Assessment of a blog as a medium for dermatology educationThe Department of Dermatology, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas. email@example.com
Tasneem Poonawalla MD PharmD, Richard F Wagner Jr MD
Dermatology Online Journal 12 (2): 5
Our first year experience with the use of a web log as a communication tool for our dermatology interest group at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) is described. We find the UTMB Dermatology Interest Group Blog facilitates educational opportunities, serves as a dermatology resource for medical students, and improves communication. It is an educational innovation that could be adopted by other dermatology departments.
Blogs are an exciting new medium for individual expression and citizen journalism on the Internet. The word blog, shorthand for web log, is defined as personal web publishing communities by Dave Winer, founder of Userland Software and lead developer of blogging-related technologies . Although blogs originated as vehicles for private writing, the areas of most intense growth and publicity have been in business and political circles. A recent Business Week article likens the blog world to the biggest coffeehouse on Earth , with an infinite collection of like-minded individuals hunched over their tables, generating a sea of information and providing a real-time window into the collective global mind. However, relatively little attention has been paid to blogs as engines for educational collaborations, or how they can help facilitate creation of so-called publishing communities in academic circles.
We demonstrate how the dermatology interest group at the University of Texas Medical Branch (DIG@UTMB) has successfully used a blog as the foundation for its own community. The missions of DIG@UTMB are as follows:
- Encourage medical student interest in dermatology
- Increase exposure of medical students to dermatology
- Foster a sense of collegiality among students interested in dermatology
- Help students find mentors within the field of dermatology
- Provide information for students interested in research
- Inform students about dermatology events at UTMB, locally, regionally, and nationally
- Promote attendance at national and regional dermatology conferences
- Teach people in the Galveston community about preventive measures to protect against skin diseases
The DIG@UTMB blog was created as a tool to help fulfill this agenda and to form a cohesive link between students, faculty, residents, and alumni. It acts as an electronic newsletter, dispersing information regarding research, clinical experiences, and volunteer opportunities within the dermatology community. In addition, the website is used to highlight research publications and other achievements by the students, residents, and faculty of the dermatology department at UTMB. The methodology of creating the blog, a description of the various features, and an analysis of how the blog is used (with data from a poll of readers), is presented.
Blogger.com (Fig. 1) is a free, online content-management system that allows users to quickly construct websites (blogs) according to predetermined, customizable templates. The users access their accounts via any Internet browser, and are able easily to publish, edit, and post articles and links. The system enables visitors to leave comments and participate in discussion. This service was used to create a cohesive and informative website of use to the dermatology community at UTMB. This website ( http://digutmb.blogspot.com ) features both static and dynamic content.
The static content portion is reserved for reference material. For example, the Google search engine was used to identify websites and on-line resources of interest to dermatologists. These links were manually added to the sidebar of the blog using the Blogger.com template editor (Fig. 2). These static links thus act as favorite bookmarks for all visitors to the site, who are also encouraged to leave their own suggestions for additional links of interest.
Dynamic content is added regularly and "scrolls off the page" as it becomes outdated. Adding new content does not require any manual editing of the template, but is automated by creating a new post via the Blogger.com user interface (Fig. 3).
Each post to the blog functions as a separate webpage in its own right, with its own unique Internet address (URL) (Fig. 4). By linking to specific entries in the sidebar of the blog, important announcements and information can be made static, preserved from scrolling off the page as newer announcements are made. This also functions as an organizational tool by allowing multiple posts on a similar topic to be listed together, even if they were created many months apart. Posts on a given topic often link to previous posts, and Blogger.com provides a built-in search function to make referencing the archive quick and efficient.
The DIG@UTMB blog also features a built-in commenting system, which allows for instantaneous reader feedback on specific items. To add a comment, the readers need only to click a link at the bottom of each post and enter their text. HTML links are also supported. These comments become a permanent part of the post, and are displayed along with the original entry when the post is viewed at its unique URL. The number of comments is also displayed on the front page below each post so users can get a sense of where the discussion is taking place.
The authors launched the blog in July 2004 and have 70 posts in the span of 9 months since launch (an average of two posts a week). In order to assess the usefulness of the blog to its readership, a hit counter was added in March 2005. In addition, to gauge the usefulness of specific features, a survey was conducted of the 16 DIG@UTMB members, with 13 respondents. The questions asked were:
- 1. How useful do you find the DIG@UTMB blog?
- 2. How often do you visit the DIG@UTMB blog?
- 3. What feature of the DIG@UTMB blog is the most useful?
- 4. What feature of the DIG@UTMB blog is the least useful?
- 5. How do you think the DIG@UTMB blog could be improved? Please leave any comments (anonymous comments are not limited to those about future DIG@UTMB blog improvement)
In 1 month from adding the counter, there were a total of 149 visits, an average of 5 visits a day.
Of the sixteen DIG@UTMB members polled in our survey, there were thirteen responders. Of those responders, ten (76 %)found the blog to be extremely or somewhat useful, but only five (38 %) visited the site once a month or more (Table 1). With the exception of the comment system, respondants found almost all features useful (Table 2).
The number of visits tracked by the hit counter is higher than the poll results suggest, indicating that there may be readers of the blog who are not members of DIG@UTMB. Because our blog received attention associated with recent publications [3, 4], there are likely to be increased visits. A majority of survey respondents indicated that they rarely visited the blog, even though they found it to be useful. Because the sixteen DIG members surveyed were also on the voluntary subscriber list, they automatically received new DIG@UTMB blog posts as emails. This could explain why they do not need to go to the website unless they wish to use other static features for dermatology research or want to post a response to the new article. Presumably, as the number of posts increase, the number of daily visits may continue to rise, especially as nonsubscribing members want to stay informed.
The low interest in the comments feature may be because most blog posts are announcements of events or resources. Increased participation may result with inclusion of a virtual journal club where an article summary and its link are posted as a new entry. Bloggers would then discuss the article and interact in the comments section. The authors of the article themselves could participate if they had interest. Another idea to increase use of the comments section is to have a case of the month for discussion. The comment feature remains underutilized at present, but utilization is expected to increase as the blog gains further readership.
Although this is the first year of the DIG@UTMB blog, it has become already an integral part of the group's coordination efforts and activities, as well as a highly useful source of information (both general and specific to the department). By taking advantage of the features of the Blogger.com service, the blog creates cohesion between students and establishes another link for them with the residents and faculty. As the frequency of posts increases, and the number of visitors rises, http://digutmb.blogspot.com is anticipated to become even more useful to the dermatology community at UTMB and elsewhere.
This research was presented in part at the 63rd Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology as a poster (P1206), New Orleans, LA, February 2005.
References1. Winer, D. "What are weblogs?" http://newhome.weblogs.com/personalWebPublishingCommunities
2. Baker S, Green H. Blogs will change your business. BusinessWeek 2005; May 2: 57-67.
3. Poonawalla T, Wagner RF. Development of Medical Student Education through a Dermatology Interest Group Website. J Am Acad Dermatol 2005; 52(3):P100.
4. Schneider ME. Blog Brings Texas Dermatology Students Together. Skin and Allergy News 2005; 36(5): 58.
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