Lights, action, camera: Making medicine come alive

Steve Fisch Photography

Brian Tobin, technologist specialist, and Norman Silverman, MD, use new multimedia tools for a presentation.

On the overhead screen of classroom M-112, a blurry orange blimp jumped into sharp relief, revealing the glistening ridges of a magnified fingertip. A document camera, the 21st century's answer to the overhead projector, automatically focused in on the finger of Brian Tobin, technology integration specialist for Educational Technology Services.

Tobin, who was giving an impromptu demo of the device, helps faculty members of the School of Medicine adopt new technologies such as the live-action document camera into their courses. Tobin explained how a neurobiology professor aimed the camera on vials of fruit flies to show a live experiment. "You can see how a fruit fly would show up pretty well here," Tobin said, looking to the screen.

Classroom M-112, on the ground floor of the School of Medicine's Alway Building, provides a testing ground for new presentation technologies that will be built into the future classrooms of the Learning and Knowledge Center, which is the medical education building scheduled to begin construction in 2008. In preparation, Tobin introduces professors in the medical school to an arsenal of tools: "digital ink," which allows professors to draw over PowerPoint displays as if they were transparencies; "audience polling," which instantaneously charts students' responses to multiple-choice questions, and "remote desktop," which gives instructors control over a network of laptops. The program's 2004 Go Digital Initiative helped remove 35-mm slide projectors from classrooms by digitizing the faculty's film images for use in PowerPoint presentations. Since then, 50 percent of faculty has adopted tools like digital ink to make notes on their presentations.

The live-action document camera has helped with organ dissections in anatomy courses, Tobin said, recalling a presentation he attended by Norman Silverman, MD, professor of pediatrics (pediatric cardiology) at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. After first showing students a variety of multimedia clips about the heart, Silverman used the camera to show preserved human heart specimens from a fetus, a small child and an adult. "The students kind of gurgled, because it was a little too graphic," Tobin said. Yet student feedback has been far from negative, said Silverman. "They really like to see something that is not a prepared picture, but something that is real and alive for them," he said.

To help professors integrate devices like the document camera into their presentations, Tobin has boiled down instruction manuals to the bare essentials. A laminated handbook, with easy-to-flip-through steps, stays next to the podium. A student assistant in the audience also offers help in a jam, while recording the lecture for online access.

Applying new technologies to education is a tradition for the medical school, said Jenn Stringer, director of educational technology. Since the late 1970s, students could watch video recordings of lectures, which became available online in 1998. "I think we were probably one of the first schools of medicine to begin streaming medicine lectures for students," she said. The online archive of every core medical course allows students to check their notes or review lectures at double speed before exams.

With digital ink, students can also download their professors' notes. Anatomy professors who used to carry a quiver of colored pens to outline different tissues—blue for veins, yellow for nerves—can now draw on their PowerPoint presentations rather than a white board. A rainbow of buttons on the side of a touch-sensitive screen allows instructors to swap colors easily. Students can focus on asking questions, Tobin said, rather than rushing to scribble sketches before an eraser wipes the drawing away. "Now they can actually get an annotated version of the faculty member's lecture slides with every detail on it," he said.

With another tool, audience polling, professors can gauge students' thoughts. With tiny radio remote controls, students can respond to comprehension or opinion questions and a PowerPoint display immediately tabulates results. Tobin said polling can help jump-start class discussions on ethical questions, such as how to treat a brain-damaged patient like Terri Schiavo.

One of the most advanced technologies offered, Tobin said, is remote desktop, which allows professors to watch students' laptop screens. The tool networks classroom computers, giving professors a thumbnail of each laptop and the ability to project screens on the wall. Tobin said the device works well for presenting results from group assignments, but also lets professors keep students on task: "Faculty can lock down the laptops so students can't check their e-mail."

While lectures that use new technologies may better hold students' attention, Tobin said professors' passions hold the real power in the classroom. "Whatever you do to hold a student's attention is going to pay off," Tobin said. "But it is really faculty getting excited and enthusiastic that makes the difference."

Silverman agreed, added that live dissections are just another teaching device in his lectures, which range from audio and video clips to computer-generated images of the heart. "You can see this is real, not just a kind of drawing," he said. "They get to see multiple techniques for looking at the same stuff. You can't learn anatomy from a textbook."

Brian Lee is a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine.