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Can virtual reality improve anatomy education? A randomised controlled study of a computer-generated three-dimensional anatomical ear model


Dr DT Nicholson, Oregon Health and Science University, Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology, 3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Road, BICC, Portland, OR 97239–3098, USA. Tel: (503) 418 2317; Fax: (503) 494 4551;


Introduction  The use of computer-generated 3-dimensional (3-D) anatomical models to teach anatomy has proliferated. However, there is little evidence that these models are educationally effective. The purpose of this study was to test the educational effectiveness of a computer-generated 3-D model of the middle and inner ear.

Methods  We reconstructed a fully interactive model of the middle and inner ear from a magnetic resonance imaging scan of a human cadaver ear. To test the model's educational usefulness, we conducted a randomised controlled study in which 28 medical students completed a Web-based tutorial on ear anatomy that included the interactive model, while a control group of 29 students took the tutorial without exposure to the model. At the end of the tutorials, both groups were asked a series of 15 quiz questions to evaluate their knowledge of 3-D relationships within the ear.

Results  The intervention group's mean score on the quiz was 83%, while that of the control group was 65%. This difference in means was highly significant (P < 0.001).

Discussion  Our findings stand in contrast to the handful of previous randomised controlled trials that evaluated the effects of computer-generated 3-D anatomical models on learning. The equivocal and negative results of these previous studies may be due to the limitations of these studies (such as small sample size) as well as the limitations of the models that were studied (such as a lack of full interactivity). Given our positive results, we believe that further research is warranted concerning the educational effectiveness of computer-generated anatomical models.