A new guide for developing distance and online learning in post-graduate public health education for health systems development: philosophy and practice
What does the guide do?
At the recent 4th Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver, the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape launched a guide that seeks to support post-graduate educators who are developing courses and accompanying resources for distance, online and blended learning.
Although it is clear from our collaborations and international debates that many educators in public health and health policy and systems research see the potential of different types of learning, not least making education accessible to more working health professionals, and are re-thinking how they deliver their courses, this can be very challenging. In South-South Collaboration in Teaching and Learning about Health Policy and Systems Research, the conference session where the Guide was launched, discussion points included students who question the appropriateness of this form of delivery for highly technical disciplines, educators feeling weighed down by the expectation to constantly learn new technologies, and organisations that have little faith in the credibility of the process and outcome of distance/online learning, which they demonstrate by for example not hiring any academic staff who earned their qualifications in this way.
The guide is organised around the six main phases of designing and developing appropriate and accessible distance learning and through its holistic approach it supports educators in dealing with the many challenges they might face.
The importance of teaching philosophy
In developing curricula, it is important not only to think about what subject matter will be taught and the technologies that will be used in teaching, but also to reflect on one’s teaching philosphy and the basic assumptions underpinning it. This impacts students’ learning (How does your approach build on their prior knowledge and is it the most appropriate for the subject matter?) and have implications for the educators’ own skills (e.g. transmitting information and facilitating discussions are very different things).
Smith’s categorisation of different approaches to curriculum theory and practice is useful for reflecting on this.
Taking a step back: which educational or curriculum philosophies are most present in the Guide?
Firstly, the Guide attempts to capture in print a participatory learning experience (two workshops to develop the guide) which was designed around the needs of a particular audience (post-graduate public health researchers and educators in the global South). This learning experience was itself underpinned by an understanding of education as a process of critical engagement and meaning-making, rather than the simple transmission of information. The content, activities and suggested process in the Guide attempt to reflect this participatory philosophy.
Secondly, as participants were guided through the learning experience, this process was given shape through their interactions, conversations and their sharing of knowledge, skill, values and varied rich experiences. The Guide attempts to represent/embody these shared interactions and this active process, and invites others to think through learning and teaching issues relevant to their own contexts. As such, it fits Stenhouse’s (1975) definition of curriculum as process, which he defines as "an attempt to communicate the essential principles and features of an educational proposal in such a form that it is open to critical scrutiny and capable of effective translation into practice".
Through this lens the Guide stands up to Stenhouse’s (1975) curriculum-as-recipe metaphor:
- It is practical, relevant and useful (“It nourishes…and tastes good”!);
- It encourages educators to give it their own voice and adapt it for their own contexts and audiences (“…it can be varied according to taste”);
- It is grounded in practice and offers a published record of a learning encounter (“The recipe offered publicly is in a sense a report on the experiment”);
- It attempts to describe and communicate the work observed in an educational encounter, for others to use; and
- It promotes certain ways of teaching and learning that embrace the process end of curriculum theory and practice.
Interestingly, whilst the Guide clearly supports the philosophy of "curriculum as process", as a team we never paused to discuss – or in fact ever made explicit - what educational and/or curriculum philosophy lies beneath this collective initiative. Perhaps, if you feel that this approach is like “home” and your post-graduate teaching and learning is naturally based on the principles of adult learning, one can be forgiven for this!
On reflection, what is perhaps missing from the Guide is an invitation to the readers to interrogate their own philosophies of teaching and learning / curriculum theory and practice and how these philosophies influence the recipe that is their current teaching and the recipe of the distance, online or blended learning they intend to develop.
We would like to hear from you about your own teaching philosophies:
- Do you make it clear (either in your face-to-face teaching or within your distance materials) what your philosophy of teaching and learning and/or curriculum theory and practice is?
- What have you found to be the benefits of reflecting on this – and possibly making it explicit at the start of a session or a programme: for the facilitator; the team (a group of colleagues) and, importantly, to students?
You can get in touch through Twitter (@NikkiSchaay, @SOPHUWC) or our organisational website.
Authors: Nikki Schaay, Woldekidan Amde (School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape) and Barbara Hutton (consultant to the School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape)
* A special word of thanks to Barbara Hutton, the key co-author of the Guide, who has been involved in educational work for the past 30 years - in curriculum development, and in educational writing, editing and training, specialising in adult education and distance learning. She sees herself as the ultimate lifelong learner, who has been fortunate enough to work with a variety of people, teams, organisations, sectors, learning and support materials, media, and levels.