Associate Professor Alexander Davies - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Associate Professor Alexander Davies (Institute for Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University) - a Excellence in Innovation winner 2005
Institute for Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University
For the past 30 years Alex Davies has been working on creating new technological teaching aids for his anatomy students. From basic beginnings with simple slide shows, through to using the university's first ever scanner to create interactive tutorials and on to offering digital tutorials online, Alex has never been afraid to try new things. This has lead to him creating so many innovative programmes that they are all now simply known as CALVE (Computer Aided Learning in Veterinary Education). CALVE is being continually updated with new programmes and exercises. It is also becoming more important as ethical and economic grounds make dissecting large numbers of animals more difficult. As a result of all this he has been voted lecturer of the year twice by his students and has seen a constant growth in the number of people using his programmes. His programmes are also being made available on CD for other universities to access.
The stimulus for innovation
Veterinary Anatomy is not alone among disciplines taught at tertiary level in requiring students to learn a mass of new names and difficult concepts. Like many other subjects also, it has a long tradition for requiring students to rote learn and not to question the details didactically spelt out in lectures. The anatomy teacher's role in the past has not been to facilitate a process by which students learn to seek information for themselves, but rather to dictate what are supposed to be the ‘necessary' facts.
I have been lucky to work in an environment that has allowed traditional methods to be re-examined. I have worked with students who are keen learners and can be induced to accept the challenge as new methods have been introduced. I have worked with a small team of support staff with high ideals and a dedication to quality teaching. I have worked at a time when opportunities to harness digital technology as a major pedagogical workhorse have arisen. I can even count it as lucky that I have worked in an environment in which economic, temporal and ethical considerations have created special problems. The economics of tertiary education have seen increasing class sizes and decreasing student numbers, as well as fewer teachers with experience in teaching Veterinary Anatomy. Curriculum changes have severely restricted teaching time, necessitating continued selectivity of topics and efficiency in presenting them, especially in laboratory classes. For various reasons involving both animal welfare and the welfare of the people that must deal with animals under difficult conditions, there are changing perceptions as to how animals should be used in teaching; it is critical to apply the principle of reduction, refinement and replacement. Without these influences, economic, temporal and ethical, it would have been much easier for me to accept the status quo.
The special result is that I have helped create a more self-teaching, self-motivating and self-pacing learning environment, while enhancing our ability to record student choice and opinion.
Some of the events and highlights along the way
- At an early stage I was inevitably attracted to computers with a graphical user interface. It was then another inevitability that an anatomist would seek out the means to scan images into computer aided learning packages. In this regard, I was challenged by a nine-year-old son who soon belittled my efforts in object-oriented scripting.
- Again aided by this youthful family member, I initiated the development of a system for recording student use of these programmes in a computer laboratory. For the first time we had a record of what students prefer to use as learning resources.
- A remarkable succession of students have appeared at appropriate times to help me in the production of teaching resources. They have worked for minimum pay with maximum enthusiasm, freshness and creative skill. In the early days, they drew illustrations for a comprehensive collection of charts for display in the anatomy laboratory. Then they began to work on computer aided learning programmes, rapidly expanding the topics and modes of delivery, such that CAL has been able to replace or enhance a substantial part of our courses.
- Often quite serendipitously, opportunities such as those associated with a research interest in the body composition of meat animals have arisen for me to employ various modes of medical imaging as resources in teaching Veterinary Anatomy. Expensive tools for exploring living animals non-invasively, such as x-ray computed axial topography and magnetic resonance imaging, have joined the techniques that are affordable for use in domestic animals such as ultrasound, fluoroscopy and radiology. These have complemented but not replaced traditional dissection methods.
- I created online tutorials that enhanced the teaching of a traditionally difficult subject, Embryology, by incorporating animation and recorded voice. Even with the best illustrative aids, lectures have always proved inadequate to explain the complex three-dimensional development of body structures as they rapidly alter with time. By delivering two modes of sensory experience together, computers seem to be solving this problem.
- I have developed a system for envisaging the location of organs within the bodies of live animals. Topographical anatomy is best studied on live animals, with obvious clinical applications as well as ethical benefit in the reduction in the use of cadavers. Dissection, by definition, disrupts the position and relationships of organs. There have been topographical atlases for some time, but little published to help students see organs beneath the skin and understand the principles of their interactivity.
- For the last five years, we have assembled a database of fully annotated images, now with over 750 records. Digital photography, graphical manipulation and projection have raised the standard of imaging anatomical material way beyond our early expectations, and now present opportunities in teaching and assessment we did not contemplate till recently. Visits to overseas veterinary anatomical museums usually result in an addition to this collection of superb material that is otherwise hidden from those that might need it. The database has many uses such as the learning of radiological anatomy from annotated images, the provision of revision material following practical classes, and a source of material that is otherwise expensive, perishable or rare, or inconvenient to produce at the right time in the curriculum. Importantly, this image database is available to students at any time and place, and is a rich source of examination material.
- As well as encouraging students to learn from interactive computer programmes, we are expecting students to use digital photography and video in presentations to their peers. Working in groups, they select topics for themselves following a short briefing session. Students then control the coverage of the topics and the conduct of the oral presentations. This is problem-based learning without the usual disadvantage of proscribed case models with standardised solutions, or the need for higher teacher: student ratios. We are at present trying to assess to what extent this method promotes deeper learning, and are most impressed by the enthusiasm of the students.
Teaching and learning are never completed. The winning of this award will greatly assist me over the next few years, to:
- rewrite programmes so that they are available on the internet
- research ways in which examinations can test not rote learning, but deduction and interpretation, using computers
- complete an online tutorial in basic veterinary embryology, incorporating speech and animation. This is a particularly useful concept since currently there is no textbook in English on this subject in print
- internationalise our graphics database in Veterinary Anatomy, hopefully with considerable input from other sources, to make it a significant world-wide resource, flexibly edited and expanded
- complete teaching resources for topographical anatomy of the cow and horse using both digital video and animation
- further explore the application of the principle of reduction, refinement and replacement of animals in teaching.
Although my innovations have not followed consciously any formed initiative, the following ideals and practical solutions suggest how they might be further developed and criticised.
Learning is best through practical, hands-on experience rather than didactic instruction: therefore develop resources rather than lecture notes, and encourage observation by sight and touch rather than acceptance of observation by others.
Continue to explore, rather than be content with any apparent intermittent success: therefore move outside the comfort zone of tradition, criticise methods usually regarded as having proven success, and make teaching a continuous experiment.
To cater for all kinds of student, pedagogical methods should be diverse: therefore develop a variety of resources, and apply them in diverse ways.
Learning aids must be always available, and reviewable: therefore make appropriate resources available for learning assistance at all times, in all places.
Learning is best when students are interacting with one another, seeking advice and confirmation from their peers rather than from professorial dictation: therefore create self-teaching, selfmotivating, self-pacing learning environments involving teamwork.
Students need feedback following any period of study, for self-assessment: therefore incorporate quizzes into learning packages, for which answers and interpretations are available.
Determine to which teaching strategies students are most attracted: therefore seek methods of recording student choice objectively.
Teachers need continual critical feedback from students: therefore devise ways of assessing student opinion as to their perception of usefulness of each strategy employed.
Teachers effectively hone their knowledge while preparing and revising course material: therefore as part of the curriculum students should also be researching, preparing and then presenting information and ideas to others.
Select examination methods that best mimic the use to which information and ideas are expected to be used later by students: therefore encourage students to think, evaluate, solve problems and develop relevant skills and examine this ability rather than examining their ability to regurgitate lecture notes.
Examinations are doubly valuable if they are also a learning exercise: therefore devise a way that students can appreciate their strengths and weaknesses following an exam, and ensure that there is unhindered opportunity for them to assess the assessment.
Peer and Student Comments
Alex's teaching now spans 30 years. For the last 15 years he has actively developed computer-aided learning methods. The result of these efforts has been an enormous suite of computer packages that have brought Veterinary Anatomy to life for well over 1000 veterinary students. The esteem in which Alex is held by his students is demonstrated by his recent lecturer-of-the-year prize and the invariably favourable comments he receives in the university's formal student evaluations in teaching. These positive comments are particularly noteworthy because as a proponent of active learning, A/ Prof Davies does not spoon-feed his students.
Professor Grant Guilford, Head, Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University (and former student)
The award is just a small tribute to the enormous advances Professor Davies has made in this field. He has been an inspiration to his students and colleagues and is a scientist of international repute. We are very proud that he is a member of New Zealand's scientific community.
Wyn Hoadley, Chairperson, National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, on presentation of the inaugural Three Rs Award in 2003
The model you have developed very graphically illustrates anatomical function. This assists in achieving a reduction in the use of animals in teaching, and also greatly facilitates both the teaching process and the understanding of form and function on the part of the students. I would like to think that the award also recognises in part your well-known passion and enthusiasm as a teacher. It is a pity that the clock could not be turned back a generation so that those of us who were taught along traditional lines were able to learn via the tools you have developed. It would have been so much easier!
Chris Hutchings, President, New Zealand Veterinary Association (and former student) commenting on the Three Rs Award