barriers to learning that exist in the traditional approach to anatomical dissection using cadavers:
- It is very cost-effective
- It avoids the health and safety and legislative issues associated with the use of cadavers
- It eliminates barriers arising from use of unpleasant smelling chemicals needed to preserve the body
- The touch-screen nature of the table encourages exploration and participation to a far greater extent than is possible with an actual cadaver
- Students can explore the relationships between different organs, veins, nerves etc in complex ways that are not possible when you are simply removing parts from a cadaver
- It enables students to use their own digital devices which are banned from traditional anatomy rooms due to ethical considerations
- The quality of the viewing experience is greatly enhanced
- The examples can be ready-made to suit the specific needs of the particular class
- Screenshots can be taken at any time and easily linked to other learning resources in the VLE
Technologies in use
- Interactive digital anatomy table: the 'Anatomage' table. The table works like a large tablet computer. It displays life-size male and female bodies and allows users to virtually ‘peel back’ layers of tissue to reveal underlying structures. Users can rotate the bodies, zoom in on specific areas and isolate particular organs or physical structures for closer examination. It runs Windows-based software with an extensive library of high resolution, digital pathological examples. There is also the option to upload real patient scans with appropriate ethics approval.
- Images from the anatomy table can be sent to a HD projector and to wall mounted display screens around the room
- Each of the display screens is a touch screen computer to support individual work or access to the virtual learning environment
- Each workstation has a computer controlled Electro Cardiogram (ECG) facility with ECG interpretation software
- Students are able to bring and attach their own devices
Feedback on the new space has been generally very positive. Both staff and students are enthusiastic about how it has benefited the learning experience.
The laboratory is a windowless room with air conditioning and the main issue causing frustration for users of the space is the lack of temperature controls within the room. The space frequently becomes very cold; users have to make a call to have the temperature adjusted and this often results in subsequent overheating.
Improvements to be made as a result of user evaluation include the addition of lockers for storage of students' property.
Change management and transition
The space lends itself to problem solving and enigma-based learning and this is offered as a bold and innovative solution to immerse students.
Changing practice is however challenging and one solution the university is considering is developing student ambassadors to become experts in the many aspects of the room. With the support of academic staff, student will then be able to challenge themselves to engage in deep learning experiences, based upon their own learning needs.
The laboratory is available to book through the university's central booking system and allocation is based on class needs. Most of the AV support is provided by the university's central support team although specialist technical issues are dealt with by the supplier.
Most of the equipment in the room is very straightforward for both staff and students to use and only the anatomy table requires training to be able to use it to full effect.
It takes time for staff to adapt to new working practices and there have been some comments from students to the effect that the anatomy table has not been used as much as they would have expected so the university will be offering more staff training on this.
Currently the facility is only available for students to use during facilitated teaching sessions and there is demand for more open access so the university is looking at options such as allowing access via a smart card.
For more on each of the topics mentioned in this case study see the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit.