radiolab_logoA recent(-ly rebroadcast) of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, talked about the concept of emergence. They started with the example of fireflies on miles of riverbank in Thailand all flashing in unison. There is no conductor, they just somehow do it. Similarly, individually blind and thoughtless ants together spontaneously organize to create feats of insect engineering. And bees. And the electrical activity of individual neurons coalescing into thoughts.

The theme is seemingly random or unorganized behavior somehow synchronizing into something greater than the sum of its parts. An Internet example of this is amazon.com reviews. Individually, we buy products – some good and some bad. We all submit our reviews and rankings and the website’s “sort by average customer review” allows the cream to rise to the top. Now we all buy only the best products.

Can we use emergence to improve medical education? Instead of having students work in silos to understand a topic, if they collaborated on a grand scale, allow the best ideas to emerge, and then others take those ideas and further improve on them. Can we crowd source concept formation?

On one hand, the best ideas would rise to the top for all to use. On the other hand, it’s the process of forming those concepts that creates the understanding. Maybe creating your own bad idea is better than adopting the someone else’s best idea.

How Can I Do This?

To do this, we would need:

  1. a way for students to collaborate (share their creations)
  2. a way for students to rate those creations
  3. the ability to sort by ratings

It doesn’t even have to be centralized on a website. A resource that circulated through the student body, with each student iteratively improving upon it, may eventually end up creating superior resource. One student creates a concept map of a lesson and sends it off to another, the next person adds corrections and answers questions. As it circulates through the students, it grows into a fleshed out document. Eventually, it can end up with the instructor who checks it for accuracy. I suspect, much like the average of guesses of how many jellybeans are in a jar, it will be close to the mark.

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