Transitioning from face-to-face to distance teaching and learning: where does one begin and what are key questions to consider?
Transitioning to distance and e-learning: "rich pictures" from partners at the universities of Cape Town, Ghana and Nigeria (Enugu)
It is evident from our collaborations and international higher education debates that educators in the fields of Health Policy and Systems Research and Public Health are revisiting and re-thinking how they deliver and how students access post-graduate programmes. This includes making increasing use of distance/blended learning and online and mobile (e-learning) technologies.
A key dimension of this transition to distance and e-learning is better integration of formal class-based training with workplace-based learning, which includes modalities such as mentoring, networking, peer learning and coaching. The transition to distance and e-learning programmes is appealing for a number of reasons. Not only does it increase access to learning by enabling students to continue to work whilst studying, eliminating the necessity and costs of traveling elsewhere to study and providing students with the flexibility of learning provision, but it also provides students, often living and working in different geographical regions, with increased opportunities to collaborate through online forums which extend beyond the duration of a class or lecture held in a physical classroom.
These transitions can be difficult to make:
In 2015, as a way of navigating the e-learning terrain, the School of Public Health (SOPH) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa hosted a two-part workshop series to map out the field of e- and flexible learning, get acquainted with some of the e-learning terminology and emerging technologies and provide participating institutions with an opportunity to consider how they might, more effectively, transition aspects of their curricula and courses into a distance or onto an online learning platform.
The workshops were attended by 53 educators representing 16 public health training institutions, across 11 countries in Africa and Asia. Entitled Emerging Opportunities, the initiative formed part of the SOPH’s ongoing work with sister institutions in Africa and the global south to strengthen post-graduate public health education generally, and training in health systems analysis and research specifically.
The first workshop, in May 2015, had participants reflect on their contexts and consider what they saw as the emerging opportunities for their institutions in relation to developing new models and approaches to post-graduate public health education.
Through the medium of drawing a "rich picture" (examples above) participants depicted the complexity of their contexts: their external and institutional regulatory environments, the ICT context, the sustainability and funding of their courses, the stakeholders that needed to be brought on board and the needs and expectations of their students. Situating this in the context of the critical public health needs within the community and the related human resources for health and workplace needs, the teams developed a solid foundation on which they could then consider issues related to curriculum content.
In considering curriculum content issues specifically, the CHEPSAA publication Principles and practice of good curriculum design proved to be a useful resource in highlighting, amongst other things, the importance of considering the context and needs of the target audience, the core competencies of the profession that a course aims to develop, and the threshold concepts integral to the body of knowledge that the course covers.
CHEPSAA curriculum development process: transitioning is about more than technology adoption
The second workshop, convened in October 2015, took participants through a series of steps focusing on the process of designing distance teaching and learning materials, considering the specific teaching and learning advantages of using various online options (such as blogs, chat rooms, podcasts and digital stories), and getting to grips with the practicalities of running an online programme. Some of the questions considered during this process were:
- Given that most of our students are mature learners and working professionals, what implications does this have for their learning and for the mechanisms that we must put in place to support them - and to ensure good retention and throughput?
- How can we provide students with an authentic learning experience where their workplace or "the field" is the "classroom" and the centre of learning?
- What are the advantages and constraints of moving online and relying on technology and how does one decide on the most appropriate approach across the spectrum of delivery platforms?
- What kind of technical support is required in developing and facilitating an e-learning programme? For example, apart from the public health or health policy and systems content specialists, who else is an integral part of the e-learning team: an educational specialist, an IT specialist, a student administrator – and if so, are these not just un-fundable pipedreams?
An e-Guide covering these issues will be launched in an organised session at the 4th Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, co-ordinated by CHEPSAA and entitled South-South collaboration in teaching and learning about Health Policy and Systems Research.
In this session, the SOPH will present the Emerging Opportunities initiative as one of four case studies from CHEPSAA partners in Africa and India – all of which focus on different aspects of health policy and systems capacity development.
The other three case studies will be presented by the Centre of Health Systems and Policy Research in Ghana; the University of Ghana, in collaboration with the Research and Development Division of the Ghana Health Service; and the Keystone Initiative from India. These will focus on the nature of support that emerging health policy and systems educators might need, the process of adapting existing materials for a policy maker audience, and lessons learnt from providing follow-up support to researchers in the field.
Authors: Nikki Schaay, Helen Schneider, Woldekidan Amde & Uta Lehmann (SOPH, University of the Western Cape, South Africa)