The mobile app offers new learning tools for anatomy students. But technology is not a silver bullet
For most people who finished school or college just ten years ago, the idea of virtual reality in the classroom probably sounds like science fiction. But immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality – all of which aim to marry the physical and digital worlds – are increasingly being used to enhance teaching and learning.
Its proponents argue that immersive technology could be particularly useful in low-resource settings. No lab equipment at school? Can’t afford expensive excursions? No problem: cell phones and tablets could take out entire labs and libraries in schools and universities.
Those who oppose a total migration to such technology point out that education sectors in poorer countries already have serious resource and infrastructure constraints.
The COVID pandemic, with resulting lockdowns and university closures, has forced countries to turn to online teaching and learning. But it didn’t miraculously improve the infrastructure problems – on the contrary, it made them worse. Yet, it seems likely that some elements of e-learning will become the norm in many parts of the world.
How might educational institutions in poorer contexts adapt without leaving students behind? Our experience in developing an immersive mobile app for college anatomy students offers some insights.
The Departments of Informatics and Medical Biosciences at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa collaborated to develop Anat_Hub for two reasons. First, we wanted to reach students who were no longer on campus due to the pandemic and create a self-paced learning pathway. Second, practical training in medical biosciences has been hampered by resource constraints and a limited teaching staff. In anatomy, for example, there is an overall lack of cadavers. This makes hands-on training difficult.
In a recent article, we described how students experienced the application as well as the constraints and issues they faced.
An immersive experience
Anat_Hub is a practical immersive AR technology for the musculoskeletal system. It teaches the names, attachments and actions of the muscles of the human musculoskeletal system. The app provides detailed upper and lower limb charts. Models can be viewed in four different sections: shoulder and arm; forearm and hand; hip and thigh; and leg and foot.
In AR mode, the in-app animation feature allows the student to view and interact with the model from different sides. As with the 3D version, users can start by looking at the muscles in each limb and peeling back the layers down to the nervous system.
The application, based on the Android operating system, offers a wide range of useful features intended to promote active and self-regulated learning. These include 3D mode, a glossary and a quiz where students’ cognitive abilities are tested on the material covered.
Anat_Hub is around 300MB in size and internet access is required to download and install it. However, it can be used offline once downloaded. Internet access was a primary consideration in the app development process given its African context. It has been reported that around 82% of university students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have internet access. In South Africa, a survey by publishers Juta found that 32% of student respondents had difficulty accessing the internet.
We piloted the system on a group of first-year student volunteers from several anatomy-related disciplines. Next, we assessed their experiences of the app’s functionality and usability. There were ultimately 53 respondents. Only 13.2% had used AR before seeing Anat_Hub. Most had relied on lecture notes (96.2%), internet resources (77.4%), videos (75.5%) and textbooks (56.5%) to study anatomy . Few had turned to alternative sources such as mobile apps (24.5%), anatomy atlases (11.3%) and e-learning software (7.5%).
The students rated the application well. Almost two-thirds of the volunteers gave it a rating of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (“poor” to “excellent”). Nearly 70% of respondents particularly appreciated the 3D mode of the application. Many have found the glossary useful. And 96.2% told us they would recommend the app to others. All this suggests the potential and opportunities of such technology.
The digital divide
Of course, there were also problems. These were largely centered around broken or missing functionality, UI and navigation, 3D elements in the navigation bar, and difficulties with AR mode. These issues could be attributed to the type of mobile device used that does not meet the specifications required by the application (Android API level 26 to 30 with a mobile screen aspect ratio of 16:9).
This is a reminder that not all mobile or smart phones and tablet computers are created equal. They’re not all configured the same, and some students just can’t afford the high-end phones that are more likely to meet the specs of the app. This highlights South Africa’s deep digital divide and high levels of poverty. Many students at our university, and others in South Africa, come from households without basic infrastructure and where parents have neither the education nor the means to provide them with a technological head start.
Read more: Digital equality: South Africa still has a long way to go
This is not the end of our work with Anat_Hub. On the one hand, future research will focus on whether student performance on anatomy tests and exams will improve through the app. Additional efforts are planned to optimize and reduce the size of the application. The ultimate goal is to roll out the app as an anatomy learning tool within the University of the Western Cape and other institutions.
Applications like Anat_Hub show that local technologies can be developed to meet local needs. But the availability of technology itself is not a “cure” for shortcomings elsewhere in the education system or in society at large.
Professor Okobi Ekpo and Marjorie Smith contributed to this article.