Sustaining capacity building using a social model: the case of Peoples-uni
While more educational institutions are experimenting with open educational resources and curriculum delivery via the internet, it is still far from being standard practice. In fact, working with open educational resources raises a number of key questions: How can one fund the development of such courses or the conversion of existing courses into open access? How does one ensure that the courses are updated over time, as they will inevitably change? Will such courses just be shared on the web or will one offer student supervision and accreditation to go with them? In this blog, we explore the social enterprise model of Peoples-uni, as one way of answering some of these questions.
Peoples-uni was established in 2007 in response to the massive need for public health capacity building in the global South, the high fees charged by many universities from the global North, and the existence of the internet to facilitate communication and education. Universities struggling to survive funding cuts by increasing fees for overseas students, and being in many cases stuck in old-fashioned educational processes, did not seem able to meet the needs for scaling up education in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The internet, and its open source and open access revolution, spawned the development of free educational platforms and open educational resources (OER) for sharing online. The internet also allowed communication between teachers and students so neither had to leave their place of work or home for educational purposes. Adding in the desire of many committed public health professionals to work towards improving global health as volunteer educators, provided the final requirement for a programme to offer low cost but high quality online education for health professionals in LMICs – Peoples-uni.
Starting with the idea of sharing knowledge in a kind of web 2.0 collaboration, characterised by an informal knowledge exchange, the desire by both students and tutors for a structured course leading to a recognised award, led to the development of a masters-level educational programme, leading to the award of a Masters of Public Health (MPH). Keeping it outside the traditional higher education sector, but leading to a recognised and credible award, was and remains a challenge.
We developed 18 course modules covering both the basic sciences of public health and many of the public health problems facing LMIC populations, which met masters-level learning outcomes, but which were also available for individual enrolment for continuing professional development.
A core group created a standardised template, and volunteer development teams created the modules to this template using OER as the source of resource materials. The development teams then ‘morphed’ into the delivery teams as online facilitators of discussion forums and assignment markers. More than 200 people have volunteered as tutors or support staff – they come from more than 40 countries and are now being joined by graduates of the programme. Each volunteer tutor is asked to facilitate just one discussion forum over a two-week period, to keep the workload low enough not to interfere with their ‘day jobs’, although some take a larger role as module leaders or members of a leadership group.
Certificates are given at the end of each semester for volunteers to use in their own professional development portfolios. Students have largely come through word-of-mouth and informal networks or web searches. A UK University accredited the programme and offered a quality assurance function and their MPH award to our students (they are now pulling out and we seek a replacement – from North or South).
Approximately 1500 people have registered as students for academic credit or for continuing professional development, and more than 100 have gained the MPH.
Peoples-uni is registered as a charity in the UK, so has a board of trustees. A part-time academic coordinator and an IT support team (based in Africa) are paid, but all others are volunteers. An education committee oversees the educational process, module teams develop and review the modules and facilitate online discussions and mark assignments – just as would happen in a university setting. Students who cannot pay even the low fees can apply for a bursary, and a small group adjudicates on these applications. Modules are run twice a year over a semester timetable, and a sophisticated enrolment and certification system has been developed.
Keeping the fees low, and being generous with bursaries, means that fees do not meet our modest costs. Each module is charged at £40, and the full MPH at £500. Applying for grants to run core functions is not a sustainable option as they are fickle and cannot be assured, although we have had a few donations which have helped.
Using a social enterprise model requires us to generate income through providing services. Seeking accreditation of the courses (as above) is one way of approaching this since, as well as being of importance to our LMIC students, it also allows us to enrol a few students who can pay higher fees (or find sponsors) to subsidise those who cannot.
As a social enterprise, we also offer our services to other educational providers to host or help develop their courses. We have also added a set of Open Online Courses, which do not carry academic credit, in order to broaden the scope of our offerings and to widen the network of people who know about us. The alumni are enrolled in a special part of the course site, encouraged to join as tutors or student support officers, and supported to perform collaborative research and advocate for Peoples-uni.
We are keen to develop further partnerships with other individuals and groups who share our goals, and with whom we may collaborate in course provision or accreditation.
Dick Heller, Coordinator, Peoples-uni