KU Medical Center enters Second Life

A student sitting at a computer in England walks into a virtual waiting room and sits next to a student in Denmark. A student nurse in Seattle, calls the British patient’s name moments later and prepares her for anesthetic surgery. A doctor at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., takes over the procedure from the online nurse, and the computer simulation ends.

That’s the scenario that played out in 2005 when the KU department of teaching and learning technology demonstrated how Second Life, a multi-player virtual world, could bring a new dimension to education. KU Med has since purchased an island in the virtual world to prepare nursing and physical therapy students for the real world. Now, physical therapy and occupational therapy students use Second Life to evaluate handicap hazards in virtual homes, recommend improvements and apply changes.

David Antonacci, director of teaching and learning technology, said first-year nursing students will start using the program next June to practice prepping patients for anesthetic surgery.

The application of Second Life in the classroom, Antonacci said, will allow students to execute complicated procedures in a simple, computer-simulated environment.

“There’s no physical interaction; they just have to know the executive routine: what needs to be done and when,” he said.

Antonacci’s department began exploring the possibilities of Second Life in 2004, but he said it took faculty a while to understand how it could be used in the classroom.

In August 2007, the health center decided to buy a virtual island from Second Life for $980. It pays a $150 monthly leasing fee. Antonacci said the prices were reduced for educators.

Antonacci’s department built a virtual health clinic on the island, complete with fully equipped exam rooms, furnished lobbies and realistic operating equipment. It also designed houses for students to practice conducting home assessments for handicapped patients.

To give the environment an authentic look, a technologist took digital photos of cabinets, furniture and medical equipment, and superimposed them onto objects and structures in the environment.

“Students and professors were amazed at how realistic it all looked,” Antonacci said.

Stephanie Gerald, an education support technologist who works on the project, said students begin the simulation by logging into the virtual world and walking into the hospital. They click on different objects, such as blood pressure cuffs, oxygen masks and laryngoscopes, and attach the appropriate objects to patients.

“Some objects require more choices from the user, like choosing where to attach the EKG leads to the patient, and which color will go to a particular spot on a patient’s chest,” Gerald said. “There are some parts of the simulation where students will have to click on a button on the touch screen or click on the syringes and choose how much of some drugs are given to the patient.”

She said the simulation records every step of the process and sends the results to the instructor.

Sheila Miller, Manhattan senior, said she hadn’t used Second Life in the classroom yet, but she said the concept sounded a lot better than the simulations she was used to. Instead of virtual simulations, she said students practiced on mannequins, which professors talked through.

She said the procedure was awkward and not taken seriously.

“Our generation is a computer generation so it just seems natural that they’d teach us through that kind of venue,” Miller said.

Antonacci said his department was trying to educate more KU administrators about the possibilities of Second Life and how it could be expanded to more programs at the University.

Some foreign language departments, he said, have considered using the program to allow KU students to communicate with students in other countries. He said some professors have asked him to create virtual-world offices for faculty members to meet with students online. He said his department has also considered building a virtual, walk-in heart for students to explore.

“There’s a very active group working on ways the University could benefit from Second Life,” Antonacci said.

The University of Kansas isn’t the only institution using Second Life. Architecture students at the University of Colorado use the program to design buildings. Bradley University uses Second Life to train its students in the field of qualitative research methodology.

The National Oceanography Air and Space Museum even owns an island in Second Life, which it uses to simulate tsunamis, exhibit real-time weather patterns and demonstrate geological plate tectonics.

Antonacci said his department would continue to explore new possibilities for Second Life, and welcomed any suggestions from students or faculty.

— Edited by Ramsey Cox

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