Johns Hopkins medical students Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes are taking a year off to further develop a learning tool they designed to help themselves and fellow students study. Called Osmosis, and now available on both the Web and as an iPhone app, the tool is the basis for a new startup the two are launching. They explain how their approach brings the dream of “learning by osmosis” closer to reality:
What was the impetus for starting Osmosis?
SHIV: Ryan and I met when we started medical school in 2011, and connected because we’re both interested in neuroscience and learning (Ryan earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Cambridge, and I wrote a book on high school research). A few months into medical school, we started talking about the inefficiencies of the “cram-and-forget” cycles that were negatively impacting our long-term retention.
RYAN: We were thinking about the best way to fix this, and we decided to send out text messages to our friends with review questions. The first hurdle was where to get these questions. There are question banks, but they’re very expensive. So we started crowdsourcing question-writing among our classmates in January 2012, asking them to submit their own questions for everyone’s use.
SHIV: It started as a side project, with just our class of 120 users. Then we realized how they were using Osmosis, and it sort of grew into a more collaborative project. We were passing our tests by learning through Osmosis, and pretty soon we were devoting increasing amounts of time to Osmosis.
How is Osmosis different from other learning resources?
RYAN: As far as we know, Osmosis is the only Web interface that allows you to see official content like recorded lectures side by side with classmate-created content. Right now there are students who will create useful study guides and send them around by email, but they get lost in inboxes. Our class also has a Facebook group to which students post YouTube videos, but later you can't find the one you want at the right time. On Osmosis, these materials don't get lost.
SHIV: Medical school is based on the “sage on the stage” model, where knowledge is handed down from professors to students. But in every class, there is a handful of students who are natural teachers themselves, and will probably end up being professors one day. Osmosis lets other students benefit from these natural teachers because it enables knowledge to diffuse (hence “Osmosis”) between students, as well as from the professors to the students.
RYAN: With the iPhone app that we launched in August, we’ve returned to our original idea of texting questions to our friends. Anyone can download the app and answer questions based on the med school curriculum. One unique feature is that the app sends push notifications with practice questions and clinical cases, which encourage you to study anywhere and with more frequency. That’s one way we're trying to prevent students from cramming before an exam and then forgetting everything. And because the app knows what you’re learning and how you’ve performed on previous questions, the study experience is customized to each particular user and his or her curriculum.
How has the reception been so far?
SHIV: About 90 percent of our class at Johns Hopkins regularly used Osmosis. During one four-week microbiology class, students created 600 questions and answered those questions 75,000 times. One classmate even sent us an enthusiastic text joking that she would have failed that class if not for Osmosis.
Johns Hopkins professors and the administration have also been very supportive, and we’ve met a lot of people at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere who want to perform research studies with our data. Since Osmosis tracks when particular topics are covered, and each class at each medical school has its own customized version of the platform, it can be used to compare which institutions cover a given topic at what time. It’s a way to share best practices and compare curricula, which is a nice side benefit that we didn’t anticipate.
As for the iPhone app, thousands of people have already downloaded it, and during one two-week period they answered 60,000 questions.
Where do you go from here?
RYAN: We want to make Osmosis as fun to use as Facebook. The idea is that if Osmosis “knows” that a student is more interested in a certain area, it can start sending them articles on that. For example, if they were interested in the BRCA breast cancer genes, it could show them Angelina Jolie’s op-ed about her experience testing positive for one of those genes, and then later an article on the Supreme Court decision about whether the BRCA genes could be patented. The concept is to bring more relevance to someone's education.
We’re also looking to broaden Osmosis’ uses. We’ve had interest from premed students, and a customized version of Osmosis could also keep physicians fresh for their re-licensure exams. The principles we're implementing are not just useful for medical education—we’re hoping to provide anyone who wants it with a more intelligent study tool.
--Interviewed by Shawna Williams