Journal: MedEdWorld On-line Author: David Cook Publication Date: Feb 2010
Description: Web based tutorials ... online discussion groups ... blogs and wikis ... virtual patients. Now there's one more technology tool to add to the list: virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds, such as Second Life (, have been created primarily as social networking spaces. However, creative medical educators are starting to use them to facilitate learning.

In Second Life, for example, you create an avatar (a graphical representation of yourself) and then can walk around (or fly) to meet people and interact with the virtual environment. Users can purchase land (either in the public area "mainland" or in a private "island") which they can then adapt to their purposes (create buildings, landscape, etc). There's even a virtual economy in which people buy and sell virtual (and real) objects and virtual land using virtual money.

The advantage of virtual worlds from the educator's standpoint is that multiple learners, from multiple locations, can participate in simulation activities. Moreover, in commercially-available systems much of the foundational computer programming work has already been done. Of course, simply walking around and meeting people is unlikely to be educationally productive. There's still a lot of work involved in designing and creating a meaningful learning activity!

The Stein Gerontological Institute and University of Miami have teamed up to construct a Second Life "island" to help medical students learn about geriatric medicine by doing, for example, home safety evaluations. You can view a YouTube video about this initiative using the link below.

Another group, at Stanford, used a commercially-available product called Adobe Atmosphere (which has since been discontinued) to create a virtual Emergency Room and a series of trauma scenarios (e.g. auto collision) with on-screen avatars representing the patient and each student. A group of students, using different computers and communicating using voice-over-Internet, works collaboratively to manage each scenario (see Youngblood et al, Simulation in Healthcare, 2008; 3:146).

Are virtual worlds "the future" for medical education? Yes and no. As with all educational technologies, they overcome certain barriers while simultaneously creating challenges and limitations. Virtual worlds will not solve all the problems we face in training health professionals! However, as educators become more familiar with virtual worlds, and understand through research and experience how to use them effectively to facilitate learning, I have no doubt they will play an important role in medical education.

YouTube video of Second Life Geriatric Island

Beard et al. A survey of health-related activities on second life. J Med Internet Res. 2009;11:e17.

Youngblood et al. Simulation in Healthcare. 2008;3:146-153.