The Virtual Pharmacology Lab — A Repository of Free Educational Resources to Support Animal-free Pharmacology Teaching

The new repository will support pharmacology practical teaching by
promoting the sharing and re-use of existing pharmacology resources

David Dewhurst and Ross Ward

Teaching pharmacological knowledge, principles and practical skills through student participation in laboratory practical classes is considered important in the majority of university pharmacology degree courses. Many such practical classes use either isolated tissues or in vivo animal preparations. Typically, students will work on a preparation, usually set-up by a technician, and follow a prescribed schedule of experiments designed to achieve specific learning objectives. There has been a tendency for such classes to become less explorative and, in the face of that, some universities have turned to computer based simulations, either to support, or in some instances, replace, laboratory-based  classes. There  have been numerous evaluations of the educational effectiveness of computer-based alternatives and, in the main, the results suggest that they can achieve many of the learning objectives of practical classes that involve the use of animal preparations.1,2,3 Typically, the computer simulations display datatraces, previously recorded from a specific pharmacological preparation, on the computer screen, in a form comparable to that in the real experiment (e.g. contractions of a perfused mammalian heart would be presented on a display which emulates a chart recorder). Data presentation is structured around a series of experiments designed by an experienced and knowledgeable tutor to cover the main learning objectives. The simulations often also contain descriptions of the underlying pharmacology, the preparation, apparatus and methods, and include student tasks and self-assessment questions with feedback, making them potentially suitable for self directed study. They may be used: as direct replacements for animal experiments; to reduce animal use through better preparation of students before participation in a live practical class; to enable students to collect additional data after the live class; and/or as a back-up, should the student miss the class or be unable to collect suitable data. The process of developing a computer simulation involves aggregating various components or learning objects (LOs) by using a software package, and then publishing a compiled, run-time version that renders it non-editable by the user. While this protects the developer from unlawful or inappropriate use of their content, it also prevents teachers from tailoring the programs to their specific needs. The main feedback from users is a desire to be able to modify the content of the programs. It is hoped that the Virtual Pharmacology Lab, by making the individual LOs available to teachers in usable formats, will encourage greater use of alternative methods and further reduce animal use in teaching.

The repository

The Virtual Pharmacology Lab (www.virtualpharmacologylab. com) is an open access repository of quality-assured LOs, designed to support pharmacology practical teaching by promoting the sharing and reuse of existing pharmacology resources. The LOs are the disaggregated components of eleven existing computer-based simulations of practical pharmacology classes developed by one of the authors (brief descriptions at The disaggregation process has been described previously,4,5 and typically, disaggregation of each computer program  yields 50–100 LOs. Currently, the repository contains >650 LOs, including:

— data-traces: response of a particular tissue preparation to a change in experimental parameters (e.g. administration of a drug/drug combination, electrical stimulation);
— text-files: e.g. a description of an experimental protocol for a particular experiment, the experimental method or the underlying pharmacology;
— images, diagrams and illustrations: usually combined with text to describe the preparation, underlying pharmacology, apparatus and method;
— video: perhaps used to illustrate how a preparation is dissected and set-up in an organ bath, and how pharmacological agent(s) are administered to elicit a tissue response; and
— interactive student tasks, activities and self assessment questions.

There are also a small number of videos depicting laboratory procedures, which were donated by the University of Queensland. The disaggregated learning objects are stored in a database and tagged with descriptive metadata, including author, title, and a brief description. Tagging the data in the repository with meaningful metadata enables users to search the database by keyword, e.g. they could search for all data-traces and other LOs relating to a specific animal preparation or for all LOs relating to the actions of a specific drug or drug combination.


Access to the repository (www.virtualpharmacologylab. com) is open to anyone, and no log-in is required. Use of the LOs is covered by a Creative Commons Licence, granting free use for non-commercial teaching purposes, preventing the creation of derivatives, and requesting suitable acknowledgement of the source of the data. The user — i.e. a teacher or a student — accesses the repository via a web interface (Figure 1).

Dewhurst figure 1

Currently, this contains a welcome message briefly explaining what the repository does and defining the target audience (mainly pharmacology teachers). There is a keyword ‘Search’ facility (box 1), into which a teacher could enter a term (such as an animal species or the name of a drug). The search may then be refined, currently by selecting one of the eleven computer simulation programs (preparations) from which the initial data have been derived (box 2). Once those two options have been selected, clicking ‘Go’ will return the search results. For example, if the search term ‘acetylcholine’ is entered in box 1 (Figure 2) and ‘all preparations’ selected in box 2 (i.e. unrefined search) then 51 LOs are returned — a mixture of data-traces, images, animations, interactive animations, HTML text files, quiz questions, calculations and video. If the user had refined the search by selecting just one of the preparations in box 2, then the number of LOs returned would decrease. For example, a refined search for ‘acetylcholine’ and the preparation ‘Blood pressure (in vivo)’ returns four LOs, and for the preparation ‘Ileum (in vitro)’, the search returns nine LOs.Each LO has a descriptive title indicating to the user what the learning object is and a brief description providing more detail.
dewhurst figure 2

Clicking on the title of one of the LOs shown in Figure 2, e.g. ‘Effect of acetylcholine administered to SCG, electrical stimulation on, in cat nictitating membrane preparation’, leads to a screen display of that LO which, in this instance, is an image of the data-trace (Figure 3).

dewhurst figure 3

For each LO there is a brief description and a web-link (url) to the file in the repository. The url may be embedded, as an active link, in a tutor’s own teaching materials, such as in a document (e.g. a laboratory schedule) or in a PowerPoint presentation, thus enabling that teacher to combine LOs from the repository with their own teaching materials to create a bespoke learning resource. Right-clicking on the image itself (a JPEG file) will expose a menu with several options (e.g. open image; save image; copy image), thus enabling the user to download that file. The display also shows from which preparation the image is derived (in this case ‘cat nictitating membrane’) and a brief summary of the metadata. Users are requested to complete a short questionnaire and the feedback from that will inform future developments.

Conclusion and future developments

The developments described will provide teachers (and students) working in university departments of biomedical/life sciences with free access to a repository of quality-assured, digital LOs, including numerous data sets of traces from animal experiments. It is hoped that making resources available in more granular formats may provide a more acceptable route toward the use of the computer simulations in university practical class teaching. This would be facilitated, if teachers were able to effectively combine LOs from the repository with their own resources, e.g. an image, a set of quiz questions, a short video-clip or an interactive animation, to create a bespoke teaching resource for their students that is tailored to their specific needs. Future developments will depend very much on the level of interest in the repository from the user community. If there is sufficient interest, then the intention is to add more functionality, such as: an easy-to-use upload facility and metadata form; a system for ‘holding’ new LOs pending user-led quality assurance processes; a mechanism for downloading resources (rather than simply embedding a link); a quality-rating system; RSS feed to automatically notify the user community of new content; integration with social media such as Twitter and Facebook; and mobile device compatibility, so that users can access the repository via a Smartphone or tablet computer.


The authors would like to thank the Doerenkamp-Zbinden Foundation for their kind financial support of this project.

Author for correspondence:
Professor David Dewhurst
Director of Educational Information Services and Professor of e-Learning
Learning Technology Section
College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine
University of Edinburgh
Hugh Robson Building
15 George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9XD



1 Knight, A. (2007). The effectiveness of humane teaching methods in veterinary education. ALTEX 24, 91–109.
2 Patronek, G.J. & Rauch, A. (2007). Systematic review of comparative studies examining alternatives to the harmful use of animals in biomedical education. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230, 37–43.
3 Gruber, F.P. & Dewhurst, D.G. (2004). Alternatives to animal experimentation in biomedical education. ALTEX 21, Suppl. 1, 33–48.
4 Ellaway, R., Dewhurst, D. & Cromar, S. (2004). Challenging the mortality of computer assisted learning materials in the life sciences: The RECAL Project. Bioscience Education E-journal 3, 3–7. Available at:  (Accessed 01.03.14).
5 Dewhurst, D., Ellaway, R. & Cromar, S. (2005). RECAL: Creating computer-based alternatives using a sustainable learning objects approach. ALTEX 23, Special Issue 2, 54

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