I’m a selfish 21st century teacher

One year has passed since I began using social media as a teaching tool in medical education. I created this blog to teach patients and doctors about autoinflammatory diseases, a rare subset of rheumatic illnesses characterized by fevers and systemic inflammation. I created summaries of groundbreaking articles and posted them on my blog. I wrote about some of my patients, describing their stories so that others could learn to recognize and treat their diseases. I contributed articles to other blogs to help physicians recognize these rare illnesses.

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I created a Twitter account where I posted links to relevant articles about rheumatology and the art of medicine. I composed teaching points about rheumatology and shared them with my Twitter followers. When I attended medical conferences, I tweeted interesting things I had learned in lectures. When I was invited to present at Grand Rounds in my hospital, I discussed how I had used social media as a powerful teaching tool.

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I assumed that anyone that read my brilliant prose must have remembered everything I ever wrote. After all, I had made it so easy for them! I had digested a lot of complicated material and created 140-character nuggets of wisdom for others to remember in perpetuity. I thought I had become a medical educator extraordinaire, one of those legends that students will remember throughout their careers, a William Osler for the 21st century.

And I wasn’t the only one who shared this belief! In a letter of recommendation, one of my mentors mentioned that I have been “educating medical trainees, patients, families, and other physicians like no other rheumatology fellow he has ever worked with.”

My fall to reality occurred when I read the wonderful book “Make it Stick” by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. I realized that although the work that I was doing with social media was great for education–I was the one that was most benefiting from my work, not those who read my stuff.


You see, by reading a journal article, identifying the important points, seeing how the new information fits into what I already know,and generating a paragraph in my own words, I was exercising strategies known to create lasting knowledge. In contrast, by reading somebody else’s summary, you do not take advantage of these powerful techniques, and whatever “learning” you think you did doesn’t actually stick.

Students need to struggle with the material in order to learn; educators sometimes call this “desirable difficulties.” In contrast, by creating a “CliffsNotes” of important material, I may have been providing a disservice to my students–I was being selfish.

I realized that the most powerful way for students to learn through social media is by creating their own content. Of course, I wasn’t the first to see the light.  Some elementary and high school classes have already created class websites for students to post articles or videos about things they have learned. A class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education about the future of learning, T-509 Massive, encouraged students to create content in their own blogs, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, and collected the material into one awesome website.

Except by some enlightened teachers, students are not generally encouraged to create their own educational content online. Although most students are involved in social media, they fail to see the incredible educational opportunity of a blog post or a profound tweet to enhance their own learning.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 10.54.04 PMTo address this need, a group of Harvard programmers and I created AskUp, a free, open-source web application that encourages students to create educational micro-content in the form of a question and answer set after any educational event. Generating a good question and answer requires all of the techniques shown to create lasting knowledge. These questions can then be shared with others, and by attempting to answer them, they can take advantage of the “testing effect,” the finding that students learn better after being quizzed than after being provided with the answer. Our project is still in its infancy, but we hope it may serve as a model to improve online learning.

As I reflect on my adventures in social media over the past year, I wonder whether anyone else has learned anything from my writings. This will not discourage me from writing articles, tweets, and other online content, however, as I now realize who this content is really for. Nevertheless, I will also seek opportunities for content-creation for those I set out to teach.  I will ask them questions, engage them in dialogue, and encourage them to use novel technologies that empowers them to become authors.

What will you do?


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6 thoughts on “I’m a selfish 21st century teacher”

  1. Really gorgeous job, Jon. I have hardly seen anyone whom I followed on social media (twitter or weibo, the Chinese version of twitter) have this kind of passion to utilize the social media as a tool for education.

    I also agree that “by reading somebody else’s summary, you do not take advantage of these powerful techniques, and whatever ‘learning’ you think you did doesn’t actually stick”. That’s true. Again, from a med student (lowest hierarchy in this food chain, unfortunately) perspective, the knowledge sticks to me only when I read the article by myself and put them into use, i.e. I formed a ddx list with the help of this article/ learning material.

    And good luck with Askup! I registered that and admittedly, I couldn’t help but to compare it with another software called Anki. I used Anki a lot for my GRE and board exam prep, but I think the disadvantage of Anki is that I cannot share my questions and answers online. People can always copy my flashcards from me, but most of them complained that they couldn’t memorize these answers well when they used my flashcards. In other words, they need to create their own flashcards instead of using others’ to memorize something. I hope Askup will overcome this by using the “testing effect”, as you mentioned.

    So, please keep up the good work. I really like interacting with you on tweet or on this blog. I always learn something from you.

    1. Thanks for reading my post. Yes, Anki is a fantastic software, especially with the spaced education aspect. We’re planning to differentiate AskUp from other similar apps…stay tuned for updates!

  2. I have enjoyed your blog, both as a patient and a health care professional (RD). You are spot on regarding learning. One of the most difficult graduate school courses I ever took was an independent study course in ODL (organizational development & leadership). For the Final exam, I had to create it myself. I had to write the essay questions and answer them, with no guidelines from the professor. Hardest exam ever! I devoured the chapters as a result and the learning “stuck” (got an A, too). As an Adjunct Professor, I saw too many students wanting to be spoon fed. Your ideas put the responsibility on the learner, as it should be, in order to foster life long learning that is intrinsically motivated. Thank you for all that you are doing! Good luck with the new App.

    1. Rebecca, thanks for sharing your experiences! As you noted, one of the challenges of this technique is the added mental effort required by students to come up with their own material. I’ve tried incorporating student-generated questions in classrooms, but students have felt that it takes too much time, and they don’t necessarily see its the benefits. They’re much more accustomed to easier study strategies, that, as you say, “spoon feeds” them the material.

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