Cutting-edge techniques will help to revolutionise veterinary medical training at the Live Centre. Olga Wojtas reports.
A £4.5 million veterinary education centre is set to transform how vets of the future are taught, using computer-aided learning, new clinical skills laboratories and communication skills courses.
The Lifelong Independent Veterinary Education Centre (Live), designated as one of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, will be based at the Royal Veterinary College in London and will launch this week.
Stephen May, the RVC's vice-principal for teaching, said: "We see Live as bringing in some of the best current knowledge of how students learn and then being able to use that to inform the veterinary curriculum.
"Like medicine, we have always grappled with the problem of excessive content in our programmes and how we have appropriate problem-solving skills alongside all the scientific information that our students have been required to learn.
The £315 million project to create dozens of Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (Cetls) was launched by the funding councils in January 2005 with the announcement of 74 Cetls. It aims to reward excellent teaching practice and to share this knowledge to improve teaching further.
Lecturer Raymond Macharia is using technology to give students a better understanding of anatomy. The annual intake of 240 students has four weeks of lectures on the central nervous system and the head.
"The head is a very complex structure, with the mouth, eyes, ears, brain and respiratory system," Dr Macharia said. "I got to thinking about how I could be of help to students beyond what they are given in lectures." He developed a series of podcasts of 3-D images of the head. These can be rotated, and include colour coding to highlight different systems.
"We've already had a small focus group and they're very, very excited," Dr Macharia said. Students will be able to download the images from the college's virtual learning environment to their laptops or iPods, letting them study where and when they want.
And Dr Macharia said the podcasts would also be useful for practitioners, who could carry the information with them and access it without having to return to the RVC for a formal course.
All the college's students have a required 26-week placement, and Live is experimenting with using new technology to make this more productive.
Orange, the mobile phone network company, has given the college 30 PDAs, handheld computers that can be used for e-mail, word processing and video recording.
Professor May said it was not unique for students to have PDAs but most institutions that used them focused on the information being transferred from the institution's virtual learning environment rather than students using them for their individual learning.
Orange trained a group of students to use the PDAs, and these students are using the mobile technology to keep records of case material, including photographs, while they are out on placement.
Professor May said the students would give feedback on where they felt it was most useful, and he anticipated that, in future, the records they took might be used for assessment. There were also hopes that they would share their case material.
"You could have someone say 'I've never seen a case of such-and-such' and someone else says 'I've just seen that, here it is'. They can develop a network of peer-aided learning that may or may not include staff."
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Veterinary Defence Society (VDS) noted that when complaints were made against vets there had often been a communication problem. While vets' patients may not be able to speak to them, Professor May likens the vets' role to that of a paediatrician dealing with parents.
Liverpool University's vet school has developed communication courses with funding from the VDS. Live has an "expert partner" arrangement with it to use the courses. "The feedback from students is that they can't get enough of this," Professor May said.
Getting to the bottom of tricky procedures
It is the quintessential image of a vet: television star Christopher Timothy playing the part of James Herriot, with his arm up a cow's backside, writes Olga Wojtas. But vet-turned-researcher Sarah Baillie warns that students may have to examine some 30 cows before they start feeling confident about carrying out fertility examinations and diagnosing pregnancy. And the chance for practical experience is reducing as student numbers rise.
"These internal procedures are really, really difficult to teach and learn. The students can't see what you're doing, so can't copy.
You get them to try to describe what they can feel, and then realise, three or four instructions down the line, they're not where you thought."
Dr Baillie, who five years ago began retraining in computer science at Glasgow Univer-sity, said technology could offer a better way.
She developed the Haptic (touch feedback) Cow, a virtual reality simulator that allows the academic to follow the student's actions inside the cow on a computer monitor. Her experience as a clinician was crucial.
"I've been a cattle vet. I've palpated thousands of cows. It was based on the knowledge I had in my fingers and in my head."
Practising vets were enlisted to test how realistic the Haptic Cow was and Dr Baillie said it was "a magic moment" when she found two of them arguing whether the cow was seven or seven-and-a-half months pregnant.
As part of her PhD, she researched how effective the Haptic Cow was in preparing students for genuine examinations, or whether it simply trained them to use a computer. She found that those students who had trained on the Haptic Cow were significantly better than students who had not trained on it in locating the uterus, confirmed by ultrasound.
Students feel more relaxed training with the simulator rather than on a farm visit, Dr Baillie said.
She is planning to develop computer-simulated training for other procedures and already has software for equine colic. Many students will not encounter this condition during their course and will first deal with it as an emergency after they graduate.
"I would have loved (the computer simulation) when I was a student. It's so much better than standing behind a horse that can kick you," she said.