La Trobe ditches anatomy books for AR & VR technology 

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Knowledge acquisition and retention improves with the aid of AR and VR technology.

By U2B Staff 

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Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have replaced traditional textbooks for a second-year anatomy subject at Australia’s La Trobe University, thanks to an innovative pilot programme to improve learning in the complex field.

Kicked off for 12 weeks this month, the key objectives of the pilot are to improve spatial awareness, explorative learning and accessibility in the subject, ultimately contributing towards better knowledge acquisition and retention.

It is available to Year 2 and 3 anatomy students at the university’s Melbourne (Bundoora), Bendigo and Albury-Wodonga campuses.  This includes those studying Allied Health and Science degrees such as physiotherapy, orthotics, prosthetics, podiatry and biomedicine.


Explaining the reason for the pilot, Head of the Anatomy Discipline Dr Aaron McDonald, said AR, in particular, is useful as it gives students affordable and convenient 24-hour access to highly-detailed 3D anatomy images on their phone, iPad or computer.

VR, meanwhile, is used on campus, where students are provided HTC-branded headsets and will get to see and manipulate anatomical structures in virtual reality.

“La Trobe anatomy students learn from working with skeletons, models, VR, human specimens and AR. The beauty of AR is that students can take it anywhere,” Dr McDonald said on the university’s website.

“AR allows students to visualise and manipulate anatomical structures and develop a deep understanding.

“You can superimpose anatomical structures over a peer who can perform movements along with the app, to better understand muscle function. It is a great resource for both teamwork and self-directed learning,” he added.

Although AR and VR technology remain in their nascent stages in educational settings, schools, colleges and universities are increasingly seeing their value in augmenting teaching and learning.

More than their ability to improve learning progress and outcomes, these technologies are also fun for learners, making them an attractive value-add to the traditional university offering. 

This is why VR is today becoming more commonplace in higher education, with half of US colleges already using the technology in some form. 


According to 86 percent of respondents in the recent 2019 Augmented and Virtual Reality Survey report, extended reality technology such as AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) will be as ubiquitous as mobile devices by 2025. Market industry reports predict that education will be among the top five sectors for VR investments.

Of course when it comes to implementing new technologies, one of the biggest issues is often how much they cost.

Already contending with an increasingly competitive marketplace, higher education providers will want to think twice before investing in new technology without any guarantee of a positive outcome, especially amid fears that today’s innovations may quickly become obsolete tomorrow.

But according to La Trobe, AR is actually 10 times cheaper than the traditional textbook. The university points out that the cost for using AR is AU$10 per student, compared to more than AU$100 for just one textbook.

“This technology is really helping improve access to learning. Students can study extremely high-quality 3D images with associated text, clinical cases and quizzes while at home, on public transport, anywhere,” Dr McDonald said.

In addition, students have also said the use of AR and VR technology is even helping with their grades.