On Mondays at 10 a.m. this fall semester, graduate students in the Nanomedicine in Healthcare course at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) log into an online virtual world known as Second Life, activate their computer-generated personae or avatars and head off to class.
Waiting for them on the shore of a glistening sea is the jean-dressed avatar who teaches the class. He is surrounded by large floating screens, one of which has the “nano problem” of the week. Other boards are for PowerPoint presentations, websites and for students to write on.
Welcome to the virtual classroom of Ananth Annapragada, Ph.D., holder of the Robert H. Graham Professorship of Entrepreneurial Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering at the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics and fellow at the IC² Institute, an interdisciplinary research unit of The University of Texas at Austin. He is also on the faculty of the UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and UT Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering.
When he is not teaching students how to apply nanotechnology to health problems, Annapragada is building miniaturized drug delivery systems engineered to ferry agents through the bloodstream to specific targets. His nanocarriers are so small they are measured in billionths of a meter.
“It was a leap of faith to see if this would work,” said Annapragada, who is making his teaching debut in Second Life. “I’m getting the equivalent if not better class participation.”
Annapragada likes the fact that he can gather students from different locations in the same virtual classroom at the same time. “Everyone gets the same learning experience,” he said. “It reduces a geographically-distributed student group to the same interactive common denominator.”
When an avatar in the virtual classroom speaks, he or she broadcasts the voice of the teacher or student. When an avatar wants to ask a question, he or she raises a hand.
Beginning the three-hour class with a short lecture, he then divides students into work groups. During the next hour or so, he “turns the students loose” to work on a nano problem. He normally concludes with a lecture.
Targeted drug delivery is a hot topic in nanomedicine and was the subject of a recent class. When medicine is injected into the bloodstream, often relatively little reaches its intended target.
One nano solution being researched by Annapragada and others in the field involves packaging drugs in tiny carriers designed to bind to diseased cells. It requires extensive knowledge of the interaction between the substances on the surfaces of both the drug carrier and the diseased cell.
The students’ nano problem that day was to develop a nanocarrier for targeting brain tumors. Their homework was to come up with the specifics.
There are students from UTHealth, UT Austin, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Their degree programs include biology, biomedical engineering and physics. Some are enrolled in the Nanobiology Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program operated by the Gulf Coast Consortia. There are 25 in the class.
“This is the only nanomedicine course in the UT System that I’m aware of,” Annapragada said. “It’s appropriate that I’m using the novel methodology of Second Life. Nanomedicine is an evolving field. There is no textbook. We are writing the textbook as we go.”
Annapragada said he is sold on Second Life instruction. “It has played out very well. You have to be able to adapt your teaching style to the medium. You can’t always do things the same way,” he said.
Annapragada is one of a growing number of faculty members at UTHealth who are using Second Life as a form of distance education.
Last year, The University of Texas System launched a system-wide initiative to promote the use of Second Life as a distance education tool at its six health institutions and nine universities.
Created by Linden Lab, Second Life is one of several virtual online communities and has millions of users. In Second Life, activities are conducted on islands. The UT System has 51 and UTHealth has four.
“Second Life was selected by the UT System over other options because of its extensive capabilities and its relative longevity,” said William Weems, Ph.D., assistant vice president for academic technology at UTHealth. “Initially created in June of 2003, it has evolved to integrate numerous, aspects of computer gaming, social networking and an infrastructure of tools, policies and procedures, which allow faculty and students to create and experience 3D simulated environments that greatly motivate and enhance learning. Clearly, such systems provide learning opportunities, which otherwise are impossible to offer because of cost, time and distance constraints.”
At UTHealth, distance learning initially involved the simultaneous broadcast of lectures to students at multiple campuses. Later, the lectures were recorded so students could watch or listen at their convenience. Another twist involved the introduction of web-based courses, which contain a series of tasks that students must complete during the semester.
“Second Life is a very important advance in distance education. It is a complex, immersive environment,” said Jack Smith, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics. “Like a good movie or video game, you are engaged.”
He added that Second Life provides high-fidelity simulations and is compatible with many computer systems.
Some of the other Second Life projects underway at UTHealth include:
Virtual class chats – Once a week, students in the Foundation of Health Informatics Science I class of Jorge R. Herskovic, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, have a virtual chat. Herskovic said students seem to prefer the avatars to the traditional text-based chat rooms. “There is something about seeing other people-like objects,” he said.
Elderly care – With the graying of America, the specialty of geriatric care is becoming increasingly important. An elderly avatar that will age as medical school students go through their four years of training is being developed as part of a Donald W. Reynolds Foundation grant, TEXAS Training Excellence in Aging Studies, awarded to Carmel Dyer, M.D., professor and Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Chair in Gerontology at the UTHealth Medical School.
Virtual emergency department and island – Under the direction of UTHealth faculty members Brent King, M.D., and David Robinson, M.D., the Department of Emergency Medicine at the UTHealth Medical School hosts an island called ‘AO Palapala’ which means education island in Hawaiian. The department has developed a replica of a city including streets, shops, office buildings, public utilities and a level 1 trauma center. The goal of this virtual city is to provide an immersive virtual environment for education and training of medical students and residents. Department officials have hosted lectures and research presentations in their virtual emergency department. King is the Clive, Nancy, and Pierce Runnells Distinguished Professor of Emergency Medicine and Robinson is an associate professor and vice chair of emergency medicine.
Virtual field trips – Jiajie Zhang, Ph.D., Dr. Doris L. Ross Professor and associate dean for research at the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, complements his Health Interface Design class with a group discussion in Second Life every Thursday at 7 p.m. During a recent gathering, the student avatars flew – literally – to a virtual medical school in England, for a group discussion led by teaching assistant, Min Zhu, M.D.