Strengths and Challenges of Medical Education in Virtual Worlds

Virtual world second life

The educational opportunity in Virtual Worlds such as Second Life may not be a replacement for the doctor- or nurse-patient interaction or relationship, but they may serve as an adjunct or pre- or post-learning tool.

Strengths of Virtual Worlds in Medical Education:

  • In virtual worlds you can design and construct unique environments and then share them with others in a collaborative fashion.
  • Learners actively build and interact in environments that promote creativity and social networking. Educators have to write specific learning goals for these virtual world simulations.
  • Virtual world is available 24/7 there is an anytime/anywhere benefit for distance education students.
  • Healthcare consumers have the advantage of being able to log in on and learning from events happening in Second Life and other virtual worlds (e.g. the 2006 health fair). This is especially useful if the individual is at a physical distance.
  • The medium is excellent for improving students’ access to places otherwise difficult to reach.Such as specific circumstances hard to simulate such as disasters but also body cavity’s or other bodily structures
  • The technology makes spatial representation useful for hands-on learning and heightened student engagement because the real-time social interaction and gaming aspect spurs chances for “discovery-based and goal-oriented learning”
  • Virtual worlds can be used for role-playing, simulation, and personal interaction associated with the technology.
  • Learners actively interact with content and role play skills associated with their profession.
  • By allowing students time to interact with other avatars (eg, patients, staff members, and other healthcare professionals) in a safe, simulated environment, a decrease in student anxiety, an increase in competency in learning a new skill, and encouragement to cooperate and collaborate, as well as resolve conflicts, is possible.
  • Active learning takes place due to other participants being in the same virtual world and constructing objects to represent ideas that may enhance self-reflection and knowledge

What are Virtual Worlds?

A 3-D virtual world, also known as a Massively Multiplayer Virtual World (MMVW), is an example of a Web 2.0/Web 3-D dynamic computer-based application. Second Life is the best and well known example. It portrays the general qualities of a MMVW which include, but are not limited to, streaming audio/video/TV/YouTube collections, 3-D virtual libraries, virtual tourist attractions and destinations, social interactive venues used by multiple, customized animated characters, a health information island, global preparedness discussions, lectures, conferences, and support groups

Another example is a 3-D virtual world online simulation incorporating a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) platform, which trains healthcare professionals for a mass casualty event. Furthermore, virtual medical universities exist all over the world.

In virtual worlds avatars are used. An avatar is a computer user’s representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in online communities such as second life.

The Challenges, there are critics who debate the usefulness of the application:

  • The use of virtual simulations to teach healthcare students has not been researched so it’s outcome is questionable until more research is conducted and educational outcomes are realized.
  • It takes a lot of time to create learning spaces within a virtual environment, high costs are also involved
  • The efficiency associated with sharing text, images, and videos via an avatar versus a standard format on a computer’s desktop is questionable
  • A negative human response to other avatars in the learning environment is possible; however, this may exist in traditional learning settings as well.
  • The allure of the dynamic colourful Virtual World environment may distract the student’s attention from the learning objectives.
  • Educational research regarding 3-D virtual worlds and the effects on learning outcomes is lacking.


Clearly empirical research is needed for future use of virtual worlds in healthcare training and general education. Striking challenges facing developers of virtual worlds and serious gaming for educational purposes are ownership of collaborative work and certification of authorship. Both of these issues pose a problem for evaluation for learning outcomes

To my opinion these trends can’t be stopped, we have to watch out for uncritical optimism and develop these kind of educational tools when clearly relevant and with added value to older educational tools.
Margaret M Hansen (2008). Versatile, Immersive, Creative and Dynamic Virtual 3-D Healthcare Learning Environments: A Review of the Literature Journal of Medical Internet Research, 10 (3) DOI: 10.2196/jmir.1051