Illustrations by Joe Cepeda
She notes that when her colleague John McGready compared outcomes in his online and onsite biostatistics classes, he discerned no significant differences in learning based on evaluations between the two groups. “The great advantage online is that everyone experiences the lecture on a one-to-one basis with the instructor and can move at their own pace,” she says.
At the Bloomberg School, turning subject matter knowledge into a best practices education is the responsibility of Sukon Kanchanaraksa, PhD, and his team of 26 professional instructional designers, technical writers, web developers, medical graphic illustrators, audio producers and editors, and others in the Bloomberg School’s Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology. Kanchanaraksa serves as the Center’s director and has taught online since the School’s first distance education courses premiered a dozen years ago, back when faculty recorded their lectures in a second-story walk-up studio in a Monument Street rowhouse.
The Internet is generations advanced since then, and the Bloomberg School now employs a state-of-the-art digital recording studio, but the focus has remained the same, he says: facilitating the learning that has to happen in each course. “It’s not about the technology per se,” says Kanchanaraksa. “We have instructional designers who can help find the appropriate tools and approaches to improve pedagogy in all situations.” Rule number one for the Center is that the tools don’t come first. “You don’t start a course because you have Twitter. You start with the educational objective and make choices from there.”
But even something as seemingly straightforward as identifying the educational objective for a course can be a fraught exercise for faculty who have no prior experience in pedagogical analysis. In medicine the “see one, do one, teach one” instructional tradition relies on students seeing a skill (such as suturing) modeled, doing it themselves, and then teaching someone else to do the same. The use of three different learning modalities—observing, practicing, teaching—is an age-honored educational practice; it’s how most university faculty learn to teach as they advance from undergraduate to graduate to doctoral studies. But learning by doing does not necessarily impart the sound theoretical underpinnings that are so necessary when adapting teaching to the oftentimes unfamiliar milieu of the online world. For that, Bloomberg School faculty members have a staff of professional instructional designers at hand. (See The Art and Science of "Webagogy.")
Says Kanchanaraksa: “It’s the quality and attention to detail that makes all the difference. We focus on the learning that has to happen, and we have a team of experts who can help an instructor improve the teaching in a class.”
“We [wanted] to make sure 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 at graduation.” —Dean Michael J. Klag
For their part, students have great flexibility in choosing how to learn the material. Each online class is divided by the audio engineers into discrete “chapters” that are labeled with a total running time and can be individually downloaded in MP3 format. Students can choose to view chapters with all slides and related materials on their computers or, if they wish, they can use the MP3 format to simply listen to the lecture as they drive to the lab or work out at the gym. (“So you never have to be without me,” McGready jokingly tells his students.)
“It’s a really good way to make it work for you,” says David Williams, MPH ’09, who lived and worked a demanding job in Rockville, Maryland, editing technical journals while earning his degree. After working from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. he would have dinner at home and then “jump online and spend two to three hours listening to lectures or doing the other work.” It was, he says, the only way he could have earned his degree—plus it came with some unexpected insights that enriched the experience. “I took several classes with [International Health Professor] William Brieger including one called Training Methods and Continuous Education for Health Workers,” he says. “And while that course was going on, Professor Brieger was actually out in the field in Africa doing his work. It was pretty neat to hear from someone who was working on the issues he was talking about.”
Experience the on-the-ground realities of the JiVitA project in Bangladesh through the images of Bangla photographer Saikat Mojumder.
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