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It’s a virtual world when it comes to microscopy

The following is a guest post by Mark Braun, M.D., Clinical Professor of Pathology, Indiana University School of Medicine

Virtual microscopy (VM) is changing the educational landscape for teaching histology, pathology and neurosciences. Just imagine an entire microscopic slide scanned for viewing with a computer. Consider the advantages as compared to an optical microscope; instantaneous and remote access, use during meeting presentations, multi-viewer access, screen capture of salient elements, distance education. You don’t have to tax your imagination; VM is here now and will be available state-wide at Indiana University School of Medicine in the not too distant future.

First, let’s clear the air as to what VM is, and is not. There is a common misconception that VM is simply a handful of photomicrographs, ‘fixed or still’ images in other words. Not so. Virtual microscopy uses the same software technology as the internet mapping services that allows a person to literally drill down from the stratosphere into their own backyard. Just as Google Maps uses satellite photos to create a detailed and indexed series of images of the earth, VM does likewise with the tissue on a microscopic slide. Today’s digital scanning equipment can rapidly create a highly detailed, digital scan of an entire microscopic slide, potentially scanned at the equivalent of 630 magnification. The appropriate software allows these scanned slides to be viewed via the internet, using northing more than an internet browser. Even a smart phone will work. The image to the right shows a sample VM interface (click image to enlarge).

From a pedagogical standpoint, here are some of the advantages of virtual microscopy:

  • The technique preserves the search and discovery element of studying a microscopic slide.
  • Anytime, anywhere access.
  • Facilitates cooperative learning (journal ref:
  • A central library of digital scans means state-wide equivalency.
  • On the fly creation of a ‘photomicrograph’, by screen capture. Click here for an eight minute movie demonstrating screen capture and annotation of part of a VM slide.
  • Creation of screen capture movies, such as linked above, to be used by students, or teaching assistants, as laboratory reviews and overviews.

Our experience with VM in Bloomington is the subject of ongoing studies, the interim results of which have been published in several articles. From our queries, we have learned:

  • Students appreciate the anytime and remote access. As a consequence, they have actually made more efficient use of the microscopic slide collection than in years of optical microscopes.
  • Students appreciate, readily avail themselves of, and develop their own group and collaborative learning activities using VM.
  • Students use the screen capture and annotation feature to include microscopic images in class notes and even make their own self-assessment quizzes.
  • Time saving factor since students can access VM slides from home means time for other activities.
  • Students appreciate and avail themselves of instructor created, online narrated overview movies of the VM slides used in laboratory exercises.

Currently, an IUSM committee is working on the logistics of setting up a state-wide VM system to aid in the instruction of pathology, histology and neurosciences. Input is welcomed from all, and if you’d like to learn more about VM or share you own experiences, Mark Braun (, 812-855-3131) would be pleased to hear from you.


Articles we’ve published on the subject in a peer-reviewed journal.

Links to demo movies: