As Classes Go Digital, Slides Database Keeps Students Learning

A microscopic view of acute myeloid leukemia blasts, with Auer rods visible to the left. Photo: Stephen M. Wiesner

In the past few weeks, Universities across the country have moved all in-person classes to online instruction, looking for a way to ensure students continue to learn while limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As instructors raced to adapt their course material to an online format, Stephen Wiesner, PhD, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Medical Laboratory Science Program, saw an opportunity to help. Wiesner made a digital database of high-resolution pathology microscope slides he had developed freely accessible through May 31 to instructors who need to train their students to spot diseases in laboratory samples.

Wiesner said the idea came when an instructor who had seen him present at a past conference reached out to him asking if the database were still available. He realized that it was an opportunity to help his fellow instructors—many of whom rely on boxes of physical slides—as they navigated the sudden transition to online teaching.

“I asked, ‘is this in response to COVID?’” he said. “This was a solution to people who might otherwise not have been able to teach their students. It just made sense.”

Access to slides is crucial in the Medical Laboratory Science Program, part of the Center for Allied Health Programs. The program trains the next generation of medical laboratory scientists, whose work plays a crucial role in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of patients. Without access to pathology slides, these students—both at the U and in similar programs around the world—may find themselves stuck, unable to progress with their degree.

“This is a professional degree program; you have to have the psychomotor skills, you have to have the knowledge, and you have to be able to recognize pathologies in order to do your job,” Wiesner said. “When students aren’t on campus and they’re not practicing and they’re not preparing well, the alternative is delayed graduation.”

Wiesner developed the slides database a little over 10 years ago, at the time to ensure students at both the UMN Twin Cities and UMN Rochester campuses could complete their coursework despite there being too few physical slide collections to go around. His first use of the database showed students actually did better in the course when given access to digital slides than they did with the physical slides.

He soon made slides available to others through a licensing option with UMN Technology Commercialization. Since then, the database has been licensed consistently by a number of other educational programs in the Midwest and several others as far away as Australia.

Use of the tool has surged since Wiesner made it freely available. While he’s excited to know students will continue learning and progressing in their degree as courses adapt to the coronavirus, Wiesner hopes his choice will lead to longer-term benefits as educational programs embrace new formats for instruction.

“Down the road, I would hope this spurs a little more interest in online teaching and can transform a lot of what we do traditionally into something that’s a little bit more accessible and actually more effective,” he said.

To access the slides database, choose “MnSCU or UMN License (for COVID-19)” on the licensing page.