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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Pioneering Clinical Pathology Telecourse Unites VMRCVM, Georgia

By Jeffrey Douglas

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 14 - December 5, 1996

(Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of articles featuring the innovative use of modern information technology by members of the university community.)

Veterinary clinical pathologists play a critical role in the diagnostic process. Using sophisticated instruments to analyze complicated serum chemistries for signs of disease, they work closely with attending veterinarians who are trying to diagnose what's wrong with patients that can't describe their symptoms.

Given that orientation towards teamwork, it seems natural that Holly Bender thought "collaboration" when faced with the daunting task of producing and presenting a post-DVM-level class in Veterinary Clinical Chemistry.

Because this advanced-level seminar requires intense faculty effort and enrolls only post-graduates seeking board certification from the American College of Veterinary Pathology, few veterinary colleges can afford to offer the class.

But being digitally inclined and having recently participated in Virginia Tech's Faculty Development Institute, Bender got an idea. Why not use modern information technology to link faculty members and students at two distinct universities? The result of that inspiration was an inter-institutional telecourse that enabled the VMRCVM and the University of Georgia to explore new frontiers in veterinary medical education.

"We used technology to build a bridge between two major universities," said Bender, an associate professor in the college's Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. "By splitting the work, we each were able to offer the course."

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning from August through October, three students and three faculty members from each campus participated in a "virtual classroom" created by computers and telephone lines to discuss the finer points of advanced clinical pathology.

Questions regarding serum-chemistry levels were posed and answered in real time by participants who interacted with each other "live" on television monitors, just as they would if they were not separated by more than 350 miles. Written work was also exchanged electronically over the Internet.

Three clinical pathologists on the faculty at each school teamed up to develop and present the course material, which included computer-generated graphics, overheads and other digitally created images.

Bender, who had conducted part of her Ph.D. work at the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine, knew she would find a willing program partner in that institution, which is led by Dean Keith Prasse, a man considered "one of the fathers of veterinary clinical pathology," according to Bender.

She also knew from her experience with the Faculty Development Institute that she could find technical resources and support from Virginia Tech's Office of Educational Technologies, where Director John Moore, Director of Media Services Tom Head and their colleagues have been steadily putting the infrastructure in place to support these kinds of instructional ventures. Barbara Lockee, a program developer for distance education in the Office of Media Services, was assigned to work closely with Bender on the project.

"The people in Educational Technologies and Media Services have been absolutely terrific," said Bender, who helped choreograph the efforts of the Instructional Technologies personnel and members of the VMRCVM's Information Services Unit as they worked with counterparts at the University of Georgia to assemble the computer equipment and establish the VTEL connection over ISDN lines between Blacksburg and Athens.

"This is a dream I have had for a long time," said Bender, who says the VMRCVM was able to fulfill academic program requirements for a new residency in pathology the college began offering on July 1 because of the course. "It worked well for both of us. Everyone is pretty excited about this and I think we all see great potential."

One of many things Bender said she learned from the experience is the leadership position Virginia Tech has assumed in factoring modern informational technology into the instructional process.

In fact, one of the early logistical barriers they faced, she said, was the fact that the University of Georgia lacked the equipment and the expertise to support the course. That was corrected when Bender and her counterpart at Georgia, Denise Bounous, teamed up to write an $18,000 grant proposal seeking funds to upgrade equipment to a level that would support the course.

The proposal, "Forming partnerships using telecommunications to enhance graduate education in veterinary clinical pathology" was funded by the Instructional Technology Division at the University of Georgia.

Students enrolled in the prototypical course gave it high marks. Wrote one in reviewing the telecourse: "It was great having another location and a few more brains to pick. This was the highlight of the program."

Inspired by the success of the clinical-pathology telecourse, Bender and her colleagues are looking at developing collaborative courses in microscopic pathology, cell pathology, and oncologic pathology, all of which will use modern information technology to combine the resources of two veterinary colleges.

Bender, colleague William Chickering and veterinary informatics Ph.D. student Rick Mills are also looking at ways to use modern information technology to enhance the way clinical pathology is taught to DVM students.

Funded with a grant from the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, they are developing a multimedia learning module that will help students improve their deductive reasoning skills while navigating their way through an "interactive learning tree" which realistically simulates decision conditions clinical pathologists must make during the diagnostic process.