Can Social Computing Enhance Social Learning in Healthcare?

Friday, January 22, 2016

In healthcare, like many other industries, social learning helps promote innovation and best practices by leveraging the power of social connection. For a brief introduction to the topic, see the first post in this three-post series, “Is Social Learning the Key to Fostering Healthcare Innovation?

This second post examines social computing technologies that support social learning in healthcare. Specifically, we’ll look at the Robert Wood Johnson–funded open experiment called Flip the Clinic. But let’s first ground our exploration with some context and theory.

What Is Social Computing?

 Social computing tools, often referred to as web 2.0, represent a number of different technologies used to create online, socially rich user experiences. Using tools such as wikis, blogging, microblogging, social tagging, user reviews and ratings, crowdsourcing, and threaded discussion forums, users generate content that others then interact with. Facebook provides a ubiquitous example: Users post photos, videos, and status updates, and friends comment on, like, and potentially share their own content in return.

This technology is a departure from web 1.0, where websites generated content and published it for passive consumption by site visitors. Unlike web 1.0, web 2.0 technologies democratize information. They provide diversity of perspective and facilitate community collaboration, thus dramatically expanding the opportunity for collective intelligence to emerge. Wikipedia is one example; the site continues to grow by crowdsourcing knowledge from contributors across the globe. Ideally, the collaboration facilitated by web 2.0 technologies yields a new and better possibility—an artifact of the collective intelligence of the group.

Social Computing Supports Social Learning

 Social computing and social learning are related, but they are not the same thing. Social computing, like social learning, is premised on the fact that the human experience is profoundly social, but social computing is concerned only with creating digital experiences that generate socially produced information. Social learning is far broader and encompasses a variety of tools and approaches, including social computing. In their book, The New Social Learning: Connect. Collaborate. Work., authors Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner describe the “socialness” of social learning as interaction: the intermingling of ideas, information, and experiences that results in something more potent than any individual contribution. This interaction can take place anywhere people are present: online or face-to-face. Ultimately, web 2.0, or social computing, provides tools to facilitate socialness in a digital environment, often with the goal of fostering collective intelligence.

Social Computing and Knowledge Management

Because learning is ultimately about the acquisition of knowledge, it’s important to understand how social computing affects knowledge management. In their book, The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management Is Changing the Way We Do Business, Carla O’Dell and Cindy Hubert say that strategic knowledge management capitalizes on teachable moments, delivering knowledge when it’s needed and when people are most receptive to learning. Thus, knowledge management practitioners leverage many classic social learning approaches to extend the benefits of in-person interaction that give rise to teachable moments. Yet because healthcare organizations are often decentralized and siloed, in-person opportunities that create teachable moments—watercooler chitchat, staff meetings, networking—are diminished.


That’s where social computing comes in handy. Social computing technologies can provide a number of digital or online tools to knowledge management practitioners to promote social learning at key teachable moments. Examples include wikis and blogs to capture organizational knowledge and chat features to facilitate real-time discussion.

Flip the Clinic Shares Actionable Ideas for Change

Flip the Clinic presents a noteworthy example of a socially enabled platform used to disseminate knowledge and promote user engagement. Flip the Clinic is a project that seeks to transform the patient-clinician experience by bringing together key stakeholders, such as patients, providers, and community members, to generate actionable ideas for change, also known as flips. Flip the Clinic was inspired by how Khan Academy essentially “flipped the classroom” by using online video to make simple, clear instruction available to students so they could learn at their own pace during key teachable moments.

Flips usually originate from a powerful, in-person session, known as a lab, which is designed to support brainstorming, challenge thinking, and have participants focus on a problem just long enough to ignite new thinking that leads to innovative solutions. Whitney Bowman-Zatzkin, Flip the Clinic’s program director, notes that the sessions are intense by design, bringing participants together for 10- to 12-hour days to receive expert coaching and facilitation that can spark intense frustration that eventually gives way to collaboration, creativity, and innovation. The first lab, for instance, brought together luminaries such as Atul Gawande and others to ultimately generate the first 12 flips that were featured on Flip the Clinic’s website.

The site now features 81 flips. While the solutions were generated by participants, the online flip narratives are crafted with the support of Flip the Clinic staff. A key feature of the site is the ability to comment on flips. Bowman-Zatzkin notes that users often “hack the flips” through their online discussion, further developing and refining the flips. For an example of this, check out Flip No. 2: Assess New Vital Signs.

Besides commenting, the site also supports a “like” feature, an example of user feedback or rating, user profiles, and social sharing features. These web 2.0 tools help extend the socialness of the site, with the goal of improving site stickiness, meaning users return to the site more often and stay for longer periods of time.

While the Flip the Clinic clearly benefits from professional design that pays attention to user experience, the secret to Flip the Clinic success is the in-person interaction which often results in powerful aha moments that lead to transformative change. The site provides a way to share powerful revelations more broadly, while also creating a forum for a more diverse audience to learn about the flip; this audience can exchange thoughts on how the flip might work in their home environment and how it might be improved or adapted for a different healthcare setting. This can lead to fruitful back and forth between users that refines the original idea, or sparks more insight and reflection; in other words, the emergence of collective intelligence. This is the goal, of course—to elevate what works and identify what doesn’t so providers can deliver better care to their patients.

Check back next week to learn more about two other sites with strong social learning components that are spreading innovation and best practices in healthcare. the next post will explore Boston Children’s Hospital’s OPENPediatrics site, and will evaluate some of the opportunities and challenges associated with social computing sites used to facilitate social learning in healthcare.

About the Author
Jackie Lebihan is a writer, healthcare researcher, social entrepreneur, and consultant. She enjoys studying and writing about health care, with a particular interest in learning and performance issues in the health professions. Jackie recently served as a director for the Integrated Care Leadership Network (ICLN), a nonprofit with a mission to build capacity for improving care across the healthcare continuum through innovative learning exchanges and targeted training. She also helped launch an innovative social learning enabled platform, MyWikiCare, to support learning and online collaboration between healthcare professionals, faculty, and students. Jackie consults with healthcare organizations around strategy, design, and implementation of education and learning initiatives to improve organizational capacity for transformational change. She received her Masters of Science in Health Administration and Interprofessional Leadership from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she also served as a teaching assistant to the program. Follow her on Twitter at @LebihanJ where she shares news and ideas about the intersection of healthcare, education, and technology.
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