Second Life ribbon cutting eventBeginning this spring, it’s not a stretch to say the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) is literally “out of this world.”

The TAMHSC is using Second Life, an interactive 3-D virtual world on the Internet where “residents” socialize and connect using voice and text chat. A free online application enables users to interact with each through avatars, or onscreen characters. Chat and multimedia features are available for participation in individual and group activities.

Second Life brings TAMHSC campuses spread throughout the state to one central location for students, faculty, staff and visitors to explore at any time without ever leaving the computer. Alicia Dorsey, Ph.D., vice president for program development and community outreach, initiated the effort with her husband, Leroy G. Dorsey, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, who teaches in Second Life, and James Snell, D.V.M., M.S., senior lecturer in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and director of Instructional Technology Services, who oversees the Texas A&M Second Life campus.

Formally introduced to the health science center community at January’s convocation, a “virtual” ribbon cutting occurred in December, with an avatar representing Nancy W. Dickey, president of the TAMHSC and vice chancellor for health affairs for The Texas A&M University System, holding the scissors. Classes for TAMHSC students in both nursing and pharmacy in Second Life will begin this spring.

The TAMHSC campus, like other campuses, is comprised of “islands.” The islands “TAMHSC Care” and “TAMHSC Learning” recently opened to the public, while two additional islands are under development and will support the institution’s first virtual teaching hospital.

Entities can connect their island with others, and the TAMHSC has a bridge to cross into Texas A&M, which currently occupies four islands. With nearly 10 islands overall, the A&M System is one of the state’s most active higher education systems utilizing Second Life.

“Texas A&M has established a strong foundation in using this engaging and innovative technology since development began on the Second Life Campus over two years ago,” Dr. Snell says. “Second Life provides a unique teaching tool for instructors in higher education to enhance student learning, ranging from modeling and simulations to multimedia projects and team-building activities. Now, with the health science center establishing a virtual presence with their two islands, they will be able to showcase the broad teaching, learning and research projects specific to health sciences that are possible in virtual worlds.”

Upon entering the TAMHSC virtual campus, the first building represents the future George and Barbara Bush Institute for Health Policy. The future signature building on the health science center’s Bryan campus, it will serve as a world-class think tank committed to developing real-world solutions to complex health care issues.

Inside this virtual building are hanging gonfalons representing each college that when selected take you directly to the respective academic unit. A shop allows you to select attire with the TAMHSC logo, and a library gives visitors access to online resources or a place to curl up with a good book.

SL main building insideAs you explore the campus, a separate building represents each academic unit. The individual building contains orientation and general information about that component, along with conference rooms where users can gather for meetings or classes. Each academic unit has its own unique feature, such as the piano in the lobby of the College of Medicine and an atrium for the Baylor College of Dentistry.

Also on the TAMHSC campus is a 100-avatar amphitheater that provides a larger setting for presentations or gatherings. Classrooms with the capability for videos and PowerPoint presentations are located along an interprofessional classroom alley.

Movement is by keyboard or mouse controls, and visitors “speak” either by typing words in a text box or using a microphone. There are guidelines for visitors to foster this campus as a professional setting, such as expecting the use of human avatars rather than avatars taking the form of animals or mythical creatures.

The new TAMHSC virtual campus fosters innovation in education and spurs collaboration among the health disciplines, Dr. Dorsey says. And that’s just the beginning.

“Using Second Life could allow TAMHSC members from across the nation to meet virtually in simulated settings for medical instruction, emergency response training and interdisciplinary experience,” Dr. Dickey says.

While Second Life is now in place for the entire Texas A&M Health Science Center, several TAMHSC faculty already have used it to enhance their curriculum.

For example, at the TAMHSC-Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, Dr. Bob Hutchins, associate professor of biomedical sciences, and Dr. Bill Wathen, associate professor of general dentistry, teamed up with faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry to create plans for a learning experience that does not exist at any other dental school: virtual dental grand rounds. Available to third- and fourth-year students at multiple dental schools, the grand rounds facilitates learning about real-life dental scenarios using online technologies. The overall objective is to support integrated basic and clinical information in a discussion of patient treatment needs.SL amphitheater

In addition, TAMHSC-College of Nursing assistant professors Karen Landry, Ph.D., M.S.N., and Karen Kincaid, Ph.D., M.S.N., received an award from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to use Second Life for creating a virtual hospital with mental health and pediatric units. In partnership with Texas A&M University and Blinn College, this effort will add to the number of clinical sites available to nursing students, supporting growth in class size for the college by accommodating more students in a virtual clinical setting.

“Case scenarios are being created for a 2-year-old child experiencing an asthma attack and another child with bacterial meningitis,” Dr. Landry says. “Within mental health, students will assess, use therapeutic communication and provide appropriate interventions for individuals with major depressive and mood disorders. Our future plans include expanding the virtual hospital to incorporate all medical-surgical areas along with involving all TAMHSC disciplines.”

Most health institutions, including the Texas A&M Health Science Center, utilize computer programmed human patient simulators to exhibit certain symptoms or execute scenarios. Second Life complements this unique, distinct experience by enabling students to practice interviewing virtual patients, make diagnoses and complete medical charts without being on a physical campus or waiting for a human patient simulator to be available. Instructors then can review the scenario outcomes with them either in the classroom or the virtual setting.

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