15 February 2008
Over twenty years ago, LDF began financing the development of computer programmes to replace the use of animals in higher education practicals.
The physiology and pharmacology programmes developed then, and subsequently, by Professor David Dewhurst and his team have had an enormous impact, saving millions of animals’ lives, and a fresh approach to research and learning has been engendered.
However, technology does not stand still. Having started out in an era when computers were almost an exotic novelty, we have seen almost constant development, rewriting and evolution of these resources to keep up with modern technology. Two years ago we embarked on one of our most ambitious projects yet, ReCAL with a grant to extend the lifespan of our now ageing computer-assisted learning (CAL) resources. This funding has now been extended up to the end of 2009 with a further commitment.
The aim is to make our computer-assisted science teaching programmes globally accessible through the Internet, to enable multi-language versions to be created more easily than was previously possible. It will give life science and pharmacology teachers editorial control over the content of the programmes.
The basis of ReCAL is to break down existing programmes into their learning components, make these available as discrete objects and provide online tools to enable teachers to reassemble them and tailor them to their own courses or different curriculums.
It is increasingly accepted that computer-based alternatives, many of which were developed over 10 years ago, can provide viable and cost effective alternatives to animal models and meet the learning objectives of undergraduate pharmacology and physiology classes. However, technological advances over that period have rendered many of these almost unusable. Regular rewrites is expensive and resource intensive so the ReCAL approach has been to develop a creative solution to this problem by separating the content of the programs from the delivery mechanism which we believe will greatly extend their life-span. The methodology we have developed also has the added bonus of making the resources easier to modify by teachers with little technical knowledge so that they can be adapted to different teachers’ needs and meet broader global communities.
The project has worked with a number of existing, proven computer-based alternatives. Each has been disaggregated into its component learning objects (text, images, animations, questions, data traces) and many have been rejuvenated where this has been necessary. These building blocks are then stored, with associated metadata (a set of basic terms which describe the data and enable search and browse functions), in an online repository and made available to teachers along with easy-to-use authoring tools with which they can create their own learning resources.
To date seventeen alternative computer programmes have been subjected to the ReCAL process. The metadata includes the data on the file type, location, associated key words, intellectual property rights, dimensions and size. This metadata is in line with various common specifications making it compatible with initiatives which organise data, such as the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative.
The web-based repository allows authorised individuals to search for, view, download, edit and upload learning objects.
Each programme generates around 100 learning objects and there are now more than 2000 catalogued into the online repository. New learning objects can be added and we have already demonstrated the ease with which different language versions may be created. Should the delivery mechanism become obsolete, the content can simply be linked to the next generation technology without the need for extensive rewrites.
New learning objects such as Chinese or Spanish versions of learning objects have already been created and this expansion of the repository is central to long term sustainability and building learning communities.
The project has made significant progress in the development of effective authoring and aggregation tools. The Labyrinth authoring tool has gone beyond the original scope of the ReCAL project to develop templates in Adobe Flash. It provides authors with the flexibility to express a high level of creativity and originality in their work.
Early testing has been carried out on the creation of new learning objects, for example translation of text into different languages. Professor Dewhurst has, for example, established contacts in Eastern Europe interested in the translation of textual learning objects into different Baltic languages.
Dissemination of the programmes has included presentations at the 15th World Congress of Pharmacology in China, the Annual Conference of the Indian Pharmacological Society and the 6th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal use in Life Sciences, in Japan.
At the moment Flash versions of the new programs are available on CD-ROM which contains:
Future developments will provide teachers with access to the online authoring program, Labyrinth which allows editing of the XML code and re-aggregation of the learning objects. Different language versions will also be available (Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and one other European language).
The option to gain access to online versions is also part of the longer term plan and good progress has already been made in this respect.
In summary ReCAL has provided creative solutions to extending the lifespan of existing proven computer-based alternatives in the face of rapidly developing new technologies and methods to enable teachers to edit the programs to meet local needs. The future of science learning without animal suffering is is looking bright.