Author(s): Wiecha J, Heyden R, Sternthal E, Merialdi M
BACKGROUND: Virtual worlds are rapidly becoming part of the educational technology landscape. Second Life (SL) is one of the best known of these environments. Although the potential of SL has been noted for health professions education, a search of the world's literature and of the World Wide Web revealed a limited number of formal applications of SL for this purpose and minimal evaluation of educational outcomes. Similarly, the use of virtual worlds for continuing health professional development appears to be largely unreported. METHODS: We designed and delivered a pilot postgraduate medical education program in the virtual world, Second Life. Our objectives were to: (1) explore the potential of a virtual world for delivering continuing medical education (CME) designed for physicians; (2) determine possible instructional designs using SL for CME; (3) understand the limitations of SL for CME; (4) understand the barriers, solutions, and costs associated with using SL, including required training; and (5) measure participant learning outcomes and feedback. We trained and enrolled 14 primary care physicians in an hour-long, highly interactive event in SL on the topic of type 2 diabetes. Participants completed surveys to measure change in confidence and performance on test cases to assess learning. The post survey also assessed participants' attitudes toward the virtual learning environment. RESULTS: Of the 14 participant physicians, 12 rated the course experience, 10 completed the pre and post confidence surveys, and 10 completed both the pre and post case studies. On a seven-point Likert scale (1, strongly disagree to 7, strongly agree), participants' mean reported confidence increased from pre to post SL event with respect to: selecting insulin for patients with type 2 diabetes (pre = 4.9 to post = 6.5, P= .002); initiating insulin (pre = 5.0 to post = 6.2, P= .02); and adjusting insulin dosing (pre = 5.2 to post = 6.2, P= .02). On test cases, the percent of participants providing a correct insulin initiation plan increased from 60% (6 of 10) pre to 90% (9 of 10) post (P= .2), and the percent of participants providing correct initiation of mealtime insulin increased from 40% (4 of 10) pre to 80% (8 of 10) post (P= .09). All participants (12 of 12) agreed that this experience in SL was an effective method of medical education, that the virtual world approach to CME was superior to other methods of online CME, that they would enroll in another such event in SL, and that they would recommend that their colleagues participate in an SL CME course. Only 17% (2 of 12) disagreed with the statement that this potential Second Life method of CME is superior to face-to-face CME. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this pilot suggest that virtual worlds offer the potential of a new medical education pedagogy to enhance learning outcomes beyond that provided by more traditional online or face-to-face postgraduate professional development activities. Obvious potential exists for application of these methods at the medical school and residency levels as well.