As regular readers of this column likely have noticed, I like to explore how social media could be used professionally in continuing medical education. Much of my work in this area has focused on how we can make social technologies an essential element of our own professional development—how we can establish and refine personal learning management models. And I have also focused on how these technologies may be used to enhance the efficacy and efficiency of the medical education we create—how we can create education designs to support our learners. Thankfully Medical Meetings makes it easy to search through these columns at MeetingsNet.com, and I recommend you take a second look at these online resources.

In this column, I’d like to explore what our world might look like in the near future and answer the question, “What impact will new social learning technologies have on the future of medical meetings and medical education?” So here are my predictions for the next three to five years:

1. The number of medical meetings will decrease by up to 50 percent.

2. The amount of online medical education will increase by up to 300 percent.

3. The vast majority of emerging online medical education will be received through “virtual course” models.

Here is why I think these things will happen:

For the past few years I have been looking for trends in how learners access medical education, and one is that live meetings are falling out of favor with learners due to the high costs and inconveniences they entail. This trend has been confirmed in data we have recently gathered across hundreds of clinicians—the future will include fewer live meetings and more online learning.

Online learning has evolved, and now the integration of new social learning technologies is accelerating this evolution. There is an clear opportunity to use online channels to offer more convenient, more interactive, and less expensive education.

Clinicians are increasingly comfortable engaging in online learning communities. And, perhaps even more critical, we are learning (through published research) how to structure these learning communities to increase their “perceived usefulness” for clinicians. We can apply this research in practice by designing competency-based curricula delivered within smaller, safer, closed virtual classrooms. When you leverage social learning technologies in the design of virtual courses, you enable learners to sustainably engage with faculty, interact with “classmates,” and absorb content efficiently.

As for the timeframe—three to five years—the reality is that this evolution is unlikely to be linear. The evidence we have already gathered, coupled with trends we can see in other disciplines, suggest that changes will more likely be exponential. As more learners experience these new models, and as they see the benefits of learning and sharing together, then we may very well see changes happening even more quickly. The question is whether the expectations of learners will soon outpace the capacity of the medical education community. So my question for you is: Will you be ready to lead this change?

Brian S. McGowan, PhD, has dedicated the past 12 years to medical education as a faculty member, mentor, accredited provider, and commercial supporter. The opinions expressed are McGowan’s and do not represent the views of past, current, or future employers. Contact him via Twitter: @BrianSMcGowan.