By Melanie Padgett Powers, writer
Virtual reality offers an interactive, safe, useful and fun way for public health laboratory professionals to learn and evaluate new skills, according to presenters at the October 13 APHL 2020 Virtual Conference session “Incorporating Virtual Reality (VR) into Laboratory Training: How We Did It, What We Learned and What This Means for Future Training.”
The public health field has come to rely on e-learning and hands-on workshops for training, but both have their challenges, said Kevin Clark, MS, a health communications specialist in the Training and Workforce Development Branch of the Division of Laboratory Systems at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s where VR comes in, offering new training opportunities. “We don’t see [VR] replacing hands-on or e-learning; we think it’s creating its own little niche in between them, and, if anything, it really helps close the gap between e-learning and hands-on workshops,” Clark said. “We know VR is not a silver bullet — it’s not physically being in a real laboratory, but it’s much closer than what e-learning can do.”
Clark was part of a CDC team that developed and pilot-tested a VR training course on the safe use of biological safety cabinets. (LabTrainingVR: Biosafety Cabinet Edition is CDC’s first ever VR laboratory training course.) The 30-minute course includes three areas: an anteroom, a laboratory and a final exam. The opening tutorial that shows users how to use the VR equipment also provides the opportunity to teach them about laboratory protocols and personal protective equipment, Clark said.
The VR laboratory is loaded with equipment found in a real-life laboratory. Users “walk” through three chapters: setting up the biological safety cabinet, introducing materials into the cabinet and maintaining airflow. The VR course provides at least two components not available in the real world: a visualization of airflow, shown through moving arrows, and a speed meter that shows how fast users move their arms.
The course was pilot-tested with 59 CDC staffers; 23 of them had worked in biological safety cabinets in the previous year and for more than one year. Of that smaller group, 94% agreed that the VR course gave them practical experience.
Because VR is a computer simulation, it can track and compile a lot of data. In the pilot program, the data showed that of the 59 users, 61% gave correct answers on the airflow section and 69% did so on the startup procedure, compared to 98% correctly identifying parts and 93% correctly decontaminating. The percentages were similar when examining only the 23 people with biological safety cabinet experience, said Christopher Voegeli, PhD, MPH, a CDC behavioral scientist who was part of the VR team.
The VR course cost $340,000 to develop, compared to a similar e-learning course that cost $190,000. The cost should decrease with advances in technology, the ability to reuse some of the assets and as the team gains experience and improves methods, Voegeli said. For individuals to access VR, they need a VR headset and a VR-ready computer, which can cost about $1,535, he said.
VR is not a replacement for other types of training. Voegeli outlined the following criteria to consider whether a course is best suited for VR:
- It should aim to target psychomotor skills or strengthen cognitive reasoning and affective skills when there is repeated exposure and focused content;
- It should be used when there are safety concerns with a traditional training situation;
- It should be used to enhance the convenience and/or reduce the resources a training requires; and
- It can be used when the topic is too complex or abstract for traditional learning options.
Learn more about the LabTrainingVR: Biosafety Cabinet Edition course and how you can participate.
Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health care and public health.
APHL 2020 Virtual Conference was held online September 22-October 15, 2020. View the final program and follow #APHL to join the conversation.