Professor Josef Smolle, one of the leading experts for the use of new media in medical education, tells us why he learns better with his 5.000 digital knowledge cards and why MicroLearning “will turn out to be superior to any other modality” in continuous education.

Q: Dear Professor Smolle: I suppose there was no internet and there were no apps when you were young ;-). If you reflect the changes over the last decades: What did become better, what did become worse – in the context of knowledge transmission by old and new media in your discipline, the medical sciences?
A: Accessibility has increased dramatically – from information scarcity to information abundance. To search the literature, we had to go through endless piles of printed abstract booklets and to order reprints by conventional mail, whereas today we can download virtually any publication within seconds. The challenge now is to select the relevant material and to learn in a sustainable way.

Q: Your lecture will be about “propositional” MicroLearning. Please tell us something about the meaning of the word “propositional” here!
A: It is commonly accepted, that frequent user interaction and immediate feedback as to learner performance are hallmarks for effective elearning material. Therefore, many elearning formats, particularly in Microlearning, focus on multiple choice questions with one or more keys and distractors. The problem is that it is often cumbersome to transform information into a “question”. Therefor we start from the opposite: Instead of questions we formulate “propositions”, defined as the smallest piece of information which can stand alone and has a truth value. For each true proposition we create a contrasting false proposition and a short comment or explanation for both the true and the false proposition. Based on a set of such items we can produce an abundance of knowledge cards where users have to judge whether a proposition is correct or not, and receive immediate meaningful feedback and further explanation, facilitating elaboration in the long term memory. The system is less rigid than multiple choice questions, and we avoid the difficulty of writing unequivocal questions completely.

Q: Do you also practice MicroLearning, and if yes: Which topics did you learn, and where the results satisfying?
A: I have recently learned that I am practicing Microlearning since my early University years, starting with paper flashcards according to Sebastian Leitner, and having subsequently programmed various digital versions for personal use. So I can state that I have managed to learn my whole medical knowledge as well as my knowledge in medical informatics and learning psychology with the support of Microlearning. In former decades I often had a couple of paper flashcards in my pocketbook, and now I carry about 5.000 electronic flashcards (still increasing) in my smartphone to learn anytime and anywhere.

Q: What do you think of the current trend that doctors do not keep updated with books, journals, DVD-ROMs or congeners any more, but with apps: small windows popping up in their desktop operating system or smartphone? Is it a useful way for transferring the ‘latest scientific news’, or will doctors become more distracted and less focused by using such apps?
A: In my opinion to learn the basics of a scientific domain, a systematic approach is necessary. In this case, traditional material (books, lectures) should be supplemented by Microlearning. On the other hand, in continuous education, Microlearning will turn out to be superior to any other modality.

Q: This conference will also be about the “virtual patient”. Could you tell us something about this concept?
A: I think the term “virtual patient” is somewhat overstressed. Some refer to sophisticated physical dummies for the training of medical skills, others have the vision of putting the whole complexity of human nature from the molecular level up to social interaction in a single computer simulation program. In reality, most instances of so-called virtual patients refer to interactive learning objects, which facilitate the presentation of patient data, and encourage interpretation and manipulation by the learners. This approach is suitable to help to transfer theoretical knowledge into practical application.

Q: What is the big hope connected with big data analytics for medicine? Is there any connection to MicroLearning?
A: Since more or less any medical parameter, event or therapeutic interaction of each individual patient is now digitally stored in one way or the other, there is a huge amount of real life data. This is an invaluable treasure, which awaits retrieval. Assuming appropriate statistical methods, it may help to solve questions where clinical trials would either be unsuitable or ethically problematic. Furthermore, I have the vision that big data analysis will help to generate automatically interactive learning experiences suitable for Microlearning.

Q: Please describe briefly your thoughts on the further development of the KnowledgeFox knowledge cards solution, a prototypical MicroLearning format!
A: KnowledgeFox is a best practice example of a Microlearning tool. The future will have to focus on the propositional approach as described above, with crowd sourcing and the dynamic generation of super-knowledge-cards, which are created “on the fly”, based on semantic relations. In addition, the superiority of distributed practice compared to massed practice, with a final spacing gap of one or several months, will enhance long term memory and retrieval.

Thank you, Professor Smolle, for this exciting Q & A round, we eagerly await your lecture on “Propositional MicroLearning and rapid content development” on June 17th in Graz!