Sunday, July 12, 2009

Web 2.0 tools and medical education - more sceptical comments

Last week, @drves described me as a web2.0 skeptic. Those who know me in 'real-life' would certainly agree that I ask many questions, and may doubt received wisdom. Now it seems this facet of my personality is more apparent in the online world too!

Lemley, T., & Burnham, J. (2009). Web 2.0 tools in medical and nursing school curricula*EC Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 97 (1), 50-52 DOI: 10.3163/1536-5050.97.1.010

The above paper was published in January 2009. It has been talked about a lot on twitter today because it was mentioned in a student BMJ article, which was then picked up in a blog post by Dr Ves. The finding that '45% of medical schools use Web 2.0 tools in their curricula' is that most often cited in twitter and elsewhere. So what does this mean and how did the authors draw their conclusions?

A survey was conducted using Survey Monkey. Participants were identified by emailing a link to the survey to 3 different email lists:
DR-ED (for those involved in medical education) 1383 subscribers
AACN (for those involved in nursing education) 150 subscribers
AAHSL (for academic health librarians- who were asked to forward the survey to those responsible for curricula in their institution) 146 subscribers

The questionnaire is given in an appendix.Although the title and background to the article talk about web 2.0, the first questions asks about use of the following 'web 2.o/social networking tools':
  • Blog
  • or some type of social bookmarking resource
  • Flickr or some type of photo-sharing resource
  • Moodle
  • MySpace, Facebook, or some type of online community
  • Podcasts
  • Videocasts
  • Wiki
  • YouTube or some type of video-sharing resource

I don't know why Moodle, which is an open-source,and flexible learning management system (LMS) or virtual learning environment (VLE) is included as a web 2.0 or social networking tool. Moodle does support the use of web 2.0 tools, but so can other VLEs, so it is unclear why it is listed here.


There was no way of tracking how those who responded to the survey found it, ie did they find it on a list themselves, or was it passed to them by a librarian? In any case there were responses from 36 individuals involved in medical school education, and 19 individuals involved in nursing school education.

The response rate from the medical school list is no higher than 36/1383 or 2.6%, amd possibly lower if some of the responses came via the librarians' list.

Several responses may have came from individuals in the same medical or nursing school as responses were anonymous.

Despite this the authors go on to report results as the percentage of medical schools which are engaging in the use of web 2.0 tools, rather than the percentage of medical educator respondents. The individuals who responded that they did not use these tools may work in institutions where many others do, and the individuals who responded positively may be the sole educators in the institution to use the tools out of several hundred or more.

The questionnaire did contain a question ("Please briefly describe how these tools are incorporated into your instruction.") which allowed free-text response and could have provided some information for a qualitative data analysis, but no results are given.

My conclusion

Does this paper tell us anything about the use of web 2.0 tools in medical and nursing schools in the US? No.

Is the author's justification of validity despite low response rate, because the study is "to gain insight into an issue", appropriate? No, because exclusively quantitative results are published.

This paper is short. It is open-access. I think that with a cursory look, most people would have reached similar conclusions to me. So why were so many people referring to this paper today without any criticism of the severe weaknesses in methodology?

Thanks to @drcolinmitchell for drawing my attention to this research.
He has also published a great post about this paper.

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