Developing and disseminating digital tools – 3 years on…

Categories HE Sector, Learning & Teaching

While I was having a bit of a digital clear-out before the Christmas break, I stumbled across this piece which I had written back in 2017. To be honest, I’d totally forgotten that I had written this and I thought it’d be interesting to revisit it in light of the developments that have occurred during the three years that have followed, and in particular with regard to the sudden embrace of digital tools that the pandemic has forced upon the sector. It was written for non-forensic folks and the original text is in black with the modern mulling-over in orange. 

Developing and disseminating digital tools to support learning and teaching

Despite the notion that the forensic sciences are at the cutting edge of technology there has been a slow adoption of new digital and technological approaches to teaching the subject. It is important to note that ‘forensic anthropology’ is a very broad term, and the teaching of it can incorporate aspects of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, microbiology, law and so on. Thus when I teach forensic anthropology I draw from many different styles and pedagogical traditions which are themselves derived from these many different disciplines [God. Do I always sounds like this? I really do like long-winded sentences, don’t I? The point I’m trying to make is forensic anthropology is multidisciplinary]. Since the core skeletal anatomy component has its origins in very traditional disciplines, it can seem that the anatomical sciences (and those related to skeletal anatomy) are objective and atheoretical, although I have robustly refuted this (for example, see Gowland and Thompson, 2013). Skeletal anatomy, as taught within forensic anthropology, for example, has a long educational and practice-based history which influences how the subject is taught in university today (see my earlier work for details; Thompson, 2003 [This 2003 paper is one of my first, and it is where I explored the ethics of teaching with human skeletal remains within the context of a rapidly expanding discipline of forensic anthropology. It’s a little bit preachy, but put that down to the impetuousness of youth, and bear with it]). At heart, these are very ‘hands-on’ subjects and the learning of these has been shown to be more effective with considerable practical components (Berryman and Lahren, 1984; Magalhaes et al., 2014; Thompson, 2003) [Really what we’re considering here is that although forensic anthropology has the potential to be multidisciplinary, at its heart, it has a very standard approach to teaching]. Any technological approach to teaching these subjects must adhere to this key principle [I stand by this here, and more broadly in education – technological and digital tools and approaches will only flourish if they build on traditional approaches, that is, provide something that resonates with the user, otherwise they’ll seem alien and people will struggle to see the merit and engage. Once people have bought in and are comfortable, you can start to shake things up].

An appreciation of the sensitive nature of the material with which I teach was the beginning of my research on the ethics of teaching with skeletal remains [I have come back to this topic throughout my academic career, although often from different perspectives as my experience changes. I talk about it a bit more here. Most recently I’ve worked with Dr David Errickson to consider the impact of social media on displaying human remains, even for teaching purposes]. The conclusions of this research partly led me to the development of my educational 3D models and spin-out company whereby I established a range of user-friendly 3D digital bone models (Dactyl), which are completely interactive and accompanied by reference notes and a supporting website [In June of this year, I wound down my company. Over time, I was applying the methodological approaches it developed to a greater range of contexts, and realised that the best thing to do for the discipline was the step away from commercialising this, and just roll it out for free]. The software runs on an iPad so that students are able to use them in lecture theatres, lab sessions, and importantly, also at home [This was before Teesside University launched our Future Facing Learning initiative which resulted in all new UG students receiving an iPad and a range of apps to supporting learning and teaching. Having gone through the experience of developing learning sessions using my own app, I felt so much more prepared for leading the work of the FFL].

Previous work has shown that students of anatomy display high levels of satisfaction with technology- and computer-enhanced learning (Bridge et al., 2014; Fazal-Ur-Rehman et al., 2012; Fonseca et al., 2015) and can exhibit improved exam results (Weitzel, 2014). Nonetheless, the value depends greatly on the nature of the software used, for example, the degree of immersion (Bridge et al., 2014). This is also related to the effectiveness of the platform’s user interface (Trelease, 1996) [These two points have been backed up by some really interesting practical research recently, with Eraña-Rojas and colleagues using context-rich practical interdisciplinary activities and Mayne and Green have shown the potential of using VR in to simulate crime scenes. Both papers argued for the importance of applied practical work for student learning, albeit using different modes to provide this to the students. Others are also appreciating this, and a recent paper by Guo et al. in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine described how forensic medicine course in China was completed redesigned to incorporate more of this element. And it’s not just learners who benefit – the recent (Nov 2020) Health Education England report also notes the role technology-enhanced simulation can play in improving patient safety and modernising the workforce]. In my experience, most digital approaches to teaching osteology require additional demonstration and tutoring for the students (and staff) in their use, particularly for their first time. For example, Fonseca et al (2015) note this with the introduction of digital microscopy slides, while my work at Teesside in the use of Second Life has shown that students require up to half a day to become accustomed to the software before they can even begin any educational activity [Whatever happened to Second Life? We used this to provide students with a simulated forensic archaeological mass grave scenario to work through. The students role-played the various experts (after doing some readings before) and we had disciplinary experts from all over Europe pop in to contribute]. Research by Attardi and Rogers (2015) concluded that computer-assisted teaching had little impact on the results of students’ exams. Further, work by Lombardi et al (2014) on human anatomy and physiology students demonstrated that those who used plastic models scored better in their exams than those who used virtual tools. Although this contradicts my desire to work with technology in the classroom, the likely cause of the published results is that the plastic models oversimplify the anatomical system of interest. While this may better prepare students for exams, it also reduces the amount of inquiry-based learning undertaken.

Creating 3D digitisations of skeletons and skeletal elements using scanning technology allows for scale replications of bones to be used as an educational resource. These digital collections can be easily stored on portable memory devices and shared externally between institutions around the world (Niven et al 2009) and are ideal for institutions who cannot increase their physical teaching space (Attardi and Rogers, 2015). They are also more easily interrogated from multiple (possibly unlimited) perspectives (Attardi and Rogers, 2015; Richards-Rissetto et al., 2012). The benefits of portable devices for students (particularly those working in a professional context) has been demonstrated for medical students (Finn and Scott, 2011). Instant access to medical and clinical information and resources was argued by placement students to be beneficial for conducting quick research, resolving queries and explaining information to patients (Finn and Scott, 2011). In forensic anthropology these digitisations have been used in a quantitative manner for determining osteo-biographical information (Decker et al 2011).

It could be argued that there is little benefit to learners of using technology for the sake of it, but rather the real benefit is when it expands the possibilities for learning and enhancing the student experience. Here at Teesside University undergraduate degrees in forensic science, forensic biology and crime scene science are offered, as is postgraduate provision. Skeletal anatomy and osteology form a component of many of the modules offered on these degrees, but does not form a degree in its own right. Therefore, those teaching forensic anthropology in this context attempt to teach the subject to students who may not have a real interest in the subject, or a desire to develop a career associated with it. There are also a number of additional pedagogical challenges, including: limited prior osteological experience, limited lecture and lab time to cover the fundamental osteological and anthropology content, limited opportunity for fieldwork, large class sizes and known issues associated with the three-dimensional comprehension of bone morphology. As has been argued already, forensic anthropology is a hands-on discipline with a core that focuses on the skeleton. Therefore, it is necessary that human remains are handled. It therefore seemed that there were technological solutions to these particular teaching and learning challenges that I was facing [One of the consequences of the COVID-induced shift to online/remote delivery, is the increasing visibility of these digital resources. There are lots that are available, from YouTube channels like Forensic 365 through to podcasts like the Forensic Anthropology Companion, from osteometric assessment apps like OsteoSort through to the skeletal models that we and colleagues from Durham University put up on Sketchfab, and we discussed their use in our recent Editorial in Forensic Science International (‘Forensic undergraduate education during and after the COVID-19 imposed lockdown: Strategies and reflections from India and the UK’). What interests me though, as a digital enthusiast, is how little any of this has actually been evaluated in terms of student engagement, retention and attainment. As we note in our Editorial, the adoption of these resources was forced upon us, it was not a free choice, and as such we still do not know the pedagogical implications].

Teaching that is supported by technology has a number of real benefits for the student learning experience [I know I’m a bit biased, so I’ll say that this has been backed up with data from two student surveys we ran this semester]. Positive examples of the benefits to learning that have been recorded include: the ability to learn and study away from the classroom, the opportunity for greater ‘trial and error’ practice, exposure to a wider diversity of problems and scenarios, the opportunity for unsupervised practice and more variety in teaching styles (Bradley, 2006; Bridge et al. 2014; Fazal-Ur-Rehman et al., 2012 [This last point, about variety of teaching styles, also played out when in the last academic year, I assessed and reported in FSI: Synergy on the impact of using Twine, where we could see an improvement in student understanding of the subject partly as a result of varying the style and format of learning]). Further, it has been noted that the use of computers and technology can make subjects more appealing to those who may not be fully engaged with the subject (Fazal-Ur-Rehman et al., 2012), as is in our case. Virtual imaging tools can also help with accurate profiling of human skeletal remains (Decker et al 2011), and study supported by tablet devices, video and digital imaging allows the learner to understand skeletal anatomy in an interactive environment thereby increasing their retention of information and deep-level understanding.

What do you reckon? This formed part of a portfolio of work I needed to produce to convinced more knowledgeable people than me that I am actively engaged with the business of enhancing learning and teaching. When I wrote this, not many people were actually pushing digital pedagogies forward, but now everyone’s an expert! But not really – just because you know how to use a tool, doesn’t mean you know how to use it effectively. Despite the increased visibility of digitally supported remote learning, there have not been many publications in my field that have engaged with research or evaluations. Much feedback I get from colleagues is anecdotal, which is great and useful, but difficult to base strategic or resourcing decisions on. I’ve been pushing the use of digital tools for years, as my colleagues will attest, but I do like a nice pilot study first. We’ve got a big one going now, in the Allied Health Professions, as we assess the potential of a new piece of software for simulating healthcare case studies. I’m hopefully (and ever a ‘glass is half-full’ kind of person…) that in the next academic year, we’ll be able to do much more face-to-face delivery again and I’m really interested to see how much of these digital resources we continue to use, and in what capacity. 



Attardi, S.M. and Rogers, K.A. 2015. Design and implementation of an online systemic human anatomy course with laboratory. Anatomical Sciences Education 8: 53-62.

Berryman, H.E. and Lahren, C.H. 1984. The advantages of simulated crime scenes in teaching forensic anthropology. Journal of Forensic Sciences 29: 699-700.

Bradley, P. 2006. The history of simulation in medical education and possible future directions. Medical Education 40: 254-262.

Bridge, P., Gunn, T., Kastanis, L., Pack, D., Rowntree, P., Starkey, D., Mahoney, G., Berry, C., Braithwaite, V. and Wilson-Stewart, K. 2014. The development and evaluation of a medical imaging training immersive environment. Journal of Medical Radiation Sciences DOI: 10.1002/jmrs.60.

Decker, S. J., Davy-Jow, S. L., Ford, J. M., Hilbelink, D. R. 2011. Virtual determination of sex: metric and nonmetric traits of the adult pelvis from 3D computed tomography models. Journal of Forensic Sciences 56: 1107-1114.

Fazal-Ur-Rehman, Khan, S.N. and Yunus, S.M. 2012. Students, perception of computer assisted teaching and learning of anatomy – in a scenario where cadavers are lacking. Biomedical Research 23: 215-218.

Finn, G.M. and Scott, L. 2011. Timely and tiny: supporting remote learning through the use of personal digital assistants. Medical Education 45: 521-522.

Fonseca, F.-P., Santos-Silva, A.-R., Lopes, M.-A., de Almeida, O.-P. and Vargas, P.-A. 2015. Transition from glass to digital slide microscopy in the teaching of oral pathology in a Brazilian dental school. Medicina Oral Patologia Oral y Cirugia Bucal 20: e17-e22.

Gowland, R.L. and Thompson, T.J.U. 2013. Human identity and identification. Cambridge University Press: GB.

Lombardi, S.A., Hicks, R.E., Thompson, K.V. and Marbach-Ad, G. 2014. Are all hands-on activities equally effective? Effect of using plastic models, organ dissections, and virtual dissections on student learning and perceptions. Advances in Physiology Education 38: 80-86.

Magalhaes, T., Dinis-Oliveira, R.J. And Santos, A. 2014. Teaching forensic medicine in the University of Porto. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 25: 45-48.

Niven, L., Steele, T., Finke, H., Gernat, T., Hublin, J. 2009. Virtual skeletons: using a structured light scanner to create a 3D faunal comparative collection. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 2018-2023.

Richards-Rissetto, H., Remondino, F., Agugiaro, G., Robertsson, J., von Schwerin, J. and Girardi, G. 2012. Kinect and 3D GIS in Archaeology. In: Proceedings of the VSMM 2012 Virtual Systems in the Information Society 2 – 5 September 2012 Milan, Italy. IEEE: USA. pp331-337.

Thompson, T.J.U. 2003. The quality and appropriateness of forensic anthropological education in the UK. Public Archaeology 3: 88-94.

Trelease, R.B. 1996. Toward virtual anatomy: a sterioscopic 3-D interactive multimedia computer program for cranial osteology. Clinical Anatomy 9: 269-272.

Weitzel, M.A. 2014. Introducing forensic anthropology to the Criminal Justice Department: designing an effective curriculum for the virtual field and laboratory. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 25: 342-353.

I'm a Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology at Teesside University.