No liquids, no messy cutting, no smell, no killing… multimedia interactive programmes offered by several sites are becoming a popular way of teaching anatomy and physiology to students of zoology, medicine and pharmacology. Geeta Padmanabhan on the many advantages virtual teaching of science offers

Follow me, I'm checking out this remarkable DVD, Prodissector FROG (Quicktime). “It's a multimedia, interactive programme to teach anatomy and physiology,” says the welcome note inviting me to search “Anatomy” to view digital images of frog dissections, explore “Systems” to enjoy animations of major organ systems, try “Self-test” to see how much I've learned, and read “Glossary” for terms I'm still ignorant of. I click “Anatomy”.

The frog prince generously allows me dorsal, heart, oral and ventral views of his magnificent body, each presented as a series of layers. On a side panel are buttons to adjust visibility, get highlights of individual anatomical structures and hear the pronunciation of names. Dorsal is my choice. I press “Tag” and prince appears bravely in a transparent sheath with red pins all over. I meet him eyeball-to-eyeball, and click on a pin to read the info. The next panel colours the skeleton part under each red pin. The info is in short sentences and in clear English. In “Systems”, movie-controlled lessons speak about the part displayed in colour. The blood-air barrier of a frog never sounded so exciting!

After browsing several frames, I confidently click “Self-test”. I get 5/30, but no matter. I'll be happy to try this again! No liquids, no messy cutting, no smell, no killing. A lesson on the internal structure of a frog in the comfort of my room! Where could you get to see trochlear (IV) nerves down to the tip, a ringside view of the mouth without the struggle to keep it open with pins?

Indian versions

This DVD is from Schneider & Morse Group LLC, but we have wonderful Indian versions from Dr. Raveendran, Professor, Department of Pharmacology, JIPMER, products of his programming hobby, he said. “One fine day in the late 80s, I got the idea of simulating a few animal experiments we were teaching the students.” The “animated graphic sequences” were “pure fun” to start with but “I realised the software could be used as an effective teaching/learning tool since the experiments on computer screens, unlike live ones, can be repeated. Students can individually carry out the experiment at their own pace. No animals and, hence, no bio hazards.”

The popularity of alternatives to animals in the late 90s coincided with restrictions imposed on animal experiments by the government. ExPharm would be a good substitute. Soon animal welfare/rights organisations such as CPCSEA, PETA and InterNICHE(UK) started promoting the software. Colleges in India and abroad started using it. Animal use for teaching UGs stopped or got reduced. “While I promoted it as a teaching/learning tool, animal rights activists in India aggressively promoted it as an alternative. The software served both purposes well.” His department started using his software for UG students in 1994.

ExPharm package was written in GW BASIC in 1989 for PCs running DOS. It went QuickBASIC in 1990, VisualBasic in '97 for Windows OS. In 2011-12 a sophisticated, online, browser-based version (ExPharm Pro) will be released by Elsevier India. When it was on his website (www.indphar.org) ExPharm got downloaded a 1000 times from across the world. Since 2003, thousands of CDs and DVDs of the software have been distributed to Indian pharmacologists, students and teachers.

Successful package

It's a clear success. All pharmacy colleges in India use it for the UG course (B.Pharm), following a direction from Pharmacy Council of India. So do some 70 per cent of our medical, veterinary and dental colleges. He was happy to read that more than 3000 animals were saved in Gujarat with the use of the CD. (http://www.interniche.org/en/news/3000-animals-replaced-gujarat-india). It has been translated into Russian, is in great demand in the Czech Republic. Elsevier is infusing more than a million rupees to upgrade and market it.

Will digital dissection replace conventional methods? “If one has to develop dissection skills and actual animal handling experience, one has to go for live animal experiments,” he answered. “But the UGs (MBBS, BPharm, BDS, BVSc) don't need those skills. They need tools to learn drug actions, develop skills for data handling, designing experiments, reporting results. These can be easily achieved with simulations.” Feedback tells him it's effective and acceptable. “It allows teachers to replace animals without compromising the quality of education for undergrads. That is one of the reasons why the software is so successful.”

Shiranee Pereira, People for Animals, is thrilled. “Now you can get a Zoology degree without having to sacrifice a single animal,” she smiled. “You know the frog is in Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act? Virtual dissection is student/animal-friendly, cruelty-free, has assessment options. The next step would be to introduce this for PG and research in medical and veterinary colleges.”