Virtual world ‘Second Life’ could present new learning opportunities for radiology students

As online learning options for radiology continue to grow, some students are turning to Second Life—a virtual community developed by its own users and reigned by avatars—to complete their medical education, researchers in Malaga, Spain, have found.

Lead author Rocio Lorenzo-Alvarez, MD, and colleagues wrote in Academic Radiology that, while Second Life has previously been used in studies targeting online medical education, none of those studies has delved into radiology. To them, it’s not a surprise.

“The relevance of medical imaging to patient care has increased exponentially over the last years, but the role of radiology in undergraduate teaching has not changed accordingly,” Lorenzo-Alvarez et al. wrote. “The use of online resources to deliver radiology education to medical students represents an exciting alternative and an effective method for improving radiological knowledge and skills.”

The team ultimately recruited 46 students for their study, 20 of whom were “first-cycle” and between their first and third years of schooling and 26 of whom were older, “second-cycle” students between their fourth and sixth years. Participation in the course was voluntary and focused on basic radiology for lower-level students and case-based clinical radiology for second-cycles.

“Virtual worlds have a remarkable potential to be used for effective teaching and learning, providing the possibility to create immersive, realistic and engaging online events that can provide high-quality medical education to health-related users in remote locations,” the authors wrote. “There are varied online experiences for undergraduate radiology education, but they have still not included the use of or specific dedication to virtual worlds such as Second Life.”

In the case of Second Life, which was first introduced to the market in 2003 by Linden Research, students had to create an account, build an avatar and download the Second Life viewer onto their laptop. Users can interact with objects and communicate with other students or professors via their avatars.

The researchers started the project in July 2011, entering the virtual world eight months before students to train in Second Life communication and construction and assess the learning potential for the space. The team built and developed an island, dubbed the “Medical Master Island,” which houses two expansive classrooms for the lower- and higher-level class sections. 

There are already copious options for health-related activities on Second Life, Lorenzo-Alvarez and co-authors wrote—typically centered around patient education or increasing awareness of public health issues. The classroom building on Medical Master Island, however, was built solely for learning, equipped with desks, computers, slide projectors and an exhibit hall.

The program lasted four weeks, according to the study, and students were asked to fill out questionnaires after the fact. The authors found the majority of participants rated the whole program, including its appropriateness, initiative and environment, highly, and most said they’d be willing to learn via Second Life in the future.

“All students highly rated the organization, the content, the benefit to their medical education and the professor,” Lorenzo-Alvarez and colleagues said. “Online radiology education using Second Life is very feasible and well-received by medical students of all year groups. The potential of using Second Life for radiology education includes promising expectations regarding collaborative learning and gamification.”