Global health courses go global, live

Distance education graduate courses led by USC faculty are attracting students from around the world to virtual classrooms where they learn about global health leadership and ethics.

The courses, accessible to the vast Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) network, combine live lectures and discussions from international experts with weekly online classes and collaborative team assignments.

A new model for education

To date, public health, biomedical engineering, law, medical and anthropology students in California, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mexico and the Philippines have participated in the courses and guest speakers from nearly every continent have tuned in to lecture and answer questions.

For 10 weeks, participants sign on once a week for class discussions and assignments. Faculty members from each university attend the live sessions and help facilitate small group discussions in virtual breakout rooms as well as occasional extracurricular sessions.

USC assistant professors of preventive medicine Shubha Kumar, PhD, MPH, Master of Public Health online program director; and Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, APRU Global Health Program manager, developed the courses based on a model developed with a colleague from the University of California, Irvine—Terry Schmidt, DrHA. Through meticulous planning, Kumar and Withers coordinate the curriculum, schedule, guest speakers and assignments.

“Distance education technology allows us to give students a truly global, collaborative experience without the time and expense of travel,” Withers said.

Between 50 and 60 graduate students enroll through their universities’ class registration systems and pay their regular tuition rates to receive course credit.

Lessons in leadership

First offered in 2015, the graduate seminar “Global Health LIVE!” extends global health theory to practice.

Through readings and assignments, students discover how health, foreign policy and leadership relate. Guest speakers—high-ranking academic, government and non-profit organization leaders and researchers from around the world—present lectures and discuss professional challenges and successes they have faced in their global health careers.

One major assignment requires students to work in multi-university groups to produce short final videos outlining global health leadership topics.

“Working in these global teams helps students learn to communicate and collaborate with people from vastly different cultures—and time zones,” said Kumar. “Those skills are vital to students’ success in an increasingly global workforce.”

The course draws students interested in managing non-profit, government and private sector organizations in public health.

“Of all the MPH courses offered, I can honestly say I learned the most skills in Global Health LIVE! course,” said Hrant Gevorgian, MPH ’17, an aspiring physician. “My biggest takeaways from this course were learning how to work with a diverse group of health professionals and how to professionally communicate in group settings.”

Through the course he connected with health professionals doing similar work he was interested in, and was able to shadow a physician as part of a class project.

Practical ethics

The other course, “Ethical Issues in Global Health,” was first offered in fall 2016 and introduces some of the major ethical challenges in global health practice and research.

Two weeks of introductory lectures, both pre-recorded and live, teach the students core ethics principles. Then, through online trainings, movies, guest lectures and social media, they learn to apply these principles to real-world cases involving such contentious topics as organ transplantation, clinical trials in developing countries, assisted reproductive technologies and more.

“There is a major gap in public health education and training at many schools because they don’t teach ethics—and if they do, it’s not in a practical way,” Withers said. “Issues such as privacy, mandatory vaccination, and the ethics around new global diseases like Zika, are emerging and the ethical decisions on how to handle them aren’t black and white but instead often culturally determined.”

Students say they appreciate the live lectures and being able to ask questions in real-time.

Chantel Aftab, a USC online MPH candidate, said she jumped at the opportunity to take the course because, as a research technologist at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center, she knows the importance of understanding ethical issues in the health field.

“This course not only presented interesting subject materials, but gave me the unique opportunity to interact with students from all over the world,” she said. “The logistics of bringing everyone together from several different time zones made for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in which I was able to see how international students think and learn.”

It was, at times, difficult to navigate the language barriers, she said, but dividing into small teams and communicating through online video chats and other forms of communication resulted in strong collaboration.

“The innovative teaching techniques used in PM568 made it truly one of the highlights of my time in the MPH program and made me so happy to be an online student and a Trojan!”

The live interactions and team projects in a global classroom environment naturally reveal how culture influences ethical decision-making—and why international guidelines or standards exist, according to Kumar and Withers.

“From a pedagogical perspective, we are finally teaching global health in a truly international course,” Kumar said. “For students and faculty, it’s an avenue to build their global network for practical experiences, job opportunities and research collaborations, respectively.”

Both “Global Health LIVE!” (PM 599),  and “Ethical Issues in Global Health” (PM 568), will be offered in fall 2017, beginning Aug. 21; students may register now.