|To say that the past 20 months of higher education have been a hardship is a gross understatement. The speed at which educators have embraced new technologies to bridge the pivot to virtual instruction has been remarkable.
This has been particularly difficult in courses where hands-on experiences are the norm, such as in anatomy and physiology laboratory courses. Instructors of laboratory courses where students must gain practical skills and experience the process of science found themselves relying on new (to them) technologies to fill the gap in their newfound teaching methods during the forced switch to virtual instruction (1, 4). As such, many platforms stood out amongst a sea of offerings for physiology educators.
Adapting pedagogical approaches in the virtual landscape is not a new phenomenon for anatomy and physiology educators with many successful reports providing best practices to adapt didactic and laboratory methods to online or hybrid learning (2, 3) long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although online approaches have demonstrated an effectiveness in achieving course objectives, effective combinations of both online and face-to-face instruction must be investigated to help accommodate the convenience that online approaches offer students as we adjust to the return to in-person modalities.
Our experiences at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) have mirrored our colleagues in the scramble to identify suitable stand-ins for laboratory courses that still provide as robust an experience as possible. Thanks to a fortuitous introduction during the January 2020 CrawFly Workshop we now host annually at UIW in association with ADInstruments, we were introduced to the Lt suite of laboratory courses, most notably their Human Physiology and Anatomy packages. While we were impressed by the capabilities of their labs and lessons, any thoughts of immediate use were placed on the backburner as we already had the Spring 2020 curriculum planned out – or so we thought.
During the confusing and uncertain switch to virtual instruction in March of 2020, fraught with pandemic panic, we haphazardly pieced together the second half of our virtual lab curriculum relying on any lab simulations we knew of that were free and easily accessible to our students. Following this “dumpster fire” of a semester, we reassessed our future directions for what we were sure was going to be another traipse into the virtual landscape, and we knew that our Frankenstein approach would not be suitable going forward. That is when the decision to completely redesign our Anatomy and Physiology I and II Lab curriculum using Lt was made.
Beginning in the Fall of 2020, 12 laboratory activities were selected from the pre-built modules and lessons available in Lt for human anatomy and physiology that met our pre-determined course objectives for both BIOL 2121 (Anatomy and Physiology I Lab) and BIOL 2122 (Anatomy and Physiology II Lab). We used these pre-built lessons as the outline for each lab and edited the material to accommodate an online lab experience. Where the ADInstruments PowerLab stations, sensors, and electrodes would normally be used for data acquisition with Lt software, we replaced these sections with either videos or descriptions of how data would be collected for each lab. These sections providing the theory and sample protocols were followed by using the Lt sample data sets for students to complete data analysis and formulate conclusions. To help facilitate virtual dissections, we took advantage of the dissection videos and guides provided in the pre-built Lt labs that students could refer to in lieu of having their own specimens at home. The final product allowed us to replace the hands-on experience preferred in an undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab in the best way possible when virtual instruction was our only option.
To gauge student satisfaction with this new platform, and importantly to determine if the educational goals for our students were being met, a survey was designed and administered to students at the end of the semester. This was used to adjust the lab offerings and fine-tune the activities that were used again in proceeding semesters. Figure 1 shows an improvement in the overall rating for Lt where students provided scores in between 1 and 5 with 5 being the highest rating from Fall 2020 to Spring 2021 by just over 8% (from a score of 4.18 to a score of 4.53 in the spring semester). Both semesters were conducted using remote instruction; therefore, the increase is attributed to improvements made to the existing labs in spring based on student feedback.
Moving forward to Fall 2021, our labs returned to mostly in-person instruction with only 30% offered with either asynchronous online or synchronous online instruction. The same Lt Student Survey was administered as the current semester has come to an end and the data demonstrate a further increase in the overall rating for Lt with an average rating of 4.7 (Figure 1). Although we hypothesize that this increase is mostly attributed to the transition back to in-person instruction as students mostly cited comments similar to, “Visually and physically being able to carry out the experiment and dissection labs,” or “Being able to learn things in person and on Lt really helped my learning and broadened my knowledge,” when asked, “What are one to three specific things about the course or instructor that especially helped to support student learning?” This indicated to us that the more hands-on approach with the return to in-person instruction was helping to support our students’ learning.
Importantly, when asked, “If you took an Anatomy and Physiology Lab online in a previous semester, and are currently taking an Anatomy and Physiology Lab in-person with Lt, what about your experience has changed or improved?” students replied with comments such as, “Definitely improved from A&P1 lab, still used Lt in lab but in person as well helped,” or “The labs have definitely improved and the course work… I think that I learned better in person than online.”
Given the data we have collected thus far, we are learning that while students appear to prefer in-person lab instruction, the flexibility provided by the online Lt lab platform still allows for the inevitability of students in quarantine who are unable to attend in-person labs. And although we are still in a period of uncertainty and flux, we think we are finding an effective combination of online and in-person lab instruction to best serve our students and maintain the rigor expected of an undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab experience.
1. Alves, N., Carrazoni, G. S., Soares, C. B., da Rosa, Ana Carolina,de Souza, Soares, N., & Mello-Carpes, P. (2021). Relating human physiology content to COVID-19: a strategy to keep students in touch with physiology in times of social distance due to pandemic. Advances in Physiology Education, 45(1), 129.
2. Anderson, L. C., & Krichbaum, K. E. (2017). Best practices for learning physiology: combining classroom and online methods. Advances in Physiology Education, 41(3), 383.
3. Attardi, S. M., Barbeau, M. L., & Rogers, K. A. (2018). Improving Online Interactions: Lessons from an Online Anatomy Course with a Laboratory for Undergraduate Students. Anatomical Sciences Education, 11(6), 592-604.
4. Lellis-Santos, C., & Abdulkader, F. (2020). Smartphone-assisted experimentation as a didactic strategy to maintain practical lessons in remote education: alternatives for physiology education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advances in Physiology Education, 44(4), 579.