Enhanced virtual microscopy for collaborative education

BMC Med Educ. 2011 Jan 26:11:4. doi: 10.1186/1472-6920-11-4.


Background: Curricular reform efforts and a desire to use novel educational strategies that foster student collaboration are challenging the traditional microscope-based teaching of histology. Computer-based histology teaching tools and Virtual Microscopes (VM), computer-based digital slide viewers, have been shown to be effective and efficient educational strategies. We developed an open-source VM system based on the Google Maps engine to transform our histology education and introduce new teaching methods. This VM allows students and faculty to collaboratively create content, annotate slides with markers, and it is enhanced with social networking features to give the community of learners more control over the system.

Results: We currently have 1,037 slides in our VM system comprised of 39,386,941 individual JPEG files that take up 349 gigabytes of server storage space. Of those slides 682 are for general teaching and available to our students and the public; the remaining 355 slides are used for practical exams and have restricted access. The system has seen extensive use with 289,352 unique slide views to date. Students viewed an average of 56.3 slides per month during the histology course and accessed the system at all hours of the day. Of the 621 annotations added to 126 slides 26.2% were added by faculty and 73.8% by students. The use of the VM system reduced the amount of time faculty spent administering the course by 210 hours, but did not reduce the number of laboratory sessions or the number of required faculty. Laboratory sessions were reduced from three hours to two hours each due to the efficiencies in the workflow of the VM system.

Conclusions: Our virtual microscope system has been an effective solution to the challenges facing traditional histopathology laboratories and the novel needs of our revised curriculum. The web-based system allowed us to empower learners to have greater control over their content, as well as the ability to work together in collaborative groups. The VM system saved faculty time and there was no significant difference in student performance on an identical practical exam before and after its adoption. We have made the source code of our VM freely available and encourage use of the publically available slides on our website.

MeSH terms

  • Computer-Assisted Instruction / methods*
  • Education, Medical / organization & administration*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Histology / education*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Microscopy / instrumentation
  • Microscopy / methods*
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care
  • Telemedicine / methods
  • User-Computer Interface*