Dissecting e-learning tools


Sonya Van Nuland had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with dissection during her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph.

While she thought it was fascinating at the time, she never imagined how much that experience would shape her future research on the use of e-learning tools.

“During my undergraduate education, I very quickly understood the value of dissection — something not all learners have the ability to take advantage of in their early postsecondary education,” Van Nuland said. “My research now focuses on e-learning tools and their effectiveness in relation to one another and to the more traditional ways of studying anatomy, such as dissection.”

When Van Nuland first came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to complete a Master of Science in Clinical Anatomy, she worked with undergraduate-level learners in their course on Systemic Human Anatomy. They worked with an e-learning tool called Netters 3D Interactive Anatomy, which, from a teaching assistant perspective, Van Nuland did not like.

“Once I started to work with it, I wondered how many people get frustrated because it’s not easy to use,” she said. “I questioned whether or not the students were benefiting from the technology we were providing to them, and I wondered if the complexity of the e-learning tool could make a difference in their learning.”

By asking these important educational questions, Van Nuland has been able to fill research gaps in this area.

“So far, we’ve found that the simpler the e-learning tool, the better it is for a broader range of learners,” she said. “People have different spatial ability — the ability to rotate objects in their mind — and if a learner has low spatial ability they can easily get lost in difficult e-learning tools and won’t learn or retain as much information.”

Universities have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into e-learning tools meant to advance education. While Van Nuland thinks these tools can be effective in some situations, she believes more consideration should be taken when deciding what is best for learners, specifically at the early stages of their learning careers.

Based on her research findings, the PhD Candidate argues that universities need to consistently be reassessing the e-learning tools they have implemented and continue to compare them to real-world learning situations.

“There are many inherent characteristics within a learner that we don’t know about yet, and we don’t know how these are impacted by e-learning tools,” she said. “E-learning tools can’t teach a young learner compassion or other competencies they need to develop before they move forward.”

Growing up in London, Ontario, Van Nuland was always interested in the sciences, and thought she would one day pursue a career in medicine. After deciding that the path to becoming a doctor wasn’t for her, she found the Clinical Anatomy program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and immediately knew it was the right fit.

“Schulich Medicine & Dentistry is where I was meant to complete my graduate studies education,” Van Nuland said. “There is no other place that could have provided me the depth of experience in teaching or the depth of mentorship that I have received while completing my research.”

Van Nuland added that she never thought she would be a trainee with an impressive CV, but being a part of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology has given her endless opportunities to grow as a teacher, researcher and person. She has been the first author on a handful of publications, received several prestigious awards and presented her research in countries all over the world, including Thailand and Singapore.

“In the future, I would love to be an anatomist who is involved in educational research,” she said. “Not only do I want to be able to teach students about anatomy, but I also want to be able to continually ask the question, ‘is what we’re doing working, or is there a better way’?” 

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