Microsoft word - medteach-_short comm_.rtf

Non-directive, self-instructive media in the field of behavioural
toxicology and addiction

Wim Westera and Raymond J. M. Niesink
This paper presents the design of the self-instructive multimedia program
“Behavioural Toxicological Research”. This computer program offers
professionals in health care, nutrition, clinical psychology and treatment of
drug addicts a basic understanding of neurobehavioural research and
addiction research. The program focuses on the cognitive aspects of
scientific research, emphasising the strategic decisions, domain-specific
choices and discussions on validity that go with the process of designing
and interpreting scientific research. Results from both formative and
summative evaluations of the program are briefly discussed.

In everyday life, the human body is frequently exposed to toxic substances
that affect the central and peripheral nervous system and, subsequently,
give rise to unwanted changes in behaviour. Professionals in the field, that
is policymakers and professional practitioners in health care, nutrition,
clinical psychology and drug abuse treatment are continuously faced with
new outcomes of scientific research. To enable these professionals to
assess and evaluate such research outcomes and to search for, criticise,
value and process recent knowledge and opinions, they should have a
basic understanding of scientific theories and applied research
methodologies. To meet these demands the Open University of the
Netherlands developed a 100 hours self-instructive introductory course for
non-researchers: “Neurobehavioural toxicology and addiction: food, drugs
and environment”. The course is designed for under-graduates and
graduates in the fields of toxicology, nutrition, psychology, medicine and
health sciences. It forms an excellent source of information to anyone
professionally concerned with neurobehavioural toxicology, psychology,
nutrition or medicine.
A central part of the course is a multimedia program on cd-rom that offers
a complex, problem-based learning environment (Westera et al. (1997)). In
the sequel of the paper we will focus on the design principles and
characteristics of this computer program.
Course objectives and contents
The main goal of the course is to learn how to apply scientific knowledge
and methods by analysing, assessing and solving (possible)
neurobehavioural problems. The course deals with the entire range of
neurobehavioural toxicology in humans and animals, including biological
(physiological and biochemical), psychological and social aspects of
undesirable behavioural changes caused by toxicants. It also covers
neurobehavioural effects of natural food components, food contaminants
and food additives, drug abuse and effects of environmental chemicals like
metals, pesticides and organic solvents on the nervous system.
The multimedia program
In the multimedia program, students are set the task to approach a
general health problem and study it by way of a simulated research
process. The computer program focuses on the cognitive aspects of the
scientific process only: that is, all components that involve actual
experimentations and measuring activities, like handling animals or
administering injections, are omitted in the program. It supports the
understanding of basic concepts, theories and research methods, and it
allows for practising scientific reasoning and interpreting outcomes. The
program offers 4 authentic case problems in the field of neurobehavioural
toxicology and the field of addiction research:
-‘Does exposure to low levels of mercury affect cognitive functions?’
-‘Are subtle effects of lead during brain development responsible for
behavioural disturbances?’
-‘Is Ecstasy an addictive drug?’
-‘To what extent is naltrexone, an opiate antagonist, effective as
pharmacotreatment for alcohol dependence?’
During the course, students are invited to investigate 2 out of 4 tutored
cases at least (some 6 hours of work), but are free to do more. After
completion of the cases, the cd-rom program can be linked to the internal
network of the Open University of the Netherlands to carry out the
examination. For this purpose, a new case is randomly generated from a
database of examination cases.
Design principles
The multimedia program allows students to design and evaluate their own
research processes. The program design is strongly based on theories of
problem-based learning (Barrows et al. (1980)), and theories for
constructivist and experiential learning (Brown et al. (1989), Duffy et al.
(1992)). That is, students are faced with a rich and complex environment
that allows for sensible experiences and supports versatile, explorative
and individualised student behaviours. In addition to the domain related
skills, the acquisition of higher level academic skills, such as critical
thinking, creative thinking, reasoning, dealing with conflicting data,
reflection and evaluation is stimulated by such an approach.
Process design
After selection of a case the investigation is divided up into five
subsequent stages, each of which focus on a simple question.
Step 1. Problem analysis (What is already known from the literature?)
In this stage, students have to familiarise themselves with the subject by
browsing relevant literature. Students will have to survey what is known
about the subject from previous experiments and what aspects demand
further research. To this end, the computer provides a database of some
five hundred relevant state-of-the-art literature abstracts on the subject.
Step 2. Problem definition (What should be investigated?) Next, students should try to translate the case-problem into a sensible and testable research hypothesis. An essential feature of this stage is that students specify their hypotheses in their own words as free text input. An intelligent text-analysing routine instantly checks and comments on the student’s texts. This feature allows the students to gradually improve their hypotheses. Step 3. Experimental set-up (How should this be measured?) Students are asked to model the experiment they want to carry out. For this purpose, the program offers a broad set of research facilities including various modalities of experimental human and experimental animal research, clinical research and epidemiological research. After completion, an intelligent routine checks whether a satisfactory match of the proposed design can be made to a number of built-in research protocols. Step 4. Experiment (What can be learned from the experimental data?) The actual experimentations and measuring activities are skipped. Instead, they are represented by existing authentic, experimental data in the form of tables, figures, texts, etceteras. Step 5. Discussion (What is the conclusion for the case assignment?) The experimental data should be interpreted from the perspective of the specified hypothesis. Using scientific evidence the students should finally discuss the concerned case assignment. At this stage students receive feedback on their conclusions and on the way they dealt with the investigation.
Technical implementation
The interaction design is largely based on the standardised interface
objects and style of the Open University of the Netherlands. We will briefly
review some of the program objects.
Figure 1 The interface showing the tutor and a literature abstract. - The electronic coach (tutor) The electronic tutor provides various kinds of non-directive support like assignments, instructions, hints and feedback. Great effort has been put in the quality and level of detail of the feedback. On several occasions, the coach utilises an intelligent routine to analyse the inputs of the students and hence provides tailor-made comments. - Research tools Students are frequently asked to write down their findings in the built-in electronic report. It is the contents of this report-tool that is used as an input for the feedback routines. In addition, students specify their desired experiment with the help of forms in a protocol-design tool. On completion of these forms the protocol tool calculates the best match of the student’s protocol against the available built-in protocols. Special mention deserve the animated audio-visual sequences that are available for each built-in protocol (fig. 2). Figure 2 The interface showing an audio-visual sequence of a research procedure. Once an experiment has been decided on, the outcomes of this experiment become accessible in the display-tool. These experimental results may include graphs, tables or even recorded interviews (see fig. 3).
Figure 3 The interface during the experiment stage.
- Additional supportive tools
To enhance the self-instructive nature of the materials the program
contains three hypertext systems. First, there is an extended help facility
for supporting the operation of the program. It comprises explanatory texts
as well as animated, audio-visual instructions. The second hypertext
system concerns a glossary, comprising over a thousand specialist terms
in the field of (neuro)behavioural toxicology and pharmacology. The third
system concerns a database of literature abstracts. In various texts in the
program, students are referred to relevant literature via hotwords. These
three hypertext systems, that are partly linked to each other, constitute a
powerful tool to provide just-in-time information.
Evaluation and prospects
During the development, formative evaluation has been used to adapt and
improve the program. By now the 1.0 release has been utilised by some
fifty students as part of the academic degree program ‘Food, nutrition and
toxicology’. The majority of the students appreciate the clear and simple
way of operation, the built-in didactic support and the quality and depth of
the contents. They judge the program to be highly efficient and quite
appropriate as a self-instructive educational means and indicate that it
enhanced their understanding of the domain. Indeed, most students
manage to produce high-quality and substantiated solutions to the case
problems in only a few hours.
The program has been designed case-independent; that is, code and data
are strictly separated. This allows extension with other cases or even
extension to other disciplines, provided that the research from these
disciplines can be fit into five basic steps and provided that sufficient
authentic data are available. In the near future, we will develop some new
examination cases; this allows us to make some of the existing
examination cases accessible for training purposes.


Barrows, H.N. & Tamblyn, R.M. (1980) Problem-based learning, an
approach to medical education (
Springer Publishing Company).
Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989) Situated cognition and the
culture of learning, Educational Researcher, 18, p. 32.
Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen, D.H. (1992) Constructivism and the technology of
instruction: A conversation
(Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum).
Westera, W., Niesink, R.J.M., Vos, M.M.H.L.S. & Berkhout, J. (1997)
Behavioural Toxicological Research, Multimedia program, Open University
of the Netherlands. Minimum requirements: 386-processor, MS-Windows
3.1, 4 Mb RAM, CD-ROM player, audio, 6 Mb of free disk space, VGA-
compatible. Literature abstracts by courtesy of the National Library of
Medicin, Silverplatter and the American Psychological Association.
(More information at
Wim Westera is a physicist and educational technologist at the
Educational Technology Expertise Centre of the Open University of the
Netherlands (E-mail [email protected]).
Raymond Niesink is a pharmacologist and toxicologist at the Department
of Natural and Technical Sciences of the Open University of the
Netherlands (E-mail [email protected]).



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