We define alternatives as educational aids or teaching approaches that replace harmful animal use or complement existing humane education.

Humane education in the life sciences is:
progressive education for which the teaching objectives are met using humane, alternative methods
where animals are free from harm and students have freedom of conscience
education which encourages holistic perception and a respect for life.

Read also our Criticism of Harmful Animal Use.


Types of Alternatives

Models and simulators
Film and video
Multimedia computer simulation and virtual reality (VR)
Ethically sourced animal cadavers
Clinical practice
in vitro labs

Models and simulators

These range from inexpensive models and surgical training devices, right up to computerised mannequins. Basic models can contribute to the study of anatomy or facilitate the learning of good animal handling without animal stress and student anxiety. The diversity of surgical training devices available include models of skin, internal organs and limbs which can provide opportunities for students to master basic skills such as eye-hand co-ordination, the use of instruments, and techniques such as suturing. Waste organ training devices allow for the use of real tissue in the process. More complex products include mannekins used to train IV skills, intubation and catheterisation of animals, and critical care from resuscitation to thoracentesis. Computerised mannequins add another level of complexity and support to the effective training of students.

 

Film and video

Passive but effective as one part of the educational process, film and video can give good background and provide a quality visual alternative. Videos of professionally-performed dissections, for example, can often impart much more information to students than dissections performed by the students themselves, and can be used to train those students who need such skills in their careers before they do real dissections on ethically-sourced cadavers.

 

Multimedia computer simulation and virtual reality (VR)

The opportunities associated with the development of computer software in contributing to effective life science education have grown exponentially within the last few years. From virtual dissections that students can perform on-screen, to full virtual reality simulations of clinical technique with 3D and tactile facilities, the possibilities are limited only by technical and imaginative boundaries. Computer-assisted learning can also offer much greater depth and breadth to the learning experience. For example, morphology between species can be compared at the click of the computer mouse, or histology and other fields introduced to the practical lesson. An image can be easily magnified or reduced, circulatory or nervous systems dissolved away or highlighted in 3-D, muscles activated, and even qualities such as the opacity of organs controlled in order to more fully appreciate structure and structural relationship. The increased sensory experience and level of control in new software supports effective, quality learning. Some programmes include virtual laboratories with options for working through different experiments, and others can be customised by teachers to adapt them to the location and to specific teaching objectives. Students can also work at their own pace, repeat parts of the exercise and use the support material until they are confident with knowledge and technique, and be as self-directed as the structure of the course allows. The innovative nature of new technological developments can be exciting, which adds to the learning experience for students and is an important part of their informal training for professions where IT and computer skills will continue to play a major role. Wherever possible, however, computer simulation should be used in tandem with experience of living people or non-human animals so that technology is kept as a powerful tool, not an alternative to reality.

 

Student self-experimentation

For zoologists and medical and veterinary students the importance of practical work with the living body cannot be over-emphasised. Effective understanding of physiological processes can only be gained with at least some experience of the living body. The consenting student is an excellent experimental animal, and student self-experimentation is a non-invasive, humane alternative. The human body is of course the relevant reference object for medical students, and self-experimentation is used in many institutions as part of normal practice. But the human body can be used in all the life sciences. Such practicals range from simple experiments such as ingestion of a diuretic or performing exercise and then monitoring physiological and biochemical changes, to more complex tests such as nerve conduction velocity measurements with self-experimentation apparatus linked to appropriate computer software. The intense involvement and self-reference of such experiments make them highly memorable, as well as enjoyable.

 

Ethically sourced animal cadavers

For many zoology students and all future veterinarians, the study of anatomy would not be complete without some degree of hands-on experience of animals and animal tissue. Similarly for surgery, training would not be sufficient if actual experience of real tissue was absent. Ethical alternatives to the killing and harming of animals do of course exist for such requirements: specifically, the use of ethically-sourced animal cadavers. 'Ethically sourced' means that the animals are not bred or killed to provide cadavers or tissue for the practical, nor that a market is created or supported for such acquisition. Examples of ethical sourcing include free-living animals that have died naturally or in accidents, or have been euthanised for good medical reasons. Veterinary clinics are a good potential source, and some veterinary colleges already have associated clinics from which cadavers are sourced. The large number of private practices also offers much potential in terms of ethically sourced cadavers; the increase in the number of Body Donation Programs is testament to the common sense of making good use of a wasted resource. The challenge for institutes is to make the right connections and build sustainable organisational structures in order to utilise these resources effectively. It also requires that institutes can demonstrate they will respect and use ethically the bodies of former companion animals that are entrusted to them for educational purposes.

More on Body Donation Programs

Flowchart to determine the source of an animal cadaver, organ or tissue

 

Clinical practice

It is expected that the training of medical students will involve experience with real patients, and the more experience - at the right level and the right time - the better the training. From physiology to pathology and surgery, education involving patients can offer realistic and appropriate apprenticeship. 'Problem-based learning', related to real clinical cases, is also recognised as a powerful educational approach. This message is especially important for those institutes where laboratory animal experimentation is still used for human medical training. For veterinary education, where animals are the appropriate reference object, clinical practice is again a humane alternative to animal experiments. Many veterinary colleges are already linked to veterinary clinics, providing an element of such training. This approach offers an education much closer in nature to the professional clinical practice that the student will enter into after graduation. Once students have mastered animal handling and basic clinical skills, they may be gradually apprenticed into surgical practice by a qualified veterinarian. An increasing level of involvement in operations such as castration and spaying - two of the most common operations that graduate vets will face - can provide the experience, confidence and competence required. The neutering of stray and other animals is a social need which provides opportunities for 'service learning' like this. Students can also be granted involvement in other beneficial operations. Crucially, clinical practice as an approach within education secures student participation in the whole process: from the operation itself through to post-operative care and the animal's recovery. It keeps the focus on benefiting animals - on healing rather than harming.

 

in vitro labs

The rapid development and uptake of in vitro technology in research and testing needs to be supported by undergraduate student familiarity with the techniques. in vitro rather than in vivo practicals can provide this experience, and animal tissue used for such work can be sourced ethically. Moreover, the use of animal tissue in some practicals can be replaced directly with plant material: for studying cell respiration or electron transport, mitochondria can be sourced either from yeast, potato or beet instead of the traditional rat liver, for example.

 


Supporting Resources

Check out the InterNICHE video: Alternatives in Education to see some of these alternatives being demonstrated by teachers, and the InterNICHE Alternatives Loan System to trial products.


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