The distinctive features of the Virtual Physiology programs can immediately be recognized. Opening the programs is as going into a real laboratory in which all the necessary devices for experimentation can be found in simplified but realistic form. All settings of the stimulation and recording devices are freely adjustable and mathematical algorithms guarantee for the appropriate reactions of the preparations, also considering the unavoidable randomness and noise of physiological recordings and the diversity of biological preparations. Hence, no student will get exactly the same results as any other one although all can see the physiologically relevant characteristics.
With this stategy, the Virtual Physiology programs are going far beyond conventional e-learning modules. Instead of offering guided tours through animated textbook illustrations, the focus of the Virtual Physiology programs is led on “learning by doing”. Although detailed tutorials are provided and examples of protocol forms are given, there is a lot of space for free experimentation. The possibilities to examine the reaction of the preparations are almost innumerable. The teachers can decide themselves what tasks their students shall perform – from quite simple up to highly sophisticated experiments.
The didactic concept is to bring the students out of a passive attitude of knowledge consumption and to stimulate the students to make use of their own brains. The Virtual Physiology programs are not primarily made for teaching factual knowledge but for thinking about the functional interdependencies of biological mechanisms and their stimulus dependencies on the basis of own experimentation. This is the way in which a real understanding of biological complexity can achieved, thereby also attaining a certain “know how”. Consolidation and extension of factual knowledge will be a natural side-effect.
We suggest, from own experience, not to specify in all details how a task shall be performed, e.g. giving all required devise settings to perform a specific experiment. The didactically advantageous strategy is asking the students to find themselves the appropriate adjustments for a given experiment – and let them make mistakes. When a preparation is not showing the expected reaction the students will need to think about the reasons - an important and promising step towards a deeper understanding.
As we know that such a strategy, although didactically desirable, cannot always be satisfactorily realized in the limited time for practical courses, the authorized institute can upload licensed programs on a server to let the students do supplementary experiments without any time-pressure on their computers at home. If such a server does not exist we will send, on request, time-limited students licences to let the students download the programs on their own computers. The time-limited licenses (renewable) shall prevent uncontrolled distribution of timely un-limited program versions with the name of the authorized institute.
In principle, the students can perform all requested tasks at home. Due to the implementation of certain randomness, as mentioned above, no student will get exact the same preparation as another one so that copy and paste will be recognizable. In future versions, additional tools for distributed learning will be implemented, e.g. to document and reload the parameter settings to countercheck students’ data, preferably by a quick, automatic re-calculation of the results. A first step in this direction was made with SimNeuron where, with appropriate pre-settings, all neurons under examination will be stored with the full set of parameters.
The first Virtual Physiology series has been developed by our group already in the mid-nineties of the last century. Since then, virtual laboratories like SimNerv, SimMuscle, SimHeart etc. has been used in supplement or replacement of practical courses with animal preparations by tens of thousands of students worldwide.
However, to get external support the developers were requested giving the rights on the Virtual Physiology programs to a publishing house. After almost 20 years without any updates, when the programs were no longer running on nowadays operating systems, we finally could get the rights back. We immediately started reprogramming the Virtual Physiology teaching tools – in own responsibility and on own costs. We didn’t want to become again dependent on external investors or always insecure grant approvals and definitely will not again give away the rights on our work. The new Virtual Physiology series is distributed by the developers themselves who also guarantee, with a group of younger investigators, for continuing support.
The new laboratories, fully reprogrammed, are coming along in flexible, resolution independent form for use on all current Windows versions and will continuously be updated. The didactic principle of offering completely equipped laboratories for free experimentation thereby has been retained. Minor mistakes in previous algorithms have been eliminated and new features have been added according to new computer technologies and recent scientific insights.
Tutorials and protocol forms are now integral part of the programs, directly accessible from the virtual labs. In the licensed versions they are also provided in editable form to allow individual adjustment according to specific tasks. Student’s results can be documented and stored or directly be overtaken in the protocol forms. The low resolution preparation videos will be replaced by high resolution video clips of the preparation and the experimental set-up.
We have overtaken the challenge of reprogramming the Virtual Physiology teaching tools because of several mails that we received during recent years asking for updates and because we noticed that the didactic concept of providing virtual laboratories for free experimentation still seems to be unique - despite of hundreds of physiology teaching tools that nowadays are offered. This is apparently also the opinion of colleagues from other universities, as indicated by several messages like the following one which we recently received:“We are really interested in upgrading our outdated Virtual Physiology software to newer versions because we believe that there's no better physiology simulation software on the market right now.”