Distance education brings hightech virtual classrooms

October 10, 2008
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Educators say the intricate study of human anatomy has always been a cornerstone for the study of occupational therapy. But what if students are in one city and the cadavers needed for that study are in a laboratory many miles away?

According to a news release, professors at Western Michigan University have figured out how to bridge that gap and are putting that knowledge to good use. By using Internet-based, tele-health technology, they are bringing students high-quality, high-resolution video images from a cadaver lab in Kalamazoo to a human functional anatomy classroom in WMU's downtown Grand Rapids campus.

The anatomy class is being taught by Dr. Cindee Quake-Rapp, chair of the WMU Department of Occupational Therapy, who developed the technique with Dr. Jaclyn West-Frasier, director of WMU's Grand Rapids occupational therapy program. Assisting in the effort, which required extensive remodeling and outfitting of the classroom, was project lead and technical whiz Kirk Sundling, the compressed video interactive television manager for Extended University Programs, and Bob McDonough, building operations supervisor for the downtown Grand Rapids campus.

It is believed the setup is the first of its kind. Quake-Rapp and West-Frasier will present a paper on their new project at the American Occupational Therapy Association's 89th Annual Conference & Expo next April in Houston. To their knowledge, no one else has used this technology to link a human anatomy classroom with a cadaver lab.

The cadaver lab is housed in the south end of the WMU College of Health and Human Services building in Kalamazoo. The anatomy class is a prerequisite for WMU's professional master's program in occupational therapy, which is being extended to the Grand Rapids downtown campus beginning in fall 2009.

As Quake-Rapp teaches the class, her lab assistant, Danielle Clarke, is stationed in the cadaver lab and follows her instructions, giving students some 50 miles away high-quality video images of the human specimens.

"There's been a real resurgence of this kind of technology," West-Frasier says. "Distance education has been done for many years, but as the technology has improved, it's allowed us to do a lot more than before."

Quake-Rapp says distance education has evolved from correspondence courses to interactive, high-tech, virtual classrooms. The same technology that has revolutionized global commerce is now being implemented in the world of education. And the results have been very impressive.

"We're talking back and forth like we're in the same room," Quake-Rapp says. "And the images are amazing. The medical television cameras have become so sophisticated that students here can actually get a better view than the students in Kalamazoo. The camera can zoom in and provide images of a higher quality than can be seen with the human eye."

Understanding the structure and function of the human body has always been critical to the study of occupational therapy, and human dissection has been the primary method of teaching. Students greatly prefer that method over computer-assisted human anatomy instruction.

But cadaver labs are expensive to replicate. So the tele-health linkup with the Kalamazoo cadaver lab was a cost-effective way to bring that instruction to students in Grand Rapids. Sundling says advances in Internet capability and hardware improvements have made the tele-health link possible. Years ago, such links would provide low-quality, jerky images. Not anymore.

"Upgrades to the network and better equipment have eliminated those jitters," Sundling says, "and the improved technology allows WMU to provide this experience to students in the Grand Rapids community."

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