Leon W. Browder

Growth, Development and Metamorphosis of The Virtual Embryo

-- Leon W. Browder
Department of Biological Sciences

One of the factors contributing to the rapid pace of progress in science today is the infrastructure that facilitates the exchange of information and insight. In particular, the Internet has emerged as a means for scientists in diverse locations to interact almost instantaneously and to obtain convenient access to resources to apply to their research and teaching. We belong to a virtual community of scholars that spans the continuum from Nobel laureates to undergraduate students. Bill Gates has coined the term "the digital nervous system" to refer to such interconnected communities.

Two years ago, I became fascinated with the possibilities that the World Wide Web provided for improving communication in my field: developmental biology. Most research in development focuses on embryonic development at the cellular and molecular levels, particularly on the roles of genes in development. This is a very fast-moving field, propelled by the application of such innovations as recombinant DNA technology. Because of the rapid pace of discovery in developmental biology, the Web is invaluable for helping members of the developmental biology community exchange information.

Although the Web contains a vast repository of information, it is by its nature anarchical. In order to create some order out of the chaos of the Web of development, I established a site called The Virtual Embryo (http://www.ucalgary.ca/~browder). The site has two major thrusts. One is to assemble and collate electronic resources for investigators, and the other is to provide students with current information and images to help them understand development. Images are particularly relevant to help students visualize the chronological and spatial changes that occur in embryos. The Web allows for the distribution of both still images and videos so that students may view development dynamically on their computer desktop. I described the early development of The Virtual Embryo in a November, 1996, New Currents article (http://www.ucalgary.ca/pubs/Newsletters/Currents/Vol3.5/Embryo.html).

The Emergence of Dynamic Development
As The Virtual Embryo grew ever larger, much of my attention became focused on refining the learning resources. Because of the rapid pace of progress in developmental biology, textbooks cannot possibly keep pace with current research. Therefore, I prepared a series of Web essays on current topics in developmental biology for students. Through discussions with Dr. Laurie Iten at Purdue University, the format of that material began to evolve, resulting in the creation of "Dynamic Development" (http://www.ucalgary.ca/~browder/dev_biol.html), which is a modular resource to facilitate learning in development. The name "Dynamic Development" was chosen because embryonic development is a dynamic process and because the field itself is rapidly changing, requiring a dynamic medium to provide current awareness. Also, dynamic hyperlinks enable the user to access related topics and navigate through the resource in any order they choose.

Dynamic Development modules are designed to promote the understanding of topics to be covered in single 50 minute classroom sessions for introductory undergraduate students. Each module is multi-layered; links to further information on the Web and references to the current research literature also make the modules useful for advanced courses. The modules are designed to be used in conjunction with a textbook, which provides the foundational material. Together with Drs. William Brook and Derrick Rancourt of the Department of Medical Biochemistry, a set of modules for a one-term course in developmental biology was produced. The modules were used in our Developmental Biology course this Fall, and the performances of our students indicated that understanding and retention of the material were significantly improved over previous years. One of the features of the modules is the inclusion of a set of Learning Objectives with each module. The Learning Objectives help the student to focus on the key concepts discussed in the module. Students have praised the Learning Objectives for helping them better understand the material

What is the Role of Web Modules in the Classroom?
The most common question I am asked about teaching from Web-based material is: "What incentives would students have for attending class if they could download the material to be covered?" It is true that students can download information from the Web, but it is the instructor's responsibility to help them incorporate that information into their knowledge base. The use of Web modules offers opportunities for instructors to interact with students in entirely new ways that can enrich the classroom experience for both students and faculty. The classroom then evolves into a lively interactive arena in which cooperative learning and problem-based learning replace the traditional lecture format. I have experimented with both of these approaches over the last two years, but I now need to make these approaches the primary classroom activities.

Ongoing Evolution of Dynamic Development
The current version of Dynamic Development is a prototype for a more extensive library of continuously updated modules. Instructors could select individual modules in any order they choose to create a developmental biology course at either the introductory or advanced level. My ultimate aim is to harness the power of the digital nervous system of developmental biology by recruiting a virtual community of scholars to prepare and update modules in their areas of expertise. Students of development would then be able to share in the excitement and dynamism of the field by obtaining definitive information prepared by investigators at the leading edge of research.

We are fortunate to be living through an extraordinary era in which technology has made possible entirely new modes of communication. The technology presents us with opportunities to develop different ways of engaging our students in the learning process. From my experience, Web modules-combined with greater use of classroom interactivity-have much promise. However, we have just begun to explore ways of applying technology to higher education. As individual faculty try new approaches and share their experiences, new paradigms will emerge, and we will all benefit.

Visit the Virtual Embryo

For more information on the Virtual Embryo, please contact:
Leon W. Browder
Phone: 220-6787
E-mail: browder@acs.ucalgary.ca

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