The teaching of pharmacology is focused on the effects of drugs on living tissue. The challenge for students and staff are many fold but the core issue has always been understanding the maths associated with generating various concentrations of drugs to achieve the concentration that would be added onto the tissue. This involves knowing, the volume of the organ bath, the concentration of the stock drug concentration and finally the concentration that is to be applied to the tissue. Mistakes to any or all of the concentrations not only renders that experiment unusable but more importantly it has a negative effect on the confidence of the student. Hence, before students embark on pharmacological experiments they use a computer simulation that has been designed (Dr John Dempster) to reflect all the physiological and pharmacological responses of the tissue that is under study.
The simulation is designed to give students time to think about drug concentrations and apply the drug to the virtual tissue without worrying about getting the concentration wrong. Any mistakes can simply be reversed and the students can then learn from the experience. The data from the experiment can be used in conjunction with the data produced when the student is using biological tissue.
The positive impact is that students gain confidence with drug concentration in a manner that is relaxed and any errors are quickly corrected with no fuss or recrimination. For staff we have found that we can target our teaching to the smaller number of students that have deeper number of issues and we can build their confidence on a one to one basis knowing that we have the time to do so.
We know that students enjoy this tandem approach to learning pharmacology but we have not taken a poll to generate any data. We know this as we say to students that the simulation can be used in their reports if they are unable to generate a data set from the more unreliable biological tissue. This safety net is always well received and the learning outcomes are identical to those students able to generate data from both sets of experiments.
The key to success is to make the simulation reflect all the stages associated with the “real” experiment. All the thinking processes and the outcomes should be reflected in the simulation. Without this we end up reducing the learning and skills achieved by using simulations. The point of the simulation is to make the biology more understandable and not to use the simulation to replace all of the biology. This would be true regardless of the subject area.
The main challenges are convincing staff of the benefits of using alternative technologies to enhance learning. The culture of “I did it this way and it did not harm me” is prevalent in academia as staff forget that they were probably a highly motivated and capable student and that we have a mixed economy in terms of ability and motivation.
We have used simulations for many years and scalability is down to the provision of sufficient computers.
Computer simulations have a role in many forms of teaching and I believe there is not a subject area that could not be enhanced with these technologies. The main thing to remember is that they are not used to completely replace the real world experiments but to prepare students in advance of the real experiment where they can gather there skills and practice ahead of the “real” thing.