The role of data science and machine learning in Health Professions Education: practical applications, theoretical contributions, and epistemic beliefs

Martin G Tolsgaard, Christy K. Boscardin, Yoon Soo Park, Monica M. Cuddy, Stefanie S. Sebok-Syer

November 2020. Advances in Health Sciences Education 25(5):1-30.

DOI: 10.1007/s10459-020-10009-8


Data science is an inter-disciplinary field that uses computer-based algorithms and methods to gain insights from large and often complex datasets. Data science, which includes Artificial Intelligence techniques such as Machine Learning (ML), has been credited with the promise to transform Health Professions Education (HPE) by offering approaches to handle big (and often messy) data. To examine this promise, we conducted a critical review to explore: (1) published applications of data science and ML in HPE literature and (2) the potential role of data science and ML in shifting theoretical and epistemological perspectives in HPE research and practice. Existing data science studies in HPE are often not informed by theory, but rather oriented towards developing applications for specific problems, uses, and contexts. The most common areas currently being studied are procedural (e.g., computer-based tutoring or adaptive systems and assessment of technical skills). We found that epistemic beliefs informing the use of data science and ML in HPE poses a challenge for existing views on what constitutes objective knowledge and the role of human subjectivity for instruction and assessment. As a result, criticisms have emerged that the integration of data science in the field of HPE is in danger of becoming technically driven and narrowly focused in its approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Our findings suggest that researchers tend to formalize around the epistemological stance driven largely by traditions of a research paradigm. Future data science studies in HPE need to involve both education scientists and data scientists to ensure mutual advancements in the development of educational theory and practical applications. This may be one of the most important tasks in the integration of data science and ML in HPE research in the years to come.