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From Novelty to Necessity: Online Learning’s Role Around the COVID-19 Response and Recovery

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Online courses, particularly massive open online courses (MOOC), were an unknown phenomenon about 20 years ago. While correspondence courses and innovative models for distance courses have been around much longer, approaches to reach large audiences via the internet were launched in the early 2002s with the open educational resources (OER) movement, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, they have become ubiquitous with a plethora of courses available on demand for learners at no or low cost vying for attention and space. While many have boasted high numbers of registrants, they often had low (often less than 10%) completion rates and varied widely in terms of proof of marketable skills of participants.

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a springboard for explosive growth of online learning. The world shut down in early 2020, and organizations including grade schools, universities, government agencies, and healthcare organizations around the world scrambled to find ways to offer education via online formats almost overnight. They experienced varying and often inequitable results in course delivery including increased efficiency and challenges to support and engage learners.  

When we set out to create online courses on the COVID-19 response in June 2020, our aim was to identify countries with strong programs in a particular aspect of health and explore how those programs had been leveraged for COVID-19 response. In Ethiopia, this was a primary health care (PHC)-related program highlighting the role of Ethiopia’s Health Extension Program (HEP). In India, the course focused on COVID-19’s impact on maternal and child health (MCH) and the nation’s large-scale efforts such as being one of leading countries around the world to engage in vaccine production. The first versions of these courses were built in less than three months each and launched to a global audience via the networks of the team members and institutions involved.

While tailored and promoted for learners around the world to learn from exemplary response efforts to COVID-19, both courses ended up having a majority of learners from within the countries whose systems were being studied in the courses (66% of learners in India and 62% in Ethiopia). Despite, or perhaps because of, a raging pandemic in their own countries, participants demonstrated a keen interest in better understanding the functioning of the systems in which they work as well as to learn from experiences of other countries. They participated in live sessions and discussion groups and engaged enthusiastically with expert speakers. Being part of a diverse and international community of learners provided them the opportunity to network and feel less isolated in their professional activities dealing with the pandemic.

The need to innovate and overcome challenges in building and deploying these courses invigorated pre-existing strong collaborations between institutions. Within the context of the fast-changing landscape of knowledge and strategies for collaboration, the opportunities for learning changed dramatically and rapidly from a largely in-person focus to online engagement that permitted agile updating of information related to the pandemic. Thus, these courses were an experiment in new ways of working together.

Differing time zones and internet connectivity problems posed limitations for course development and deployment. Several strategies were employed to overcome these barriers, including self-recording of experts at their convenience, onsite recording stations at the Ministry of Health and downloading course material for offline learning.

The transformation of online learning from a novel educational approach to a world-wide necessity has led to substantial benefits for the global community. Online platforms can reduce restrictions related to time and place, enabling learners to access information with increased flexibility, often for free or at very low cost. Learners previously excluded from place-based learning because of situational constraints are able to be reached, contributing to democratization of learning. Yet these gains are not without their challenges; continued engagement with learners, in the absence of face-to-face interaction, requires unique and innovative approaches rather than a direct translation from face-to-face teaching. Improving equity is also a perennial process, including issues related to the digital divide of technological infrastructure and access to equipment, as well as designing platforms friendly to users of all abilities, languages and backgrounds. These challenges should be perceived as opportunities for educators and institutions to engage with end-users and to continue improving the development of a robust, accessible and high-quality online global health learning ecosystem.  

As we emerge from curfews, quarantines and social distancing, it’s increasingly evident that online learning will remain. Now more than ever, the global health community should continue embracing the digital format, so that ever more individuals can be equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to address the world’s global health challenges.

Acknowledgement: We would like to acknowledge Dr. Michael J. Klag for his valuable inputs on an earlier version of this post as well as many additional colleagues at the MCHI and at IPHC-E for their contributions towards the online COVID-19 courses that inspired this post.

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