A special characteristic of laboratory sciences, including pharmacy, medicine, and veterinary medicine as well as biosciences, are laboratory courses where students are familiarised with laboratory work techniques in an authentic environment using real laboratory tools and equipment.
In laboratory courses, the student-to-teacher –ratio is fairly high, with teachers unable to tackle each individual issue that arises. And yet, in the laboratory it should be ensured that students get well-timed guidance and feedback on the techniques they learn as well as on safe and appropriate work methods. Consequently, the need to develop students’ learning and the guidance provided to them in laboratory instruction was great already before the pandemic.
However, the pandemic has only highlighted the need for development, as the circumstances have forced a considerable reduction in group sizes and teacher numbers in laboratories, in addition to which remote learning solutions have been applied also to laboratory work.
The Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Helsinki was not entirely unprepared for the current situation, as a digital leap project was launched at the Faculty in 2019. The project was specifically focused on demonstrating the possibilities of digital teaching options in support of learning.
“We wanted to show that they are not merely fun alternatives, but something that genuinely promote learning,” says University Lecturer Mia Sivén, who headed the digital leap project.
AR supervises, guides and expects answers
Augmented reality (AR) is the lightest version of the trialled digital teaching methods at the Faculty of Pharmacy. Through the AR glasses, which resemble ordinary eyeglasses, students see their actual environment all the time. In addition, staged instructions fed by a digital AR environment as well as questions pertaining to carrying out and understanding laboratory assignments are displayed in the field of vision.
In addition to a keyboard and buttons installed in the AR glasses, the glasses can be controlled by voice commands, ensuring smoother and safer working conditions. AR glasses can also be worn using a headband, which makes wearing them together with regular glasses or protective eyewear more comfortable.
With the camera integrated in the AR glasses, students scan QR codes attached to laboratory equipment and reagents, enabling the AR environment to ensure that the work progresses as planned with the right tools.
The AR environment can also ask questions as the work progresses, which must be answered correctly before proceeding to the next stage. If necessary, students can obtain further instructions from videos, photos or instructions provided on info windows.
These features of the AR environment can be employed to ensure the smooth progression of work and success in specific junctures critical to laboratory work. A digital laboratory logbook is recorded in the associated cloud service for each instance of use of AR glasses, enabling teachers to monitor students’ work in real time and provide feedback to them afterwards.
Since 2019, AR glasses have been trialled in laboratory instruction on three courses at the Faculty of Pharmacy. Two pairs of AR glasses have been used, with 10 to 15 students from each course of roughly 150 students provided the opportunity to try them out in practice.
For the first time, AR glasses were tested in 2019 on the Pharmaceutical Biology and Asepsis course under the direction of Postdoctoral Researcher Karmen Kapp. The task was to determine, employing the AR environment, the sensitivity of bacterial strains to antimicrobial substances. Positive feedback from students and the utility of the AR glasses prompted their continued use and the further development of the AR environment.
In 2020, the first AR-supported course was Medicinal preparations. On the course, students prepared eye drops under the guidance of University Lecturer Tapani Viitala. Afterwards, the microbiological quality of the eye drops was verified in an aseptic room on the Pharmaceutical Biology and Asepsis course, making it possible to monitor the learning of the same students and the use of AR glasses over two different courses.
“In the Pharmaceutical Biology and Asepsis course, work with the AR glasses was much more successful compared to the conventional way, that is, following instructions given in paper. However, the work progressed slightly slower than with the traditional methods. This came down to having to scan the QR codes as well as answer questions being included in the procedure,” Kapp notes.
“Students took a while to get used to the glasses and operate them. Adjusting the glasses in the aseptic room took some time in particular, as we were wearing all of the required protective equipment at the same time.”
In December 2020, augmented reality was trialled for the first time outside AR glasses, through a smartphone application (Image 3).
“In spite of a downturn in the coronavirus situation, students were very interested in using the app and found it useful. I even got a few suggestions to discard course handouts entirely and provide all instructions via the app,” Kapp says.
VR saves in supplies and increases safety
Environments based on virtual reality (VR) have been tested at the Faculty of Pharmacy in conjunction with practising the compounding of pharmaceuticals. Usually this is practiced in an aseptic room at the faculty premises, but that provides optimal conditions to two students at a time only.
“In a virtual environment based on the aseptic room, procedures can in principle be practised as many times as you wish. That’s safe for students, as they don't have to actually handle effective pharmaceutical agents. Moreover, VR training does not consume any materials, nor is equipment maintenance or other resources needed,” Mia Sivén says.
Sivén also points out that working with VR glasses is quite an immersive experience, which may leave a stronger imprint compared to regular assignments.
Software is the biggest expense
Sivén stresses that once the software needed for VR and AR solutions are purchased, the devices themselves cost a few thousand euros. A powerful computer is needed to run the VR environment, which may need to be replaced at roughly three-year intervals. AR and VR glasses as well as VR controllers also become outdated, requiring upgrades.
“Then again, once the initial investment is made, the costs are easily recuperated through using the systems in instruction. Besides, supporting learning is an even more important and desirable value in itself,” Sivén says.
The development of the VR environment has been partnered by the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and a Software engineering lab at the University of Helsinki, Department of Computer Science. Cooperation in developing the AR application for educational use has been conducted with Sciar Company Oy, a Finnish startup.