The following interview is with Lise Saffran, interim director of the Master’s of Public Health (MPH) program at the University of Missouri. This June, the university began offering the MPH program online – widening access to meet growing demand from professionals across the healthcare industry. In this interview, Saffran discusses the process and challenges of developing an online graduate degree program, and shares her thoughts on how online programming stacks up against face-to-face programming in the graduate education space.
1. What are some of the biggest challenges for an institution when trying to create access to graduate programming for students dispersed over a wide geographic area?
There is a huge need for graduate training in public health for students who are dispersed over a wide geographic area. The workforce is shrinking in public health. The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health predicted in 2008 that by 2020, 250,000 additional public health workers will be needed. So you have a workforce that’s shrinking, you have people who really can’t leave their jobs and come back to school, and who are in need of graduate education to meet the needs of their communities that are growing.
It’s very difficult to find a way to make this graduate education accessible to working people without requiring them to leave their job and requiring them to take on a great expense of relocating.
2. How does online programming help to overcome these obstacles?
First of all, it’s flexible. Most online programming requires you to take courses with a cohort, but it’s still self-paced in that you can choose to do your coursework in the evening when your children are in bed or [while at work].
You’re not usually required to be in attendance for any particular time of day. Then, of course, the distance technology allows us to make our curriculum accessible to people who are working. They can enroll in the graduate program part time and complete it over a number of years, mostly [at] their own pace. It’s also more affordable for working professionals. They don’t have to move to Columbia, Missouri; they don’t have to get an apartment here, they don’t have to be in attendance and pay additional expenses while, usually, giving up their jobs.
3. What are the downsides to removing the face-to-face element from graduate education?
One of the challenges is to make sure you use technology to its fullest potential so you really create an experience for the student where they feel like they’re part of a group, they’re getting experience with group work and they have a personal engagement with their faculty leaders.
One of the downsides can be the misperception that online learning is easier. It’s challenging and it requires different competencies; it can be very writing intensive, for example. So in all of our communications with potential students, we’re emphasizing the fact that while you can do it on your own time — while it’s flexible and, in many cases, more affordable — it does ask at least as much from you as traditional face-to-face learning. Even with older students, students who have been working, there’s sometimes the factor of them being intimidated by new technology and that can be a downside. And then, of course, for the institution, we want to engender loyalty and a sense of affiliation with the University of Missouri. If students aren’t required to come here, that’s a challenge for us; how do we give them the sense that they’re members of the Missouri family and they have classmates they can turn to and faculty who are concerned with their learning as individuals?
4. How can an online graduate program impact the quality of a residential program offered by the same institution?
There are a number of reasons we decided to launch this online MPH program. One of the things, primarily, was that we have a lot of working professionals in rural areas, so we really needed to bring the education to them.
I was at a conference on international public health issues and there was a panel on collaboration between American public health professionals and those in developing countries. One of the panelists was a Ghanaian physician who had also studied public health. After the panel was done, I asked him, “What do you want me to know about training these people to work with you in the future?” He said what he really wanted to talk about is how we would make our program accessible to someone like him. He had to search for a program that he could enroll in to get his public health degree from Ghana while keeping his practice. He was not in a position to leave the country, he was not in the position to leave his job or his community, but he wanted to benefit, and have his community benefit, from this added training.
I thought about that a lot as we were designing our program. If you have blended classes where residential students take courses alongside distance students, you have a situation where a Missouri graduate student gets to sit in a virtual classroom alongside that Ghanaian physician — and that is a tremendous opportunity for learning. They learn about global health issues, they learn about different perspectives, they learn about challenges in different countries. One of the things that [the] University of Missouri has done is create a curriculum that deliberately involves both online and residential students in the same coursework. It increases the diversity of our classrooms enormously.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about creating online degree programs and how best to create these programs with the same value as the face-to-face program or vice versa?
The quality can remain just as high with the online programming. The burden is on the institution to make the technology accessible to the student. We’ve been working a great deal to create learning modules and to understand the learning curve our students will have with the technology. What an online program with courses available to students who are residential and purely distance does is it creates a cohort of students who are able to use technology in their work once they graduate. A lot of our students, particularly those from underserved areas, from remote health departments, will tell us that increasingly they need to use this kind of technology to do the work they do. If we can both provide the content of public health and training in using distance technology as part of a graduate program, I really do think that sets them up for success in their work and their community.
This interview has been edited for length.
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- Institutions can attract a global audience through online graduate degree programs and, through blended-enrollment classes, can enrich the learning experiences of the entire student body.
- Well-designed online programs can be as effective as their face-to-face counterparts.
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