Building an open academic environment – a new approach to empowering students in their learning of anatomy through ‘Shadow Modules’



Teaching and learning in anatomy is undertaken by a variety of methodologies, yet all of these pedagogies benefit from students discussing and reflecting upon their learning activities. An approach of particular potency is peer-mediated learning, through either peer-teaching or collaborative peer-learning. Collaborative, peer-mediated, learning activities help promote deep learning approaches and foster communities of practice in learning. Students generally flourish in collaborative learning settings but there are limitations to the benefits of collaborative learning undertaken solely within the confines of modular curricula. We describe the development of peer-mediated learning through student-focused and student-led study groups we have termed ‘Shadow Modules’. The ‘Shadow Module’ takes place parallel to the formal academically taught module and facilitates collaboration between students to support their learning for that module. In ‘Shadow Module’ activities, students collaborate towards curating existing online open resources as well as developing learning resources of their own to support their study. Through the use of communication technologies and Web 2.0 tools these resources are able to be shared with their peers, thus enhancing the learning experience of all students following the module. The Shadow Module activities have the potential to lead to participants feeling a greater sense of engagement with the subject material, as well as improving their study and group-working skills and developing digital literacy. The outputs from Shadow Module collaborative work are open-source and may be utilised by subsequent student cohorts, thus building up a repository of learning resources designed by and for students. Shadow Module activities would benefit all pedagogies in the study of anatomy, and support students moving from being passive consumers to active participants in learning.


The adoption of modular systems, as well as financial or political pressures leading to increased student numbers, has had a significant effect on the pedagogy of science in higher education. As class sizes enlarge, the logistics of providing personalised contact between students and academic tutors becomes increasingly problematic. As a result, small-group contact and active discussion can become limited and may be replaced by didactic teaching. These factors may diminish the quality of the student experience (Biggs & Tang, 2011), particularly with regard to building a strong community of learners (Wenger et al. 2002). As personalised contact with tutors diminishes, there is a threat that the students themselves will become further disengaged from their course materials and their learning. Thus, there is a risk that students will become passive consumers of knowledge rather than partners in learning and practice. This is especially true of the sciences, where information and factual inquiry are prevalent in the pedagogy.

The study of anatomy is particularly vulnerable to these concerns. Smith & Mathias (2007) and Moxham et al. (2011) identified that a significant proportion of medical students studying anatomy opt for superficial or strategic approaches to learning. There are varied approaches to the teaching of anatomy (e.g. didactic teaching, problem-based learning, cadaveric dissection, use of prosections), and many computer-based tools have become available (Guttmann et al. 2004; McLachlan, 2004; McLachlan et al. 2004; Kerby et al. 2011). However, there remains debate as to which of these methods fosters the most powerful learning experience (e.g. Moxham & Moxham, 2007; Patel & Moxham, 2008). Although there is a strong empirical basis for the successful implementation of both small group learning (such as problem-based learning, PBL) and ‘e-learning’ tools, the relative value of these approaches in the anatomical sciences remains unclear. In general terms, a meta-analysis performed by Hattie (2008) showed no clear benefit to either pedagogy in terms of the development of understanding and the retention of knowledge. In particular, we do not yet know which pedagogies foster deep learning and independent learning. However, a clear benefit has been shown from ‘Peer-Mediated Learning’ that involves peer-support or collaboration between learners (Goldschmid & Goldschmid, 1976; Falchikov, 2001; Rogoff, 2003; Stahl et al. 2006; So & Brush, 2008).

Peer-mediated learning (also termed ‘peer-assisted learning’, PAL, Hammond et al. 2010) has been a subject of discussion for many decades, and is reviewed in detail in Goldschmid & Goldschmid (1976), Goodsell et al. (1992) and Falchikov (2001). Smith & MacGregor (1992) define several models for peer-mediated learning: Co-operative learning (highly structured, with each student being allocated tasks); Problem-centred instruction (groups solving problems in an unstructured format); Writing Groups (students summarizing key areas for each other); Discussion Groups (students identifying and discussing key concepts); Learning Communities (students identifying their own areas of concern to address collaboratively) and Peer Teaching (individual students take on the role of instructor for their peers). Of these, the most common model used to replace didactic teaching is the co-operative learning group, used in many HE courses whereby the students are allocated to groups and given tasks to solve. Khosa & Volet (2013) warn that this is not true collaborative learning, however, as students merely divide the work individually between themselves and then report back, rather than developing a shared understanding by working through problems as a group. More effective methods for peer-mediated learning are Peer-Teaching and Learning Communities (usually known as ‘Peer-Learning’ or ‘Collaborative Learning’). These two approaches will be discussed in turn, and each may be enhanced by a format for peer-mediated learning that we describe here, termed ‘Shadow Modules’.

The benefits of peer-mediated learning are largely intrinsic for the students, enhancing their own learning progress. However, the use of ‘computer-supported collaborative learning’ (CSCL; Lipponen, 2002; Wilkinson, 2011) may provide extrinsic benefits, by facilitating outputs that may be shared across the student cohort, thus supporting the formation of communities of practice in higher education. This is the aim of ‘Shadow Modules’. Compared with most peer-mediated learning approaches, which are designed to replace formal didactic teaching, the ‘Shadow Module’ approach has been designed to complement existing learning and teaching practice in order to build a stronger, mutually supportive community of learners. ‘Shadow Modules’ aim to provide students with more ownership of the curriculum through informal face-to-face learning in study groups, and to enhance the outputs by the use of online information and communication technology (ICT) tools. By utilising Web 2.0 ICT solutions, the students are able to share the output of these learning communities with the wider learning group (Wilkinson, 2011). The outputs from the ‘Shadow Modules’ are permanent, and therefore cumulative, so that each successive cohort of students will benefit from the work of their peers in previous years. Thus, the students in the module are able to contribute to the ongoing development of the module and the curriculum, as well as the materials used in the teaching. This approach has the potential to support the teaching of anatomy, whether the predominant method is cadaveric dissection, small-group teaching, PBL, didactic teaching or computer-based learning. Here, we focus on our experience of ‘Shadow Modules’ in bioscience teaching, with particular emphasis on anatomy.

Outline of the ‘Shadow Module’ process

The common paradigm for module design and delivery in higher education is one where delivery and content is driven by the lecturer or module leader (Biggs & Tang, 2011). The module leader/lecturer decides upon the intended learning outcomes, the means of delivery, the means of assessment, etc. The ‘Shadow Module’ concept aims to allow feedback from students into many of these areas. The ‘Shadow Module’ process is summarised in Fig. 1. The student ‘Shadow Module Leader’ (SML), who is a volunteer, is chosen by the peers in the group or is nominated by the academic in charge of the module, arranges times and venues for the group to meet. Co-ordination of this is through e-mail, the ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (VLE) or online social media tools. The SML may liaise with the academic module leader over the content of the initial sessions but the input from the supervising academic/lecturer is usually minimal. Students meet to discuss subjects and work together on a shared output using a collaborative technology platform. Any output from the ‘Shadow Module’ sessions is made available to all students within the module through freeware ICT, social media or via the VLE. As part of the ‘Shadow Module’ process, students either create their own learning and revision resources or identify resources from open-access material on the internet (such as iTunesU, Khan Academy, YouTube). As a group the students critique these resources as a natural part of the open discussion. By running this as an open collaborative process, it is possible for the production of notes and resources to be self-regulating and self-verifying for accuracy, and to enhance the impact of the peer-mediated learning.

Figure 1.

A flow diagram illustrating the workflow in a typical ‘Shadow Module’. Shaded areas represent student activity, un-shaded areas represent input from module staff.

Approaches to peer-mediated learning in anatomy


Peer Teaching has a well-documented pedigree (reviewed extensively by Falchikov, 2001), especially in the medical and anatomical sciences. For many years it has been recognised that peers are valuable for teaching basic clinical skills (Nestel & Kidd, 2003; Dandavino et al. 2007) and as demonstrators in cadaveric dissection (Bentley & Hill, 2009; Evans & Cuffe, 2009). In particular, the use of ‘near-peers’ (students of an earlier year-group, or with more experience) is seen as beneficial (rather than direct-peers from the same learning group) due to their additional experience and broader view of the curriculum and relevance of the material (Nestel & Kidd, 2003; Evans & Cuffe, 2009). However, in gross anatomy, reciprocal direct-peer teaching is common and has proven to be effective (Hendelman & Boss, 1986; Bentley & Hill, 2009). The benefits of this form of peer-mediated learning are many, providing the learners with a fresh insight into the subject, explained by a peer who has themselves recently undergone a learning journey to understand the material. Students appear to feel more comfortable with a subject after it has been explained by a peer or near-peer (Hall et al. 2013), while showing equal or greater knowledge from peer-taught classes to didactic classes, and more knowledge in the areas they themselves taught (Hendelman & Boss, 1986). The benefits to the peer-teacher are in their own consolidation of the subject knowledge, and the development of transferable skills that will be useful in later professional practice (particularly in medicine; Dandavino et al. 2007). Student and staff views of peer-teaching are generally positive (Buckley & Zamora, 2007; Bulte et al. 2007; Hill et al. 2010; Singh, 2010; Hall et al. 2013). Wadoodi & Crosby (2002) identify 12 ‘tips for peer-assisted learning’, the first of which is to ensure that the activities are student-led, although it is also important for academic staff to provide an overall structure for the sessions as a whole. Streitwieser & Light (2010) identify two models of peer-teaching, the ‘Practice Centred’ framework, where the peer-teacher is motivated by sharing their passion for the subject, and so focuses mostly on reinforcing basic concepts and reviewing key aspects. The ‘Learning-Centred’ framework is where the peer-teacher focuses more on the end result of enhancing student learning, and so is less interested in reinforcing detail and more interested in setting problems and providing support for the learners solve them. In designing peer-teaching activities it is important to provide a mixture of these two approaches.

We present two case studies of ‘Shadow Modules’ which show elements of peer-teaching, and which were successful to a greater or lesser extent.

Case study 1 (neuroanatomy module; year 2)

This year 2 module is a challenging module dealing with complex material. The SML was a near-peer student from a previous cohort of the module. This SML was enthusiastic and organised and ran the study sessions without the input of an academic. Sessions focused on discussing key areas and basic concepts that were found to be challenging in the lecture and practical sessions with a strong element of peer-teaching by the SML, leading to discussion and questioning. The SML was able to focus on fundamental core concepts in a manner that was accessible to the students. As a more experienced student, the SML was also able to provide an overview of the subject, and identify broader themes and context for the material of which the less experienced participants may not have previously been aware. Attendance was generally 15–20 students (28–38% of the module). Attendance at the sessions, however, was consistent, participants engaged enthusiastically and there was a general increase in attendance levels over time. Insights gained from the collaborative sessions were used to help advise the formal lecture material and revise the teaching approaches on the academic-taught activities for future years.

Case study 2a (neuroanatomy and neuropathology module; final year)

Academic year 2011/12. In the first meeting the group brainstormed notes on a topic and came together to produce a mindmap of a topic which was then used as a plan for research they would present to the group as a series of talks. At these presentation sessions the lecturer was present as well as the students. It was observed that there was little discussion of the presented material, save for feedback from the lecturer. There was a significant drop in attendance subsequent to the first session, leading to the ‘Shadow Module’ being discontinued. Informal feedback from participants suggested that this was related to the formal nature of the presentation sessions and the lack of collaborative effort in producing materials. Students felt that the sessions were like standard timetabled learning activities, rather than student-led collaborative learning.

The contrasting experience of these two ‘Shadow Module’ groups is likely to have been due to the presence of the lecturer in the sessions for case study 2a, making the sessions no longer student-led. The fully student-led case study 1 enjoyed consistent attendance, whereas attendance at 2a declined rapidly, reinforcing the importance of Wadoodi & Crosby's (2002) first ‘tip’, that activities be student-led. It was also interesting that the SML in case study 1 naturally followed the ‘Practice-centred’ framework for peer-tutoring, as would be expected of a near-peer without any formal pedagogic training.

Peer-learning or collaborative learning

While peer-teaching is effective, more fully collaborative peer-mediated learning has the potential to break down the teacher–learner relationship in didactic teaching so that inquiry is more active, and potentially to stimulate and encourage deeper learning approaches (Hammond et al. 2010; Khosa & Volet, 2013). An excellent review by Goldschmid & Goldschmid (1976) identifies many of the benefits and drawbacks of collaborative learning, and the models set out in the review are still relevant today. The models the authors suggest are: The Proctor Model (where the academic sets a framework of tests and provides feedback but otherwise allows students to work independently in groups); The Learning Cell (groups given highly structured tasks which require the students to swap roles of teacher and learner regularly); Student Learning Groups (leaderless and entirely self-directed groups). When designing these groups for formal learning tasks, care must be taken to consider the mix of individuals within the group. In particular it is important to decide whether student partners will be ‘equal’ (selected at random, with a mix of abilities) or ‘unequal’ (selected by ability, attainment or personality type). Tosey & Gregory (1998) suggest that ideally there should be parity between contributors, that there should be power-sharing within the group as a whole, and that interdependence should be encouraged, rather than the development of rigid roles within the group. Hammond et al. (2010) reinforce the need for participants to be briefed on the expectations of the activity, especially when involving less experienced students with a less mature approach to learning. This is also supported by Khosa & Volet (2013) whose study of student-centred case-based learning suggests that although peer-learning has the potential to encourage deep learning strategies, it does not do so unless students are specifically guided in that direction.

Overall, the main benefit of peer-learning is that the students take a collective responsibility for identifying their own learning needs and determining how to address these (Boud et al. 1999). Students work together to develop skills for collaboration and teamwork that will be useful in later life, but they also develop skills of reflection and self analysis, question the information they identify and become practised in communicating about their subject. When student collaboration is fully mutual, the deficiencies of each member of the group are balanced out by their peers (Khosa & Volet, 2013). Students create what Havnes (2008) describes as ‘Peer-mediated niches for learning’, whereby they each identify their own areas of expertise and benefit to the group. It is important, therefore, not to undermine this collective nature by emphasising assessments that promote individual achievement or frame collaborative activity as unfair practice (Boud et al. 1999). Havnes (2008) argues that peer-learning is restricted by being simply a replacement for didactic teaching, and that it should be expanded to include learning outside of the didactic structure of the formal module. This approach is the basis of our ‘Shadow Module’ structure, whose paradigm is a student-led peer-learning group that exists outside of, but in parallel with, the standard academic structure of the module.

Case study 2b (neuroanatomy and neuropathology module; final year)

Academic year 2010/11. In this earlier version of the ‘Shadow Module’ discussed in case study 2a, academic staff worked with an SML to help select materials and activities to cover during the sessions (e.g. selecting relevant research papers). In addition to helping provide this support, staff members were often present for long periods during the sessions. ‘Shadow Module’ students worked together to form shared group notes online, whereby a few students in sessions were selected to document their group's notes, The result of this activity was an extensive set of notes made available to students on the module. These notes were reorganised and made available on a wiki by the SML. Attendance at collaborative sessions was usually ca. 12 students per session (approximately 18% of the module cohort), but attendance was consistent throughout the course of the module.

Case study 3 (limb anatomy module; year 2)

‘Shadow Module’ activity was initiated by group drawing and study sessions, an activity suggested by the appointed SML. The lecturer was available for advice but otherwise did not participate. Student participants shared problems and notes, drawing techniques and ideas. A few students present in the session uploaded their notes into a shared online space. Following the first session, the SML organised weekly study group meetings. Activity in these sessions essentially focused on memory techniques, with students sharing learning tips and tricks, such as mnemonics and testing each other's knowledge by drawing and labeling anatomical diagrams. Attendance was consistently ca. 12 students, representing 45% of the module cohort.

Case study 4 (biology in society and ethics module, final year)

This final year module covered aspects of the history, philosophy and ethics of science. The lecturer was available for advice but otherwise did not participate, the SML was a near-peer recent graduate from the course. The ‘Shadow Module’ had two phases. In the 1st semester, several sessions occurred before a knowledge-based in-course assessment. Students arranged themselves into groups to quiz each other and clarify gaps in knowledge. Attendance ranged from 5 to 18% of the cohort (15–50 students), with peaks in sessions closer to the test. During this period students also posted resources on a shared online space, such as summaries and short outlines of key concepts. In the 2nd semester, sessions involved discussions of module content, recommended and further reading, review of previous years' examination essay attempts and writing essays. Student module notes were shared online and through social media. Closer to the examinations students were given an online videocast on essay-writing that was tailored to the module, and a variety of essays, submitted by students in the module (including those of ‘Shadow Module’ attendees), were compiled and uploaded to a central space. Detailed feedback (in-line comments on word documents) was provided for selected essays for all module participants to view.

As can be seen from these case studies, the ‘Shadow Module’ approach was focused towards student-led peer- or collaborative-learning. They followed the principal models described earlier, with four major exceptions: the sessions existed outside of the taught module structure; the sessions were student-led in determining their curriculum and activities; the groups were entirely self-selected (although sometimes a volunteer was appointed as SML); the outputs of the sessions were designed to be shared both within and outside of the participants' group. We argue, therefore, that the ‘Shadow Module’ approach has the potential to be used, not to replace formal teaching, but to enhance the overall learning experience of the module.

‘Shadow Module’ activities and outputs

The following types of activity were used within the ‘Shadow Module’ sessions: Warm-up exercises (brainstorms, topic review and discussion, spot-tests); group discussion of specific topics from lecture material; group reading and summarising (e.g. scientific papers); creating shared notes on key topics; essay planning and peer-marking; constructing shared resources for group learning and revision (summaries of concepts and processes, making/using flashcards, flow diagrams and mind-maps, annotated diagrams, quizzing each other in small groups or pairs).

Standard technologies were used in a variety of ways to facilitate ‘Shadow Module’ activities. For example, data-projectors were used by students to overlay images on a whiteboard which were then annotated by the group. Smart-phones were then used to capture these outputs and upload them to a shared collaborative workspace. Participants could then concentrate on the learning rather than the need to copy down discussions or present material in an aesthetically pleasing manner using word processing or presentation software. Videos were also taken from smart phones, which the students claimed were particularly fun and engaging to make, and were a useful revision aid.

The use of laptops, smart phones, tablet PCs or desktop computers (if available) was common for internet look-up, either on the web or through the institutional VLE. Although laptops and tablet PCs made the process of research easier, smart-phones were found to be adequate for helping students find definitions or overviews of a topic. Although students used hardware effectively when it was available, it was also significant that several powerful learning activities used no technology whatsoever, but rather relied on using whiteboards, A3 paper and post-it notes. The importance of using such non-ICT-based approaches should not be overlooked. These were undoubtedly the most effective methods for brainstorming, stimulating discussion, collaborating during discussions and organising the session. Technology therefore appeared to be important in sustaining, disseminating and improving these resources, but was not essential to their development.

The use of ICT to produce shared outputs was a major benefit of the ‘Shadow Module’ sessions over smaller, informal, learning groups. One severe limitation in the running of collaborative working was the limitation of collaborative technologies within the University's VLE. The VLE was particularly problematic for sharing rich-media resources (such as videos and audio files) and for ongoing discussion-board activities. The use of resources such as Google Drive™, Wikis and Study Blue™ (Rutherford & Scott, 2012) was found to enhance the overall collaborative experience for the students and provided a good means by which resources could be shared both during and outside of ‘Shadow Module’ sessions. This ability to expand the impact of the work undertaken by the study group to include all students on the module is potentially one of the most beneficial aspects of the ‘Shadow Module’.

The outputs of these collaborative activities were extensive, with comprehensive shared notes created online. ‘Shadow Module’ outputs can therefore vary considerably in their detail and scope but in all cases that scope was considerable, and the depth and detail equally so. ‘Shadow Modules’ demonstrate that students themselves are a considerable resource for the development of creative and engaging learning materials for a module.

The potential value of ‘Shadow Module’ activities

Of key importance is the fact that the ‘Shadow Modules’ exist outside of the formal didactic structure of the module, as advised by Havnes (2008). Yan & Kember (2004) identify two rationales for collaborative learning: ‘Engager’, where students collaborate to gain a better understanding of a subject, and ‘Avoider’, where students collaborate to share workload and minimise effort on a task. Informal feedback from students suggests that ‘Shadow Modules’ do fulfill an ‘Avoider’ role, with students citing that major benefits were the ability to share expertise and develop a shared understanding of challenging tasks (such as reading complex research papers). However, as these activities were not focused on a specific assessment or task, the rationale is, by default, an ‘Engager’ strategy, promoting deep learning approaches to studying by enhancing understanding and development of ideas, rather than surface-learner concerns of examination preparation and revision.

Negative experiences of ‘Shadow Module’ sessions were confined solely to logistical issues (comfort of the physical working space, organisation, etc.) rather than to questions of pedagogy. One potential concern could have been that the ‘Shadow Modules’ might increase the workload for students; however, feedback from the majority of students suggests that the collaboration with peers in the ‘Shadow Module’ made their studying more efficient and therefore meant a net reduction of their time spent studying. These results need to be confirmed with a broad, longitudinal study but these informal findings suggest that ‘Shadow Modules’ may have a potential to facilitate the formation of learning communities and encourage discussion and collaboration among a proportion of the student cohort. The primary aim of the ‘Shadow Modules’ was achieved, therefore, to encourage the collegiate nature of the academic group so that the students can become active participants in the subject and not simply consumers of information.

A subsidiary aim of the ‘Shadow Module’ is to embed the development of students' digital literacies within a collaborative and mutually supportive environment, where the students use the technologies in an everyday context. The ‘Shadow Modules’, by using a variety of ICT solutions to achieve a collaborative output, should help address this deficiency in outlook, and provide a more rounded understanding of the potential of technology in 21st century graduates. By utilising ICT platforms for these informal learning communities in the ‘Shadow Modules’, we aim to establish an alternate path for the implementation of technology for learning and teaching purposes. Supporting students to work in partnership with staff within online spaces could provide communication tools to build stronger academic partnerships between staff and students (a crucial hurdle for raising the ‘Student Voice’).

Student engagement

The level of student attendance at the ‘Shadow Module’ collaborative sessions was variable, but generally low, rarely more than 20% of any module group as a whole, regardless of cohort size. However, the ‘Shadow Modules’ provided shared resources that were used by all students, so an important question is whether the peers of the ‘Shadow Module’ attendees were also positively supported by the materials developed. The impact of these sessions on the cohort as a whole would be difficult to measure; however, it is possible to infer the use made of the resources by charting when the resources were accessed. The general level of engagement with the materials was observed to be steady but with a visible peak immediately prior to the day of the examination (Rutherford & Scott, 2012). This is not surprising, as it reflects a strategic approach towards learning (Biggs & Tang, 2011) which is perhaps endemic within the wider student population who had not participated in the sessions, but who constituted the majority of accessions of the ‘Shadow Module’ materials. There was also a small amount of use of the resources after the date of the final examination, which may suggest that a small proportion of the students were engaged with the subject not simply for the aim of passing a unit of study, but in a more holistic manner.

Of key importance to the ‘Shadow Module’ approach is the longevity of the resources developed. Using shared resources through ICT platforms, the output of the ‘Shadow Module’ sessions remains long after the students who created them have moved on. The resources are therefore available for subsequent years to either use or to build upon and enables students to become engaged in the development of the module itself. Whichever the approach taken, the outputs can still be made available to the group as a whole in order to support understanding of the topic and as aids to revision or to support additional reading for a subject.

Level of academic involvement

In each of case studies 1, 2b, 3 and 4, the input of the lecturer was minimal, and in some cases almost non-existent. Our observations suggest that the ‘Shadow Modules’ are most productive with very limited input from academic staff. When challenged by a lack of academic involvement, the students responded in kind and were not disadvantaged (case studies 1, 3 and 4). We observed that the ‘Shadow Modules’ were at their most effective (case studies 1 and 4) when led by a student from a previous cohort of the module, either a student currently studying in the year above, or a post-graduate. Having the ‘Shadow Module’ led by a more experienced student is beneficial in providing an SML who has a broader overview of the subject material, and who has an interest in organising the sessions but who is not a formally recognised expert and is within the students' age- and peer-group. An enthusiastic SML will be able to feed-back to the academic module team with insights and improvements for lecture and practical class activities.

There are examples of successful ‘peer-teaching’ within the ‘Shadow Module’ approach. Peer-teaching has been shown to be a powerful pedagogy and experience of ‘Shadow Modules’ has suggested that students have benefitted from peer-teaching activities involved. However, a peer-teaching approach requires either direct guidance from a lecturer, or a highly capable and enthusiastic peer-teacher (as in case study 1). Furthermore, the danger with a peer-teaching approach, as evidenced by case study 2a, is that ‘Shadow Module’ sessions may begin to resemble tutorial classes or seminars, rather than peer-led learning. The use of peer-teaching therefore needs to be considered carefully.

Concluding remarks

The pedagogic philosophies underpinning peer-mediated learning (Havnes, 2008) and the ‘Shadow Module’ concept resonate with some general educational principles. Collaborative activities feature in models of ‘situated learning’, such as those proposed by Lave & Wenger (1991), Wenger et al. (2002) and Rogoff (2003). In these models, academic inquiry requires social interaction between the learner and either experts or other learners. Creating social contexts for learning, by development of communities of practice (Wenger et al. 2002) and an infrastructure of learners and experts (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 2003), is key to effective learning. Vygotsky's model of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD, Vygotsky, 1978), proposes that a learner's cognitive development is highly dependent on social interaction and collaboration between a learner and a more knowledgeable expert. However, Prawat & Floden (1994) propose that knowledge creation is not an individual experience but a shared one, and knowledge comes about through negotiating within collaborative discourse communities. In the absence of a clearly defined expert, students soon identify experts for individual aspects of the syllabus among their peers (Orsmond & Merry, 2012) and collaborate to identify appropriate sources for information. This observation supports Mercer's revision of Vygotsky's ZPD as the ‘Intermental Development Zone’ (IDZ) (Mercer, 2000). Mercer's model proposes that jointly solving a problem is vital to providing a structure for supporting the learning of all the participants. Working collaboratively towards the IDZ allows all participants to operate just beyond their perceived capabilities. The IDZ is constantly reconstituted and revised during ongoing discussions but will collapse without interactions and discourse. Collaboration between students, therefore, is crucial to allow them to exceed their current levels of understanding and to encourage metacognition. These effects are exemplified in anatomy by the communal learning experienced by small learning groups participating in cadaveric dissection. To support learning it is therefore important to develop mutually supportive communities of learners who can interact with, but are not exclusively dependent on, an identified expert. The use of ‘Shadow Modules’ involves CSCL in the process of reshaping and redefining the IDZ.

The major culture change highlighted by the activity seen in collaborative groups, such as in the ‘Shadow Modules’, is the importance of enabling the development of communities of practice within higher education learning and teaching. Moxham et al. (2011) highlight how many students bring their own experiences and ‘narratives’ of their background in anatomy or medicine to a learning activity, and there is a need to find a means by which students can share these narratives as part of their learning. Fostering collaborative learning facilitates the integration of these narratives into the development of communities of practice with experts in specific areas becoming identified from among the students themselves. Communities of practice do not necessarily need to be limited to one module, or even one department or school, if there is sufficient commonality between disciplines. ‘Shadow Modules’ in anatomy could easily be run in common between medical, dental and bioscience students, with the particular academic focus and idiosyncrasies of each group adding richness to the community as a whole. With the global nature of social networking technologies, it is even possible to establish these communities on an international scale (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012). The communities of practice can exist independent of the prevalent teaching mechanism of the institution, as they will complement practical or didactic teaching as well as PBL-based courses. The ‘Shadow Modules’ are therefore relevant to all teaching methodologies in higher education science and anatomy.

Information and communication technology and CSCL have the potential to facilitate peer support and interaction with a module tutor (either online or in person; Lipponen, 2002) and provide students with adequate support during the learning process (Stahl et al. 2006; So & Brush, 2008). CSCL can also provide support for students outside of formal tutor–student situations and, most significantly, has the potential to greatly expand the coverage of a learning community, especially when social media are integrated into the learning process (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012). CSCL has the potential to benefit and support the learning of a range of learners of differing learning styles, knowledge bases and levels of confidence. A re-assessment of the role of ICT as a collaborative tool will help to ‘future proof’ the teaching of anatomy by ensuring that technologies support the pedagogy, rather than being the drivers for change themselves. Anatomy is founded on an experiential approach to learning (through cadaveric dissection, use of prosection or problem-based learning) and is supported best by facilitating discussion and a sharing of the experiences. By facilitating collaboration, aspects of the discipline (such as the appreciation of anatomical variation, the experience of differential observations, or the understanding of complex anatomical systems) can be supported and enriched by allowing students to share, and benefit from, the experiences of their peers. Such mutualistic learning approaches should help to develop a robust and deeper understanding of the subject.

Students readily form small communities of practice in learning on their own. In a purely informal setting these are usually small groups of friends or working colleagues, but they have the potential to be much further-reaching. By the use of collaborative technologies, communities of learning may be expanded considerably and can include not only the highly engaged and highly active individuals who participate in the sessions, but also more passive individuals who prefer to observe rather than take part. The approach also allows for feedback into the formal module that the ‘Shadow Module’ supports during the running of that module (rather than after its completion). The outputs of the ‘Shadow Modules’ could form the basis for class discussions, or identify areas for development or clarification by the lecturer. In the long term, ‘Shadow Modules’ can help influence how specific subjects are taught and how the curriculum is shaped or presented.

In addition to supporting student engagement, there is a also sector-wide drive to support the improvement of both student and staff ‘digital literacies’, such as adoption of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies, and an understanding of how they may be integrated into work or learning (Kitsantas & Dabbagh, 2011). One interpretation of this by the sector has been a rush to improve student and staff engagement with e-learning (Garrison & Anderson, 2003). In the UK, however, this has often been unsuccessful. Sugand et al. (2010) feel that a proper balance of the use of technology between supporting informal and formal learning scenarios has not yet been struck, resulting in e-teaching rather than e-learning. Furthermore, the e-learning solutions (particularly the VLE, used by many institutions) lack reach and consistency and are not user-friendly (Newland et al. 2006; Sharpe et al. 2006; Wilkinson, 2011). To facilitate effective interaction there is a need for a dedicated, and socially centred, online learning-community space that can act as the central hub for collaborative learning activities. This space needs to form a unified repository for resources, with the ability to integrate with other HEIs for potential inter-institutional collaboration. Although there are Web 2.0 tools in VLEs, they do not provide the flexibility of ‘socially centred’ web tools and could benefit from, for example, social media-like group features such as a discussion wall, events and comments which can easily embed rich media (e.g. videos, PDFs, images). A community of sharers and collaborators needs to exist before these tools can reach their potential in the educational domain. The use of CSCL and ‘Shadow Modules’ may potentially address these deficiencies, as students are often more ideally suited to lead this ICT-based community of practice than (possibly less ICT-literate) academics.

Our observations suggest that ‘Shadow Modules’ will be a new and useful form of peer-mediated learning, and may have the potential for a positive impact upon the students' learning experience. We propose that the ideal format for a ‘Shadow Module’ is one that has very limited input from the supervising academic(s). We also propose that there should be at least one SML, perhaps an enthusiastic student from a previous year's cohort, who can guide the group in at least the initial stages of the process, and curate the information and resources produced. Furthermore, the sessions are best organised, and discussed, through social media rather than a VLE. Basic technology (computer access, wi-fi access, whiteboards and projectors) need to be supplied, and students should be encouraged to bring their own materials (such as laptops, tablet PCs and smartphones). There should be no formal direction for the ‘Shadow Module’, it should evolve organically following the needs and idiosyncrasies of its participants. The outputs of the process, however, should be shared with all students on the module, regardless of their level of involvement in the ‘Shadow Module’ groups.

It is our intention in the future to develop the ‘Shadow Module’ pedagogy further, in order to assess the long-term impact to the student learning experience. Further work also needs to be undertaken to assess the sustainability of these structures, as, although the ‘Shadow Modules’ have the potential to be self-sustaining, they need to be embedded within an overall pedagogic structure that facilitates their continuity from year to year. Motivated and engaged students and academics who, between them, are equipped with the right tools (and knowledge of how to use these tools effectively) are a cornerstone of the peer-mediated learning process. It is possible for students to take a leading role in developing the pedagogy of the module by feeding back regarding the content, taking an active lead in curating extant learning resources, or developing new resources. Working alongside the academic module ensures that the formal teaching is aligned with generation-specific learning approaches of the students. As a result, all those impacted by ‘Shadow Modules’, be they academics or students, are partners in a shared learning experience, rather than merely being providers and consumers of knowledge.


We would like to thank Mr Sumit Mistry and Drs Sheila Dargan, Tracey Wilkinson, George Foster, Kelly BeruBe and Hannah Shaw for their involvement with the case study modules and for useful feedback. This work was partially funded by a grant from the Higher Education Academy (Wales) Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund 2011 (to S.M.R.).

Authors' contributions

J.L.S.: acquisition of data, co-author; B.J.M.: initial concept of ‘Shadow Modules’, script revision; S.M.R.: principal investigator, primary author.