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Context and setting  Within emerging online environments, conventional blogging sites, as well as micro-blogging tools such as Twitter, have become integrated into pedagogical efforts. Social networks such as Facebook, content-sharing sites such as YouTube, cloud storage sites such as Flickr and Google Docs, as well as Internet-based communication software (Skype), have helped students join learning communities quickly and access course materials more readily than traditional classroom methods.

Why the idea was necessary  Creative applications of these technologies are burgeoning at universities around the world and yet there are few examples of their implementation in graduate training for medical students.

What was done  This project evaluated the integration of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, blogging and Skype in two elective courses offered to Year 4 medical students. As part of their curriculum, Year 4 medical students at Penn State College of Medicine must take a final elective in humanities. These intensive, month-long electives are developed by faculty staff based on their personal interest in an aspect of the humanities that they feel is important for students to explore.

In the spring of 2010, two faculty members in the Humanities Department designed courses using social media. The first, ‘Creative Writing for Medicine’, used Twitter to provide students with brief writing prompts from the instructor in a shared class blog for writing assignments. Skype connected students with the well-known author of a short story read and discussed during the class.

In the second course, ‘Narratives of Ageing: Exploring Creative Approaches to Dementia Care’, Twitter was used to allow for real-time communication between the students and instructor during visits to a locked unit at a care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease. YouTube was used to stream videos made by Alzheimer’s disease advocacy groups from multiple countries and Skype was used to connect with and talk to various experts. The instructor took digital pictures of students and residents interacting as they co-authored stories and uploaded the images to the website Flickr, on which cloud storage functionality made them available to any student with access to the Internet. Several students used these pictures for a creative final project which resulted in a scrapbook that was given to the residents. One student submitted her final creative project – a stop animation film adapted from one of the stories co-authored by a group of assisted-living residents – to the instructor via YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOxdpyB0g1I).

Evaluation of results and impact  Students rated both courses highly, mentioning the helpfulness of the social media resources. Their narrative comments expressed their satisfaction with the integration of social media into coursework and their opinion that this integration augmented learning and collaboration. Others identified challenges, including: demands on time outside the classroom; concerns about privacy, and lack of facility with technology. Integrating social media tools into class activities appeared to offer a variety of benefits over traditional classroom methods, including real-time communication outside the classroom, connections with medical experts, collaborative opportunities, and enhanced creativity.

Social media can augment learning opportunities in many medical schools, and help students acquire tools and skill sets for problem solving, networking and collaboration in the 21st century. The command of such technologies will be increasingly important to the practice of medicine in the 21st century.