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Schools Turning to Virtual Dissection

From guest blogger Kimberly Shannon

The Highlands County school district in Florida may soon be examining virtual specimens on a computer screen rather than real ones under a microscope. Rebecca Fleck, the assistant superintendent of curriculum/instruction, has recommended that students in the district will only perform virtual dissections next year, reports Highlands Today. The school board still has to vote on the proposal, which some science teachers in the district have criticized.

"There has been some resistance to change. However, the cost of purchasing specimens is prohibitive and uses far too much of the consumable allocation for science," Fleck wrote in an email to Education Week. "Now that we have supplied all biology classes with computers, it is time to move to virtual dissection."

Schools in other parts of the country have made the switch to virtual dissection in recent years, and some have accepted money donated by animal rights groups to buy the needed software, according to news reports. While some educators have argued that literal hands-on learning is most effective, others welcome the transition.

The National Science Teachers Association outlined policies for proper dissection in 2005, and encouraged research on the effectiveness of alternatives in 2008. They also recommended that science teachers who use real dissections in class provide alternatives for students who prefer not to participate, a recommendation that some states have taken on as law.

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals takes an expected strong stand on the issue of dissection, and suggests a list of virtual alternatives, as does the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. While PETA claims that "nearly every comparative study has concluded that non-animal learning methods, including virtual dissection software, are equivalent or, in many cases, superior to traditional animal dissection," a panel studying simulations for online AP science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, referenced by my Edweek colleague Michelle R. Davis in this story several years ago, "found that simulations alone couldn't provide the experiences needed."

Advocates of digital dissection note reasons for switching to virtual dissection beyond the animal rights issue. Digital Frog International and Tactus, which both market dissection software, boast of educational benefits. Tactus' website lists "'authentic' experience," student safety from dangerous chemicals and instruments, and no specimen harm among the advantages of its signature product, V-Frog.

The Digital Frog 2.5, and its competitor, Froguts, make claims of their benefits over real "frog guts," that include minimal prep time, easy clean up, faster learning, possibility of learning outside of the lab, and cost efficiency as reasons to buy. All three of those products note that virtual learning allows for multiple uses, a perk that might appeal to educators who believe in repetition as a method of memorization.

While virtual dissection has its perks, whether or not it beats the academic value of real dissection will likely be in question for a long time. Meanwhile, many schools are providing students with both options, according to news reports, or requiring virtual dissection as preparation for the real thing.

(Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested the Highlands County school board had already approved the measure. The board has not yet voted on the proposal.)

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