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Global Classroom

Illustrations by Joe Cepeda

Global Classroom (continued)

“These programs have grown so rapidly because of need,” says Marie Diener-West, MPH program chair and the Helen Abbey and Margaret Merrell Professor in Biostatistical Education. “We saw that our part-time programs could be more widely available through distance education, and new technologies opened up the opportunity for students to take classes throughout different parts of the world. Many of our part-time Internet-based students are only in Baltimore or other onsite locations for several two-week periods, and the rest of the program is done over the Internet.” The availability of the distance education option for students around the world has been increased significantly over recent years by the addition of a wide range of online courses, and face-to-face instruction has extended from the School’s summer and winter institutes in Baltimore to locations such as Hong Kong and Barcelona, where students can fulfill some of the curricular requirements of the degree.

Experts say this expansion of access to top-flight public health pedagogy can’t come soon enough: A critical shortage of public health workers—across the country and around the globe—is looming, due to years of declining public health budgets and an oncoming tidal wave of retirements. (See Public Health’s Looming Workforce Crisis.)

The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) estimates that it will be necessary to find 250,000 more public health workers by the year 2020 in order to return the U.S. to its former ratio of 220 public health workers per 100,000 of population—a not unrealistic goal in the age of global pandemics and a simultaneous explosion in chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma.

“There is a need for more and better-trained public health workers,” says David Trump, MD, MPH ’85, director of the Peninsula Health District within the Virginia Department of Health. “Local health departments have evolved from a clinical focus to a community health focus, which means we need workers who can work effectively in the community. That’s a different set of demands on the practitioner than even 10 years ago.”

Many, but not all, will need at least certificate-level training, while the demand for leaders with MPH and other advanced degrees will be acute. And this staggering number does not even begin to address the critical global shortage in public health workers, where, for instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, 11 percent of the world’s population carries 24 percent of the burden of disease—yet commands less than 1 percent of the world’s health expenditures.

Against this backdrop, distance learning and the Internet are likely to loom large in meeting the need for more and better training of public health professionals. The ASPH lists a dozen member schools that offer online MPH degrees, with many more schools offering continuing education and certificate training in public health online.

Currently there are 210 students enrolled in the full-time, 11-month- long MPH program in Baltimore and more than 430 students in the part-time program. The number of part-time students has increased by 50 percent over the past five years.

If now more than twice as many Johns Hopkins MPH students are enrolled online as on campus, how does that impact the meaning of the degree? And how can distance learning students be assured their educational experience—in classes, in their interactions with the faculty and other students—has the same breadth, depth and caliber as the more traditional classroom experience available to those who have the time and resources to come to Baltimore? These are not inconsequential challenges.

“This was a real concern when we first started these programs,” says Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH ’87. “Will people be inculcated with the ethos and spirit of the Bloomberg School if they are not physically present? Will they look at this as a calling to a higher purpose or just an efficient way to transfer knowledge?” That underlying uncertainty was in part responsible for the decision to create a program that incorporates onsite visits so the distance-learning students have some direct personal contact with key faculty members and program directors. “We did not want to just put a video camera in a classroom, tape the lecture, and call that an online class,” Klag says. “But we decided from the start to spend a lot of time in design and planning our distance education program to make sure those students came away feeling part of the community. One thing that tells me we have succeeded is the surprising number of online students who travel to Baltimore to receive their diplomas in May at graduation—there are many each year.”

“As faculty, we are very cognizant that these aren’t correspondence courses,” says Diener-West, PhD. “One of the ways in which we deliver an online education comparable to what our students experience when they come to Baltimore is by fostering synchronous communities where students and faculty can chat in real time through LiveTalk or by other modes such as a bulletin board. I would say that the level of engagement of our online students was the main surprise that I experienced when I started teaching in this format.”

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  • ROBERT E. DEDMON MD MPH FACP FACOEM

    wisconsin 11/20/2009 11:17:25 AM

    very innovative for distance learning

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