Transformation of anatomy lab to online format created unprecedented challenges


Johnson anatomy

Dr. Rick Johnson demonstrates a large animal anatomy lesson such as he captured on video to provide students in his large animal anatomy class. (Photo by Louis Brems)

By Sarah Carey

Twelve veterinary anatomy videos, each taking five hours to complete, produced in only a couple of weeks — just in time for first-year UF College of Veterinary Medicine students’ final anatomy exam on April 13.

A Herculean task, but one that Dr. Rick Johnson, a professor of physiological sciences and neuroscience, and large animal anatomy instructor, was able to accomplish in the days immediately following UF students’ dismissal from classes in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. All course work for the remainder of the semester was mandated to be delivered online, and Johnson, along with other UF faculty members, was faced with having to make adjustments that would have previously been unheard of in order to ensure students’ education continued uninterrupted.

The pressure and work involved in transitioning traditional anatomy lab instruction to a virtual format on such a tight timeline was like nothing Johnson could have ever anticipated.

“Although I anticipated this online requirement before it was officially stated, I realized that to put all the hands-on anatomy laboratories online would be a tremendous challenge for me, given the short time frame, and would require significantly more teaching time effort than normal,” Johnson said. “It was tough having to shut down my research lab at the same time, as I had to set up a work-from-home strategy with my research staff.”

Adding to the complications were the fact that veterinary and graduate student teaching assistants were not allowed on campus, and the implementation of new staff social distancing requirements: He would have to teach the class without the instructor team he was used to counting on.

Knowing he was not alone in facing these challenges, Johnson reached out to his fellow members of the American Association of Veterinary Anatomists, a group consisting of anatomy professors at the other veterinary colleges in the United States and abroad.

“As we all compared notes and COVID-19 strategies on our listserv, it quickly became apparent that many of us were going to do the same thing, i.e., make laboratory videos for student distribution on Canvas-type course platforms,” Johnson said. “We shared good ideas on how to do this.”

Johnson anatomy

Dr. Rick Johnson demonstrates the articulation of the equine carpal joints as he captured on video for his large animal anatomy class. (Photo by Louis Brems)

As he worked, with UF closed for all but essential business, the Veterinary Academic Building, which houses the veterinary anatomy lab, felt “like a ghost town,” Johnson said. But he was determined to make sure his students were able to obtain the best anatomy instruction he could offer them virtually, despite the challenges.

“I tried to keep up with the originally scheduled time frame as best I could,” Johnson said.

He worked in steps: first planning out how to produce the videos technically, then working out a schedule for specimen preparation, recording, editing and producing. Vicki Dugan, the biological scientist in his research lab, served as the camera operator, using an iPad. She also performed the video editing and production prior to sending to educational coordinator Jamie Holloway for uploading to Mediasite, Johnson said.

“This was all completely new to me, and because of time limits, I had to do the live demonstration/narration in one take, without rehearsal or corrections, which was a bit stressful,” Johnson said.

One excellent live horse video demonstrating common nerve block techniques was put together by Dr. Heather Roe, a large animal surgery resident and teaching assistant, using her own horse in its boarding barn, he said.

Roe has had plenty of experience as a teaching assistant in the large animal anatomy lab, serving in the same role while a veterinary student at UF — she graduated in 2018 — and also helping to teach other equine lameness, palpation and nerve block labs as part of her residency training.

“My husband was the videographer and my 20-year-old horse, Mr. Smith, was the patient,” Roe said.

She added that having recently been a student herself, she tried to teach the concepts in a relatable, systemic manner so the students might easily remember landmarks for the common equine nerve blocks.

“I got good feedback from the students saying that the demonstration finally connected the minute classroom details with real-life veterinary practice,” Roe said.

The final examination administered to students had to be completely rewritten so that the laboratory practical component of the exam could be done online with images from the videos, and with all new questions appropriate for the now-required open-book exam format, given that no exam proctoring would be available at the college.

“On the positive side, I have received a number of personal emails from the students complimenting the quality of the videos and my willingness to take the time to provide them for their anatomical study,” Johnson said. “I am very thankful for their kind words.”

Johnson anatomy

Dr. Rick Johnson demonstrates a plastinated equine larynx cut in half longitudinally, exposing the airway, the vocal folds/glottis, and the laryngeal ventricle (probe). (Photo by Louis Brems)

Josephine Oakley, a freshman veterinary student in the class, said that while the change in a format was definitely a transition, she felt the anatomy instructors handled it the best they could, while still trying to add some elements of interaction in the online class format.

“We were provided with ample study materials to try and make up for the lack of hands-on interaction within the lab,” Oakley said, adding that she was looking forward to being able to apply what she learned in the lab and in the online format in a clinical setting in the future.

Miguel Ángel de Villa, another student in the class, says he learns best from a visual or hands-on learning experience. For that reason, he both benefited from certain aspects of the video presentations, and was challenged by them.

“Not being able to perform the assignments myself or not being able to access my specimen for studying purposes made studying quite difficult,” he said. On the other hand, he noted unexpected benefits to experiencing the course content online.

“Dr. Johnson’s videos on the prepared specimens, where he demonstrated each of the anatomical structures we were responsible for learning, along with any descriptions and/or clinical correlations he spoke about during the videos, were immensely helpful,” he said.

The ability to rewind and re-watch certain parts of the video as many times as he needed in order to grasp the material was extremely beneficial, de Villa said, adding that the change in format also allowed students to receive information directly from the instructors at one time, as opposed to how communication typically takes place in the normal lab setting.

“While Dr. Johnson and the teaching assistants did an excellent job at going around the anatomy lab and making themselves as available as possible for all of the students, I think it was unrealistic or impossible for them to relay all of the information Dr. Johnson provided in the videos to every single student in the anatomy lab while we were all scattered about and working on our specimens,” he said. “I believe having access to this type of video for the first half of the anatomy course may have been beneficial for many of my peers and me. Incorporating this style of material into future anatomy courses may be quite useful for future students.”

Another first-year student, Jeremiah Owens, who also serves as president of the Class of 2023, added that while there was no substitute for working with an actual cadaver and the benefits of being able to physically manipulate and learn everything about it by touch, “without the videos that Dr. Johnson worked so hard to make for us, anatomy would have ended with COVID-19.”

“The videos allowed us to see the real three-dimensional structure, instead of just pictures with words describing them to us,” he said. “We were able to view the structure in space and to actually see the interactions of all of its parts. The truth is, we can memorize facts from a book or a picture all day long, but memorizing something isn’t always the same as learning it.

Johnson said he hoped to continue the anatomy learning experience for individuals who might appreciate additional hands-on opportunities, once students are allowed back on campus.

“Many of the students are very disappointed that they cannot touch any specimens, or tissue, and are limited to just watching a non-tactile, two-dimensional video without any opportunity to physically explore the characteristics and topography of the organs,” Johnson said.

When students are allowed back on campus, Johnson said he will invite the interested students, particularly the equine-oriented students, into the lab to see and handle some of the specimens and anatomical structures, particularly those involving the forelimb and foot, which are so important to know clinically.

“They shouldn’t be trying to learn anatomy this way, but we’ve had no choice,” Johnson said.

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