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Knowledge Unbound

By Karen Nitkin

Degrees of Distance

In 1997, the School offered its first online courses, enrolling 36 students in a Graduate Certificate Program in Public Health sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since then, online learning has become central to the School’s mission, and many onsite courses have gotten better as professors work with experts in the Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology (CTLT), says James Yager, PhD, senior associate dean for Academic Affairs and the Edyth H. Schoenrich Professor in Preventive Medicine.

CTLT now has 28 staffers who work closely with faculty to make the online experience as rich and accessible as possible, both for distance learners and for students taking onsite classes supplemented by online materials.

In the 2010–2011 academic year, online course enrollments reached 5,214, with full-time, onsite students accounting for 46 percent of those enrollments, perhaps taking online courses to ease scheduling conflicts or explore additional subjects, Yager says.

More than 400 students are currently enrolled part time in the Internet-based MPH Program, earning up to 80 percent of their credits through online courses. They complete their remaining coursework—and meet other students in their cohort—onsite in Baltimore or in Barcelona, Spain.

Yager, who teaches both online and in the classroom, says he often has more interaction with students in online classes. “The online students use bulletin boards and they post questions there and you can look up who they are,” he says. On the other hand, he says, students in online courses are “not here, having lunch together,” and do not enjoy quite the same range of course offerings.

“It isn’t a matter of one being better than the other, it’s [just] a different experience,” he says.

The Price Is Right: Free

Ira Gooding gets queries from all over the world—from educators, health officials and independent learners—requesting permission to use the Bloomberg School materials on OpenCourseWare (OCW).

His answer: You don’t even have to ask.

OCW, launched at the School in 2005 with a three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, allows users to access material at no charge. In the year ending mid-November, ocw.jhsph.edu attracted 251,528 unique viewers from 1,981 cities around the world.

“People who cannot come to the School for a wide variety of reasons can still benefit from the educational resources produced in the teaching that goes on here,” says Gooding, MA, educational resources coordinator for the Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology (CTLT), which develops the materials for online users.

There are no exams with OCW, and users don’t receive academic credit. Participants include “the independent learner who wants to brush up on a topic, maybe a municipal health worker, or an educator putting together a course, and they’re looking for material so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Gooding.

In developing countries in particular, OCW provides public health information that might not otherwise be available. As one participant wrote: “Understanding the concept of social and behavioral theory will help me achieve the community blood donor mobilization strategy I am implementing in Nigeria.”

The courses—on subjects including biostatistics, refugee health, HIV/AIDS and mental health—are offered as a combination of audio lectures, PowerPoint slides and reading assignments. They are readily available for noncommercial use through a Creative Commons licensing agreement, and are continually enriched and updated by users, who make changes such as adding illustrations or translating to other languages.

Biostatistician John McGready, PhD ’07, MS, says he’s pleased to reach more people through OCW. His materials with additional features like online class discussions are also available online for credit, which users must pay to access, so “it doesn’t create economic competition,” he notes.

Says McGready of OCW, “I certainly have benefited from people putting their materials out there, and I felt like I should return the favor.”

Certified Tobacco Fighters

China National Tobacco Corporation, the world’s largest tobacco company, is owned by the Chinese government. So it should come as no surprise that tobacco use is widely accepted in Chinese life. In fact, providing a gift of cigarettes is considered a sign of respect, says Joanna Cohen, PhD, MHSc, director of the Bloomberg School’s Institute for Global Tobacco Control (IGTC).

Though there’s still a long way to go, public health officials and educators in China are beginning to change that culture, with help from “Global Tobacco Control: Learning from the Experts,” an online training program from IGTC. Since its 2007 launch, Learning from the Experts has exported its tools and information to more than 175 countries—offering 40 lectures organized into 11 topic modules and available in six languages: Arabic, French, Chinese, English, Russian and Spanish.

Users can access the materials free of charge, on topics including the tobacco industry and its influence, the health impacts of smoking, and smoking cessation methods. Participants must earn 80 percent or higher on the quiz at the end of each module to receive a certificate of completion.

Learning from the Experts is useful for reaching low- and middle-income countries, where public health officials might not have the resources to travel or create training materials, says Cohen. In India, for example, state and provincial health educators have adapted the materials to make them locally relevant—particularly targeting the use of inexpensive hand-rolled cigarettes called bidis.

“With tobacco control, when governments or donors decide to fund activity, a lot of the work requires human resources, hiring people,” but there is often a paucity of trained personnel, says Cohen, an associate professor in Health, Behavior and Society. Learning from the Experts, she says, is “very helpful in settings that are ramping up.”