Campus News

The Doctor Is In (World)


LEXINGTON, Ky. (March. 16, 2010) − Imagine an alternate world in which University of Kentucky College of Dentistry students are avatars participating in Dental Grand Rounds (a clinical problem-solving educational seminar) with student avatars from other universities anywhere in the world. In a unique partnership, faculty members from the UK colleges of Dentistry and Medicine, plus faculty from Baylor College of Dentistry at Texas A&M University, conducted a pilot project to determine the feasibility of using such a virtual world as a venue for clinical case-based learning.

This online three-dimensional virtual world called Second Life (SL) replicates some aspects of the real world. Members can create alternate identities called avatars to represent themselves and take up residence in Second Life.

"This experience greatly exceeded our expectations," said Mark Thomas, chair of the Department of Oral Health Practice and chief of the Division of Periodontology.  "Second Life provides a unique environment which will enhance our ability to share resources with other institutions. Sandra Challman, the College of Dentistry's manager of Instructional Technology, and I are currently developing an ongoing seminar series which will involve UK periodontal residents and those from a school in California. This is a very exciting opportunity for both schools."

The 'grand rounds' format for the pilot project involved several dental students and faculty from UK and Baylor. A clinical case involving an unexpected postoperative complication was presented by Thomas. Students were asked to develop a list of possible diagnoses. During the presentation and in the discussion which followed, faculty members used voice communication via headsets, while students communicated via keyboard. A discussion of each possibility ensued, following which Pamela Stein, an anatomist in the College of Medicine and dentist at UK, discussed the anatomical basis for the observed treatment complication.

Following the discussion, Thomas described the subsequent treatment of the patient and resolution of the problem. All student attendees completed a survey instrument designed to assess their experiences with this learning model. Response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. For example, all participants agreed or strongly agreed that the virtual setting was "a valid use of the technology to bring together students and faculty from distant locations." One student stated that the SL experience had saved him a one hour commute, and most students felt that their "mastery of the content was enhanced due to this interactive environment." Students described their SL experiences as "fun, intriguing, educational, and realistic, SL creates an environment that allows you to learn without feeling intimidated or distracted." 

The project began in January 2008, when Provost Kumble Subbaswamy approved the purchase of an 'island' for UK in Second Life to serve as a nexus for a variety of virtual educational projects. Virtual replicas of the W.T. Young Library, UK Chandler Hospital, and an anatomy laboratory were among the structures built on this island.

The use of virtual worlds taps into the new emerging technologies and allows the educational process to expand beyond the typical brick and mortar classrooms. The ability to bring together colleagues from disparate locations and provide a two-way exchange of information in a ground rounds format could provide a unique learning experience not currently available to UK dental students. The expanded horizon afforded by the Second Life environment should be attractive to millennial generation students, as well as offering experienced clinicians a new way to convey the dilemmas and challenges of dental practice.

"The interactive virtual medium of Second Life is a novel use of technology to enhance education," said Sharon Turner, dean of the College of Dentistry. "It's never been done before in dental education."

To learn more about the UK Island events and training opportunities, visit the UK Second Life blog at

Participating faculty included Sandra Challman and Mark Thomas with the UK College of Dentistry; Pam Stein with the UK College of Medicine; and Bill Wathen and Bob Hutchins with Baylor College of Dentistry.  Student participants included Brandt Brooks, Susanna Goggin, Daniel Slusher and Jacqueline Yoon, all third-year students in the UK College of Dentistry; Ben Cozad and Austin Gray, third-year students at Baylor College of Dentistry and Chad Hanley and David Mouritsen, fourth-year students at Baylor College of Dentistry.