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Utilising virtual environments for radiation therapy teaching and learning
Introduction: Modern radiation therapy undergraduate education comprises the illustration of theoretical, technical concepts in a classroom setting, coupled with the acquisition of practical handling and patient communication skills within the clinical environment. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the application of virtual environments to education, despite ongoing inconclusive evidence on the use of virtual environments for enhancing student educational achievement.
Aim and objectives: The aim of our research is to evaluate a custom-built 3D virtual radiation oncology department created within Second Life®, an online virtual world, as an alternative to traditional physical classroom-based didactic instruction, in tandem with a Virtual Environment for Radiotherapy Training (VERT) system, for the peer support and training of junior radiation therapy students in their first and second year of undergraduate studies. To achieve this aim, we investigated learning achievement outcomes, knowledge retention over a 2-week time interval and learner self-perceived confidence post-instruction, using both quantitative and qualitative analysis.
Methods: Institutional ethics approval was granted for an exempted review. Participants were currently enrolled undergraduate Year 1 and Year 2 students at our institution. Student participants were randomised into two groups; the control group attended a face-to-face classroom session centred on the illustration of theoretical, technical concepts, while the intervention group attended a virtual classroom session online on Second Life®, where similar content was delivered. Both groups then attended a VERT practical session to acquire practical handling and communication skills in radiation therapy. Upon completion of the sessions, confidence surveys, knowledge-based written and practical assessments were administered to the student participants.
Results: We found that the instructional session conducted within the custom-built 3D virtual radiation oncology department in Second Life® compared to the traditional didactic classroom setting increased undergraduate Year 1 radiation therapy students' perceived confidence to a greater extent compared to Year 2 students, in performing radiation therapy treatment procedures. In addition, our findings revealed that overall learning achievement outcomes and knowledge retention scores between Second Life® and non- Second Life® student participants were closely similar and statistically insignificant. Thematic analysis of the confidence survey questionnaires revealed that the students in general desired more clinical hands-on practice.
Discussion: Second Life® is equally effective in disseminating theoretical, technical course content delivery to undergraduate radiation therapy students. The use of virtual environments appears to have increased the perceived confidence of the Year 1 undergraduate students to a greater extent compared to the Year 2 undergraduates, suggesting that the adoption of virtual environments early in the students' educational journey can have a positive effect on students' learning experience.
Conclusions and recommendations: The development and use of our custom-built Second Life® radiation oncology department provides a novel way of delivering remote, virtual training instruction to undergraduate radiation therapy students over traditional, didactic classroom instructional delivery. We recommend, based on the results of this pilot study, that future research can involve a larger study sample of undergraduate RT students, to explore both the short-term and long-term impact of virtual environments on student learning outcomes across their enrolled years of study. This would in turn mean progressive attempts to revamp our existing curricula structure, to deliberately incorporate the use of virtual environments, especially during early undergraduate years, towards enhanced modern RT education.