Is virtual dissection an effective learning tool?
For decades, zoology students in colleges have studied the internal workings of animals by cutting them open. But a set of guidelines, recently issued by the University Grants Commission, overturns this 90-year-old practice. The move has sparked a controversy. Animal rights and wildlife activists have welcomed guidelines while some scientists have slammed them.
The apex body for standardising education in India has issued the guidelines to all universities and colleges that run life sciences and zoology courses, saying animal dissection in their laboratories should be discontinued in a phased manner. The practice is to be replaced by field visits and digital alternatives. The guidelines, which were posted on the UGC Website on November 24, are immediately effective. It applies to all universities that are funded by UGC. The guidelines will not affect medicine courses, regulated by the Medical Council of India.
According to the guidelines, students at the undergraduate level (B.Sc.) will not able to use animals during experimentation and for class work. However, cutting open of one species for demonstration purpose by faculty is allowed. At the post graduate level, students are allowed to dissect two animal species.
The recommendations were formulated by an expert committee, consisting of zoologists and animal rights activists.
As part of the immediate actions, the body wants all institutes to strictly adhere to the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. The former bans use of endangered species for dissection, particularly frogs and sharks. The latter requires that experiments on animals are avoided wherever it is possible to do so—in medical schools, hospitals, colleges and the like if other teaching devices such as books, models and films may equally suffice.”
The guidelines note that an increased number of institutes and students have led to indiscriminate use of animals for experimentation. The guidelines further note that most of these animals are caught from the wild.
Experts divided over guidelines
While animal rights activists are rejoicing, the guidelines have cast a shadow of gloom over the scientific community. Chaitanya K, science policy adviser to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, welcomed the move, saying the guidelines had been pending for long. He added that around 15 universities have already stopped using animals for dissection because of students’ plea to not harm other living organisms.
K Muralidhar, former head of zoology department at Delhi University, slammed the guidelines saying it’s almost like asking engineering students to never build a house and lay a road and learn all of it on computer.
He says the guidelines were vague in certain parts. The portion which deals with dissection in post graduate studies states that students will be allowed to dissect specific species. “Who decides these specific species?” asks Muralidhar. It’s also not clear how many of these species will be allowed in post graduate courses. The guidelines seem to vaguely hint that two species will be allowed.
Muralidhar adds that animal ethics is a very philosophical issue. “The guidelines should be based on some scientific basis.” He says one way to do this would be to look at which animals have pain receptors. “Cockroach doesn’t have pain receptors, and it doesn’t experience pain, while mice and most other higher animals do. If this was the logic used, I would still be satisfied,” Muralidhar says.
Deepak Pental, head of genetics at Delhi University, says that some dissection is definitely essential for the growth of students. He says, “There really is no indiscriminate use of animals, as the guidelines seem to suggest. Thirty years ago you could say there was unregulated catching of animals from the wild, but today the situation is different.”
Muralidhar says science is self-regulatory and there was no need for these guidelines. “Most institutes have institutional ethics bodies and breeding houses from which they obtain animals for experimentation. As long as we are breeding our own animals and following all required ethical procedures, why should there be a problem.” He says that universities are facing the brunt of these rules because of miscreant colleges that do not follow rules and catch animals from the wild. “No law or guidelines will affect these people. They will continue to violate the law no matter what,” he adds.
When asked whether phasing out of animal dissection from courses affect the output of students opting for research, M A Akbarsha, director and chair of Mahatma Gandhi-Doerenkamp Center (MGDC) for Alternatives to Use of Animals in Life Science Education at Bharathidasan University in Tiruchirappalli, says less than 10 per cent post graduate students go on to do their PhD, and they will most likely not study the organisms they dissect in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, so the new rules will not change anything. He adds that the alternatives available for dissection are equally good and achieve what dissections do. He is a member of the expert committee.
The guidelines have called for substituting dissection with field trips, and use of models, charts and digital alternatives. Digital alternatives include teaching anatomy with the help of films/videos and dissection software. It remains to be seen how effective these software will be in teaching the basics of dissection. “From virtual dissections that students can perform on-screen, to full virtual reality simulations of clinical technique with 3-D and tactile facilities, the possibilities are limited only by technical and imaginative boundaries,” says B K Sharma, member of the UGC expert committee and head of the department of zoology at R L Saharia Government PG College at Kaladera in Jaipur. “Computer-assisted learning can also offer much greater depth and breadth to the learning experience. For example, morphology between species can be compared with the click of the computer mouse, or histology and other fields introduced to the practical lesson. An image can be easily magnified or reduced, circulatory or nervous systems dissolved or highlighted in 3-D, muscles activated, and even qualities such as the opacity of organs controlled in order to more fully appreciate structure and structural relationship,” he adds.
Muralidhar, on the other hand, says that computer simulations will never achieve what dissections do because factors like how much pressure to apply can only be learnt through actual dissection.
Sharma informs that MDS University at Ajmer in Rajasthan completely discontinued dissection of animals in their institute and the University of Rajasthan is expected do the same. In his own college, Sharma uses software like Pro Dissector Frog, which is a virtual dissection software for frog. The software illustrates the anatomy of the frog in layers that can be “stripped off”.
Sharma says the students’ response has been good. “Students are loving it. They prefer learning anatomy through digital media than formalin-fixed or dead frogs.”
However, these software can be expensive. A single CD ROM of Pro Dissector Frog, supplied by US-based Schneider and Morse Group, is priced at $100.
Sharma says this is much cheaper than breeding animals in a laboratory. UGC will not provide separate funds to universities to buy the software. They will have to accommodate the expenses in the funds that are given to them for academic purposes. The education body will however provide support to universities in the form of workshops.