Mark Rae, Universtity College Cork, Republic of Ireland
The seemingly ubiquitous presence of the Internet and social media in the minute-to-minute existence of today’s students is all too apparent to any lecturer that has had to navigate through an unseeing zombie swarm of students, completely absorbed, heads down, in whatever latest tweet, meme, gif or WhatsApp® message has appeared on their smartphones.
However, somewhat surprisingly, the extent to which students rely upon social media (which, in this context, includes all websites and applications that enable users to create and share content, and as such includes microblogging sites such as Twitter® and video sharing websites such as YouTube®, as well as standard social network sites) to supplement their educational needs in physiology has never been empirically quantified to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Therefore, in conjunction with colleagues Dervla O’Malley (Physiology, University College Cork) and Dennis Barry (Anatomy, Trinity College Dublin), last year we decided to conduct our own study into this particular phenomenon by specifically surveying the social media habits of pre-clinical first year medical students (from both graduate entry [67 students from a class of 82] and direct entry [72 students from a class of 128] cohorts) in relation to their study of physiology. Below, I will discuss some of the main findings of that survey (which were also presented at the recent Europhysiology 2018 conference).
Possibly the least revelatory finding of the study confirmed what we already strongly suspected; that the majority of medical students surveyed did use social media tools to source physiology information. It was, however, a surprise to us just how much social media appeared to be an essential and integral study aid for physiology for most of our medical students. Specifically, an emphatic 90% of students indicated that they had used social media to study physiology at least once per week during term time, with YouTube® by far and away the most popular source of material (76% of students). Similarly, nearly 93% of students revealed that if they did not understand something about physiology they would first search for an answer online whereas, in complete contrast, only 38% of students would ask a physiology instructor a question in person (with nearly 50% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing). Not unreasonably, it was suggested that perhaps personality issues between lecturers and students might explain this particular issue (e.g. students disliking or feeling intimidated by their physiology lecturers). However, this idea seems to be undermined by the fact that even fewer students (13%) would ask their instructor questions by e-mail instead (with 70% indicating that they definitely would not do so). Although we weren’t able to interrogate this finding any further in this study, the most parsimonious explanation for their reluctance to contact instructors by either mode of communication may be nothing more than a matter of simple expediency. Specifically, “Dr Google” will almost always provide a much quicker (although not necessarily correct) answer to their questions than their overburdened lecturers! As such, faced with the considerable study pressures pre-clinical medical students are placed under, one can sympathise with such pragmatism. However, given the largely unfiltered and unverified nature of most information available on the Internet, we wanted to determine if students were rigorous enough to apply their own “filter” to material garnered from such online sources. Worryingly, 35% of students indicated that they never doubted information that had been obtained from online sources. Although nearly 42% of students disagreed with this sentiment (with 24% neither agreeing nor disagreeing), only 31% actually “fact-checked physiology information obtained from online sources using textbooks, papers and/or instructors”. Providing students with the benefit of the doubt, the lack of fact checking by students may simply be down, again, to time pressures (rather than, say, a decline in students’ critical thinking abilities). However, if that is the case, and being all too aware that there is next to no chance of persuading students not to surf for information as and when the mood takes them, shouldn’t we as academics take the lead and direct them instead to resources that we know to be reliable? Although LifeSciTRC.org, a searchable, digital library of peer-reviewed life sciences resources sponsored by The Physiological Society, fits this bill to a certain extent, it is a somewhat tricky site to navigate and appears to be primarily geared towards teachers rather than students. I feel that something far more suitable for the purposes described above would be a Wikipedia®-style, editable webpage (hosted on The Physiological Society website perhaps?) that contained links to videos/resources (classified into distinct physiological systems) that Physiological Society members have verified as reliable and accurate (e.g. illustrative short videos on YouTube® that have been incorporated into lectures). Students could be provided with the link to such a webpage so that they would at least have a starting point for their searches.
Of course, the idea and suggestion are the simple parts of any project. The difficulties begin when volunteers are sought to set up and maintain such a site.