Through the development of a 'virtual slidebox', an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC)-funded project has made the study of microscopy exciting once again for a digitally engaged body of tertiary students.

The project, 'The Virtual Slidebox - a new learning paradigm for exploring the microscopic world' was led by Associate Professor Camile Farah of the School of Dentistry and backed by project team members Associate Professor Paul Mills, Dr Rachel Aland, Professor Sunil Lakhani and Dr Terry Maybury.

Microscopy is the first port of call for students who are keen to learn about a micro-world beyond human vision but according to Associate Professor Farah, students find the analogue microscope an excessive physical and mental strain.

Students don't find examining tissue specimens with a light microscope interesting, exciting, or highly rewarding, especially without timely support and guidance from a tutor. Even when students are shown how to use the microscope they complain about the quality and consistency of its use, Associate Professor Farah said.

Educational administrators have also worried about its cost, from the perspectives of maintenance, capital investment and the number of support personnel involved so this unease has made the study of analogue microscopy ripe for technological and pedagogical innovation, he said.

The project team's answer was to develop a box of more than 1500 slides from oral histology, oral pathology, veterinary histology, veterinary pathology, human histology and human pathology for student use.

By digitally scanning the original glass slides, virtual microscopy makes the data more accessible and user-friendly through electronic applications.

The software required to view the virtual slides is free to download from the Aperio website, making it very easy for anyone to run the application on their computer.

The software also includes other utilities including built-in measurement tools and data analysis, and a digital camera whereby static digital images of defined areas of the virtual slide can be taken and emailed instantaneously for professional opinion.

The slide box was introduced to histology and pathology students at The University of Queensland since both are image-intensive disciplines.

The advantages of virtual microscopy over traditional microscopy include online access; reduced infrastructure costs; an enhanced capacity for collaborative learning among students, and among disciplines; along with the provision of an excellent learning tool for regional learning centres, Associate Professor Farah said.

The slidebox has had great success in University of Queensland applications so far and the team hopes to see other universities adopt the practice across Australia.