2013. Vol.4, No.10A, 18-20
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.410A003
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Virtual Learning of the Digestive System: An Experience
Developing an Undergraduate Course
Rodolfo E. Avila1, Hugo Juri1, María E. Samar2, Maria T. Mugnaini3,
Carlos Soñez 3, William Anderson4
1School of Medicine, National University of Córdoba, Córdoba, Argentina
2School of Dentistry, National Universit y of Córdoba, Cór d o b a , Argentina
3College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, National University of Río Cuarto,
4John Radcliffe Hosp i t a l , Oxford, UK
Email: w.anderson@doctor s.org.uk
Received July 17th, 2013; revised August 17th, 2013; accepted August 25th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Rodolfo E. Avila et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Using modern information and communication technology associated with distance education, we set out
to produce an e-learning course to improve students’ understanding of the digestive system in an inter-
disciplinary manner. To achieve this, we implemented a novel undergraduate teaching project in classes at
the Faculties of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of the National University of Rio Cuarto,
and Medical Sciences of the National University of Cordoba. In the context of other groups’ experiences
we report our development of an undergraduate e-learning course, covering embryology, histology and
cell biology in an integrated thematic unit.
Keywords: Use of the Internet; Academic Integration Network; Virtual Teaching; Digestive System;
Cell biology, histology and embryology are three core sub-
jects which are taught early in medicine, dentistry and veter-
inary science curricula. Collectively, they provide an essential
foundation for the subsequent acquisition of clinical knowledge
in each discipline; while conversely, an inability to assimilate
such knowledge can lead to high failure and dropout rates in the
early years of these degrees.
Teaching of these sciences has traditionally been delivered
through classroom-based methods and can thus be limited by
time and financial constraints. Increasingly, the availability of
online resources and electronic learning or “e-learning”, is
greatly facilitating this learning process while circumventing
the need for expensive laboratory equipment (Goldberg, 2007;
Silva Lópes, 2003).
Using information and communication technology associated
with distance education, we set out to produce an e-learning
course dedicated to the digestive system, aiming to promote an
integrated comprehension. To achieve this, we implemented an
undergraduate teaching project at the faculties of Agricultural
Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of the National University of
Rio Cuarto and also within Medical Sciences of the National
University of Cordoba.
In this communication we describe our experience of using
the Internet in a network of academic integration: virtual
teaching of the digestive system as an integrated thematic unit
of embryology, histology and cell biology.
Materials and Methodology
The practical tasks “Virtual Oral Cavity and Digestive Sys-
tem” were prepared for the 2010 academic year and uploaded to
the URL: http://www.histologiavirtual.com.ar/.
Those who took part as nodes were the Department of Cell
Biology and General Embryology at the National University of
Rio Cuarto, Argentina (Node 1) and at the National University
of Cordoba, the departments of Cell Biology, Histology and
Embryology (Node 2) and Medical Computing (Node 3).
Images of organs within the digestive system of various species
were obtained from departments participating in the network
and used for the learning exercises (see Figures 1 and 2).
Image files have JPEG and GIF extensions. Digital images of
histological cross-sections were obtained using an image
analyzer with the “Image ProPlus” software connected to an
Olympus Bx50 photomicroscope. Microsoft Office SharePoint
Designer software was used as a designing and programming
tool for the development of the website.
The Virtual Practical Task “Oral Cavity" consisted of a main
page of 28 thumbnail images. Individual thumbnails could be
selected, in order to present the user with an additional screen
displaying an enlarged and fully-labelled image, with accom-
panying text outlining the important structures. Similarly, the
Virtual Practical Task “Digestive System” contained 32 thumb-
nail images on the screen, which could also be selected to dis-
R. E. AVILA ET AL.
Screenshot demonstrating 28 thumbnail images from the e-learning activity “oral cavity”. Selecting a thumbnail opens a separate window in
which the image is enlarged. Shown here are images of a c hick en e mbryo and fetal tongue.
Screenshot demonstrating 32 thumbnail images from the e-learning activity “digestive system”. Larger images are shown of the human stomach
and intestine as well as a chicken embryo.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 19
R. E. AVILA ET AL.
play further information as above.
44.4% of the cohort (total 300) who completed the cellular
biology, histology and embryology module (medical under-
graduates, National University of Cordoba) carried out the pro-
posed e-learning activities. Of this subgroup, 84.9% sat the ex-
amination for that academic year. In terms of their performance,
99% passed the examination. The mean score obtained was
8.28 ± 1.52. Of the students who completed all of the e-learning,
40% achieved a score of 8 or higher, from a maximum of 10
Our results indicate that providing e-learning activities to
students can facilitate the completion of learning objectives,
through encouraging a personal commitment to continuous
learning. This may then promote success in examinations and
the achievement of higher scores.
The effectiveness of computer-based learning has been rec-
ognized and accepted since before the widespread use of the
Internet (Ruiz, 2006). In the context of basic science education
it is becoming increasingly used at both an undergraduate and
postgraduate level due to several advantages (Sander, 2012;
Avila, 2011; McCombs, 2007). The financial advantages of
adopting e-learning of histology or “virtual microscopy” are
clear, as many institutions are able to avoid the need of having
to purchase and maintain conventional microscopes (Hamilton,
Levels of satisfaction amongst students are generally high.
Hamilton et al. at Queen’s University Belfast, found that virtual
microscopy was preferred by 88% of undergraduate students, in
a cohort who had previously received histology training with
conventional microscopes (Hamilton, 2012). Possible reasons
include the ability to access high quality, annotated images and
the opportunity to discuss important features which can be
demonstrated by the faculty.
Perhaps more importantly, this increased satisfaction is being
translated into improved results on histology exams (Hamilton,
2012; Harris, 2001; Kumar, 2006; Gouldsborough, 2012). Fur-
thermore, Gouldsborough et al. found that the benefits of
e-learning modules in anatomy and histology extended beyond
technical knowledge. Students subjectively felt that their non-
technical, team building and communication skills were im-
proved, something which may in part be due to high levels of
support on the website’s message boards (Gouldsborough,
In our case we have been able to demonstrate the value of
e-learning in delivering teaching to medical, dentistry and vet-
erinary science students. We have found it important to use
images obtained in biomedical laboratories in the development
of educational tools. In addition, it is necessary to incorporate
systematic audiovisual resources to develop effective and com-
petitive educational material. For this reason, audiovisual ar-
chives have gained prominence in the production of digital
educational materials (Avila, 2010; Avila, 2011; Shuter, 2011).
In summary, we have found that users have been able to in-
tegrate both theoretical and practical knowledge of cell biology,
histology and embryology relevant to their digestive system
learning objectives. In this way, online learning resources can
play an important role in higher education by improving results
and simultaneously overcoming temporal, financial and spatial
Grant of Secretariat for Planning and Institutional Relations,
Secretariat for Science and Technology, Academic Secretariat
of the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto. Argentina.
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