Virtual dissection and physical collaboration
First Monday

Virtual dissection and physical collaboration by Kenneth R. Fleischmann


This paper explores how software can be designed for individual use or for collaboration in the physical or virtual world, focusing on physical collaboration. The case study explored is the design and use of frog and human dissection simulation software. Since socialization has traditionally played an important role in the dissection laboratory experience, yet dissection simulations do not typically incorporate any online or offline interactions, the idea of virtual dissections or other types of educational software for physical collaboration is proposed.



The traditional dissection laboratory
Dissection simulations





The field of human–computer interaction focuses on humans’ interactions with computers. The field of computer–supported cooperative learning and the related field of computer–supported cooperative work focus primarily on the use of computers to communicate with other humans, particularly at a distance. Yet, there is also a social element to computing that goes beyond its applications for communication. This paper focuses on one example, virtual dissection, of how computers can be used as tools to augment physical collaboration.

While much of the literature in computer–supported cooperative learning has focused on communication in virtual worlds, Crook (1994) provides a more nuanced approach. He breaks this collaboration down into four categories: interactions with, in relation to, at, and around computers. This perspective goes beyond traditional categorizations of humans and computers to explore the ways that humans can collaborate in the physical world while using computers.

Twidale (2000) proposes a notion of "over–the–shoulder learning," which considers the need for collaboration such as asking for assistance with a computer from another person in the physical world. This is a useful concept for learning about computers, and perhaps also for instructor–student interaction, but differs significantly from a notion of equal collaboration in the physical world at a shared computer. However, "over–the–shoulder learning" is a useful concept because it is one example of how software can be designed for collaboration in the physical world.

Price and Rogers (2004) introduce the concept of "digitally augmented physical spaces." Their work focuses on the use of information and communication technologies as one aspect of physical collaboration. However, in their study, they direct focus away from computers themselves and towards other forms of digital technology. The benefits to their proposed "digitally augmented physical spaces" are quite clear, and serve to immerse learners in their physical as well as social surroundings. Yet, at this time, the technology that they employ is probably prohibitively expensive for deployment in many educational settings. Thus, it is important to consider not only how entire physical spaces can be redesigned with customized technologies to promote physical collaboration, but also how anticipation of the possibility of physical collaboration in software development for virtual dissections, many of which are freely available over the Web, can more cheaply and easily facilitate physical collaboration using virtual tools.

This paper explores the potential for developing virtual dissection software for physical collaboration. First, the methodology section explains the data collection for the larger project from which this paper emerged. The next section takes a historical approach to the traditional activity of dissection, focusing on the important role that socialization has always played in this activity. In contrast, virtual dissection is based on a human–computer interaction model, as discussed in the subsequent section. The following section explores the potential for integrating physical collaboration into virtual dissection. Finally, the conclusion discusses the broader implications of this study for educational software design and use.




This paper is a small part of a completed dissertation (Fleischmann, 2004) focusing on the design and use of computer simulations for biological and medical education. The two case studies of the dissertation focus on frog dissection simulation in middle and high school biology classes and human dissection simulation in medical school gross anatomy classes. Some additional findings of the study have already been published elsewhere (Fleischmann, 2003; Fleischmann, in press).

Data collection for the dissertation included three methodologies: interviews, participant observation, and first–person analysis of software. Specifically, the dissertation research included 61 semi–structured interviews with frog and human dissection simulation designers and users (including teachers and students). Participant observation consisted of 105 hours in frog and human simulation design laboratories, conferences, and classrooms. The research also included first–person analysis of 20 frog and human dissection simulations, including free online resources and proprietary software sold and distributed both online and offline.



The traditional dissection laboratory

Dissection is traditionally a highly social activity. Whether at the K–12 or medical school level, whether the specimen is a frog or a human, students generally work in teams of two to six to conduct the dissection, within a larger laboratory setting involving many teams. As such, the activity of dissection is a highly social activity, requiring teamwork, facilitating cooperation among teams, allowing students to share the emotional burden of the experience, and generating a shared socialization into biology or medicine [1]. Here, it is important to consider differences in the social atmosphere between physical and virtual dissection, before discussing some possible ways of turning simulations into technologies that facilitate physical collaboration.

The dissection laboratory requires a significant amount of teamwork. As Albert Howard Carter III (1997) explains, many tasks in the gross anatomy dissection laboratory require medical students to work together, such as turning the body over. Students in the laboratory that Carter observed used an anatomical textbook to aid them in the dissection, while K–12 students may simultaneously rely on a dissection manual and their biology textbook, since the former contains the procedural directions necessary to conduct the dissection while the latter provides the in–depth details that explain the underlying patterns demonstrated in the anatomy of the specimen being examined and the connection between the anatomy of that animal and human anatomy. In this way, the roles of the dissection team may be assigned according to the various materials involved (specimen, dissection manual, textbook), making the specimen only one part of the overall experience (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Students in a traditional dissection laboratory with different roles
Figure 1: Students in a traditional dissection laboratory with different roles.



Dissection simulations

Dissection simulations, on the other hand, focus on human–computer interaction rather than human–human interaction. The emphasis on a single user interacting with the simulation is not restricted to dissection simulation software — it is in fact widespread within the realm of educational simulation software, where a "single user license" refers to a license for the software to be used on one computer, while a "multiple user license" refers to a license for the software to be used on multiple computers (National Centre for Technology in Education). Indeed, even the phrase, "personal computer," implies that the technology is intended to be used by a single user. Thus, the terminology used for describing computers and software carries the implicit use of a single copy of software by an individual, rather than by a group.

One of the selling points of dissection simulations, especially at the K–12 level, is that they replace everything — specimen, biology textbook, dissection manual, and perhaps even teacher. In a simulation such as The Digital Frog 2, not only has the frog been transferred to virtual form, but the software comes equipped with inline instructions for conducting the dissection, giving the user a step–by–step procedure for exploring the anatomy of the frog. The textbook is also included, in the form of the parallel anatomy section which explains not only the anatomy and physiology of the frog but also includes a "compare to human" feature which allows the user to compare an aspect of the frog’s anatomy such as the heart to the human, explaining significant similarities and differences. The Digital Frog 2 also comes with an ecology module, explaining the behavior of the frog and its relationship with its environment. While there are clear advantages to the multiple functionalities incorporated in the software, there is also an understated yet unmistakable transition from a multiple–student teamwork activity to a single–student solitary activity (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Use of a dissection simulation by a single student
Figure 2: Use of a dissection simulation by a single student.

While dissection simulations such as The Digital Frog 2 may have been intended to be used by individuals rather than groups of students, this expectation is not always met in practice. My observation of the use of The Digital Frog 2 at a high school over a one–week period included observing not only individual use of the software but also collaborative use of the software. While there may be other reasons for such shared use, the primary reason in this case was a (perceived) shortage of computers and limitations on the access to those computers due to the communal treatment of computers as a resource at the school [2].

Use of the software varied from individual use to work in groups of two to four students. The teacher viewed the use of the software by groups of students, which would be typical in a traditional dissection laboratory, to be decidedly non–optimal. She made it clear that she preferred to have the students work individually on the software, and that work in groups was a hindrance because it slowed the students in completing their assignment [3], encouraged off–topic conversation and disruptive behavior [4], and served to mainly benefit the primary user while not actively involving the other students. Figure 3 illustrates the pattern of use typically observed when the students worked in teams of two to four students, with one student actively using the computer and other students passively watching on.

Figure 3 Shared use of a dissection simulation by a group of students
Figure 3: Shared use of a dissection simulation by a group of students.

Interestingly, The Digital Frog 2 includes worksheets that accompany the software. Although based on my interviews with the designers these worksheets were intended to be used by individual students using the software [5], they do provide a potential opportunity for productive collaboration. Yet, the teacher did not seem to identify this opportunity, and instead continued to view the arrangement of multiple students per computer to be a limitation on the learning process. The students, as well, did not make use of the multiple students per computer arrangement to delegate tasks on focusing on the worksheet or the computer. Instead, the computer user continued to take on a primary role, while the other student(s) merely watched passively and wrote down what the primary user found using the software.

In this instance, the assumptions that the designers, teachers, and students brought into the design and use of the simulation led them to view virtual dissection as a solitary activity best performed with a one–to–one user to computer ratio. As argued by symbolic interactionists, the understanding of a thing, including a technology, by individuals is based on past experiences that they have had with that technology within a social context (Fleischmann, 2004). In this study, designers, teachers, and users had strong views of computer software design and use that supplanted their past experiences with the activity of dissection. As a result, what had previously been a social activity in the physical world was reborn in the virtual world as an individual activity.

Another element of the physical anatomy laboratory is collaboration among teams. Recognition of the importance of this activity is focused at the medical school level, where my informants listed the collaborative nature of the gross anatomy laboratory and the exposure to normal anatomical variation as important contributions of the gross anatomy laboratory, sentiments echoed in the literature on the importance of gross anatomy. The importance of the traditional dissection laboratory for teaching normal anatomical variation is that students working in different groups on different bodies are frequently encouraged to examine other bodies and compare findings with students in other teams. The need for this practice is particularly obvious in learning about the reproductive organs of both sexes, however it is also important in observing other forms of normal anatomical variations: varying amounts of adipose tissue, different degrees of muscle development, organs in different places, genetic mutations, various pathologies and body alterations that occurred in life, etc. While learning about anatomy using a textbook is about learning one specific anatomical standard, gross anatomy dissection also allows students to explore a range of variations from that normal.

Although dissection simulations may provide the capability of examining both male and female specimens, at least for study of the reproductive system, they do not typically allow users to explore other types of variation. The Visible Human Project provides perhaps the best example of this focus on standardization rather than variation — the VHP relies only on two bodies, one male and one female, and does not allow for the direct study for other forms of variation. Indeed, the female body used in the VHP is often treated only as a reproductive adjunct to the male body and its use is most widespread within the field of obstetrics and gynecology, while the male body has largely become the anatomical standard for most other applications of virtual anatomy, including many dissection simulations (Waldby, 2000).




The argument made here is that the design and use of software are intimately interlinked: if software is designed for a single user, it will tend to be used according to that intent. This may be problematic if an activity that originally involved important physical collaboration now becomes an asocial activity due to the use of single–user software. If, on the other hand, software is designed with the explicit intention of serving as a tool to augment physical collaboration, then it may be able to provide not only the information and visualization found in, for example, a physical laboratory activity, but also socialization.

If socialization is an important aspect of learning, it merits serious consideration. Given bandwidth limitations that frequently restrict online communication to textual exchange, physical collaboration is clearly superior. Even in cases where audio and video can be streamed in real time, the richest form of socialization is interacting with those around us, by making educational software that factors in offline as well as online collaboration.

What are the features of software for physical collaboration? The above discussion on virtual dissection hints at several factors: break up the responsibilities into roles, such as the student performing the cuts, the student consulting the dissection manual for directions, and the student consulting the textbook for background anatomical information. Leave time for discussion throughout the dissection process, so that students may converse about unusual findings and difficult procedures. Finally, include normal anatomical variation to ensure exposure to this important concept and to encourage interaction across groups.

How can these ideas be generalized to educational software in general? Certainly, it is still important to break up the overall activity into parts that can be played by the different learners, distributing the responsibilities among them. It is also important to leave time for discussion during the activity, through the use of predetermined or spontaneous pauses or intermissions. Finally, it is also important to encourage interaction among different groups as well as within the group, to include everyone in the activity and make it as social as possible. By following these steps, it should be possible to maximize the potential for physical collaboration while using software, and thus enhance learning. End of article


About the author

Kenneth R. Fleischmann is an assistant professor in the College of Information at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His research focuses on the design and use of educational computer simulations. Comments may be mailed to fleischmann [at] ci [dot] fsu [dot] edu.



Thanks go to David Hess, Paul Marty, Michelle Kazmer, and Bo Xie for their helpful comments. This research was made possible by funding from the National Science Foundationís Science and Technology Studies Program (SES–0217996).



1. There is an extensive literature on the social and emotional dimensions of human gross anatomy dissection among medical students (see Fleischmann, 2002).

2. Interestingly, access to computers was a result of a complex process of negotiation for the teacher. The teacher had six classes who were all using The Digital Frog 2 that week. For each of the classes, the teacher had to arrange access to computers, the limitations of which varied by period. At the time, the schoolís computer resources included one eighteen–computer laboratory used primarily by a computer network teacher who had courses only during certain hours, one classroom with nine computers previously occupied by a mathematics teacher who had left earlier in the year (and whose students had been absorbed into other mathematics classes, leaving the classroom vacant to be used as a shared resource for the other teachers), and a library with six computers. The teacher’s own classroom contained only one computer, and was never used for The Digital Frog 2 during the week when the software was used. The teacher had to negotiate with other teachers, most notably the computer network teacher who swapped classrooms with the biology teacher for some periods during the week, as well as other teachers who also wanted to use the nine–computer classroom and the six computers in the library.

3. Throughout the week, students were given worksheets that accompany the software and were required to complete the worksheets by the end of the week.

4. There were many instances of off–topic conversation and computer use, some of which were observed by the teacher, resulting in disciplinary actions such as taking certain students away from the computers.

5. Like other dissection simulation software, all available evidence indicates that they are intended to be used either by individual users or by teachers doing a demonstration dissection for the benefit of the entire class — but not by multiple users seated at a single computer.



Albert Howard Carter III, 1997. First cut: A season in the human anatomy lab. New York: Picador.

Charles Crook, 1994. Computers and the collaborative experience of learning. New York: Routledge.

Kenneth R. Fleischmann, in press. "Do–it–yourself information technology: Role hybridization and the design–use interface," Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Kenneth R. Fleischmann, 2004. "Exploring the design–use interface: The agency of boundary objects in educational technology," Doctoral dissertation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Kenneth R. Fleischmann, 2003. "Frog and cyberfrog are friends: Dissection simulation and animal advocacy," Society & Animals, volume 11, number 2, pp. 123–143.

Kenneth R. Fleischmann, 2002. "Cadaver use and coping mechanisms in a biomechanics laboratory," Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, volume 46, number 2, pp. 117–135.

National Centre for Technology in Education, "Software Licensing," at, accessed 21 March 2005.

Sara Price and Yvonne Rogers, 2004. "Let’s get physical: The learning benefits of interacting in digitally augmented physical spaces," Computers & Education, volume 43, pages 137–151.

Michael B. Twidale, 2000. "Interfaces for supporting over–the–shoulder learning," In: M. Benedict (editor). Proceedings, HICS 2000: The Fifth Annual Conference on Human Interaction with Complex Systems, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, pp. 33–37.

Catherine Waldby, 2000. The visible human project: Informatic bodies and posthuman medicine. New York: Routledge.

Editorial history

Paper received 21 March 2005; accepted 6 April 2005.
HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Copyright ©2005, Kenneth R. Fleischmann.

Virtual dissection and physical collaboration by Kenneth R. Fleischmann
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 5 - 2 May 2005

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