Virtual multi-user environment to provide surgical training and physiological education via the Web

Manchester 01 June 2000Collaborative, interactive learning and teaching on a standard PC or any workstation platform across the World Wide Web, addressing medical or graduate students, hospitals, schools and higher educational institutions. This is the overall aim of WebSET, a Fifth Framework IST project funded by the European Commission, to design Web-based standard educational tools, specifically for surgical training and physiological education. The consortium of ten partners will develop a cost-effective suite of three-dimensional virtual learning appliances, based on open technology and standards, and produce educational components that will serve as building blocks for applications in a variety of alternative areas. Continuous assessment performed by targeted user groups, has to guarantee that the WebSET environment lives up to the required user needs. The team also plans to provide an e-commerce outlet on the Web to display and sell the objects, generated by the project.


Extensible Markup Language (XML) to generate document objects for the production of reusable information material, Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) ISO standard for the creation of 3D graphics, and Web3D technologies to design interactive features, constitute the programming tools to build the virtual multi-user environment. Fully integrated with the specific learning contents, the set-up will result in a series of comprehensive training packages for local as well as distributed use via the Web. The development of sophisticated avatars in order to represent the learning sessions participants in their different roles will facilitate the collaboration among users. WebSET enables trainees to access the learning tools anywhere and at anytime, either alone, so that no one is to check which errors have been made, or interacting with a teacher or other learners.

As for the surgical training aspect, the WebSET team intends to support and augment both pre-qualification lessons, learned by surgeons during training and in performing actual procedures, and refresher training for infrequently executed interventions. In this regard, the consortium is working with major European learning centres, such as the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Royal Belgian College of Surgeons. Minimally invasive, thoracic, and vascular surgery, and neurosurgery are the initially selected specialities. The clinical partners in WebSET indeed include a neurosurgical and laparoscopic surgery unit, respectively at Leeds General Infirmary and at St. Mary's in the United Kingdom. Although the training will not be as realistic as the actual operations or as complete as totally immersive virtual reality, the fidelity will be quite sufficient for a cost-effective learning and practising of procedures.

One of the project goals consists in identifying both a standard taxonomy for surgical learning and associated meta-data for surgical learning objects. In addition, a library of VRML anatomic and user interface components will be designed for reusability purposes. The aspect of physiological education will be addressed by the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Researchers will develop virtual worlds and Web pages to describe the morphology and the physiology of organs and living beings. In turn, the Slovenian Ministry of Education and Sport is responsible for the organisation of tests and evaluations of the training packages in schools via teachers and students, by making use of standard meta-data in the physiology discipline.

The WebSET team strongly insists on receiving assessment information from key end user groups in their fields at regular intervals, as the project evolves. In this respect, a special user group of appropriate participants from all over Europe, such as for instance the Medical School at the University of Athens, will be established. The hospital partners from their side have the task to define the WebSET exemplar application and provide clinical imaging as well as expertise in the design of the simulators. They will also determine target groups and validate the simulators. The overall project management is in the hands of the Victoria University of Manchester Visualisation Centre, that will co-ordinate the end-to-end utilisation scenario from authoring to use in five milestones. The Belgian and Austrian industrial partners, Space Application Services and Uma, will implement the 3D visualisation and interactive multi-media technologies, in close collaboration with the Manchester Visualisation Centre.

The finishing WebSET touch will consist of a composition tool based on XML, to enable the creation of packaged introduction texts, documentation files to accompany the module, and the establishment of an overall structure. This tool will equally serve as a framework for presenting the generated objects to potential buyers by means of an e-commerce outlet on the Internet. First, the interested public will have the opportunity to browse demonstration previews of the available WebSET objects. IDEC, a Greek Industrial Development and Education Centre, will install this service as a distributed application on the Web, mirroring at the other partners' sites to enhance e-commerce facilities. Genias, as the Dutch XML-expert, will be actively involved in all the stages of implementation, integration, exploitation, and dissemination. This partner is also hosting the official WebSET home page.

Leslie Versweyveld

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