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Pathways in Public Health to Meet the Changing Needs of Learners and Address Societal Challenges

David Lawrence-Lupton, Program Manager for Online and Hybrid Programs, Sarah Dysart, Director of Online and Hybrid Programs, Lauren Atkins Budde, Director of Open Learning Initiatives

Throughout the pandemic we’ve often heard about health disparities in the US and nationally. Why are some groups healthier than others? How do these differences emerge and persist over a lifetime? How do social policies on housing, transportation, and employment relate to health and health inequalities? What can we do in our communities to reduce disparities in health to achieve health equity?

The Center for Academic Innovation is committed to shaping the future of higher education in order to create a more healthy and just world. Our newest MOOC specialization, The Influence of Social Determinants on Health, helps learners explore the questions above. Equipped to understand the social, behavioral, economic, political, and structural factors that contribute to health inequalities, learners in these courses will begin to understand the main sources of these disparities from a population science perspective and identify innovative ways to improve population health.

Enroll Now | The Influence of Social Determinants of Health Specialization

What’s next for these learners and for learners who complete other open courses offered by the University of Michigan? The university has now surpassed 14 million MOOC enrollments from nearly 9 million unique learners. We’ve learned that the answer to this question varies as our learners increasingly come to Michigan with a widening range of learning objectives and at different stages of life and career. This diversity strengthens our community and also requires greater flexibility in our model for educational delivery.

For those who participate in our open courses covering social determinants on health, we expect learners will come with a variety of goals. Some early stage learners are making sense of the world around them, and will discover a rich discipline designed to improve health equity. Other learners have started their careers and view these courses as an opportunity to gain skills essential to their current work and profession. Others are exploring graduate-level work in population science and see these courses as an important starting point in that journey.

Whether motivated by exploration, career preparation, and advancement, or academic pathways, we are committed to meeting the needs of all learners. To do so in a way that is accessible, flexible, affordable, and extends the academic excellence of U-M, we have leveraged an online learning experience portfolio approach.

U-M’s approach: developing OLX portfolios

The center encourages academic units to explore opportunities to strategically rebundle content to create online learning experience (OLX) portfolios, with the goal of creating learning experiences that engage learners at different stages of life and career. The OLX portfolio approach combines degree programs with open learning experiences—such as short-form content, massive open online courses (MOOCs), a MicroMasters program, or a MasterTrack certificate—to create a variety of pathways for learners to engage as part of the global Michigan community. Learning experiences within a portfolio have varying levels of relatedness and stackability, meaning that effort put forth in one learning experience may fulfill some of the requirements necessary to achieve another credential.

Learn More | Online & Hybrid Programs

These portfolios leverage the university’s institutional and academic unit strengths to explore new opportunities and new modes of interdisciplinary learning and engagement by encouraging, designing, and connecting innovative learning experiences of various durations, commitment level, and depth of study from across different schools, programs, and academic disciplines. This approach encourages efficiency through thoughtful reuse and scaling of content, as well as designing for diverse learners. The OLX portfolio strategy is key to our institutional mission of making high-quality learning experiences that promote multidisciplinary problem solving and diversity, equity and inclusion while being affordable, accessible at scale, and available for global and lifelong learners.

While online and hybrid degree programs result in the conferral of a U-M master’s degree, open learning experiences serve a dual purpose by acting as on-ramps for individuals looking to gain the confidence and interest needed to pursue a degree program, and by extending learning opportunities for professionals and practitioners to continue their education and gain critical skills or competencies needed for success in their careers. Online degree portfolios create educational opportunities for Michigan students to become—and remain—leaders in their disciplines, regardless of where they are located.

What does an OLX portfolio look like?

OLX portfolios are not one size fits all; they can take many shapes and are informed and influenced by the greater context of the academic units creating them. CAI is currently partnering with several academic units within U-M to assist in developing OLX portfolios, including the: Medical School, School of Information, School of Public Health, School of Social Work, and more.

Our work with the School of Public Health to develop a portfolio serves as a good example.

The School of Public Health (SPH), in its move into online education, initially focused on developing degree content for a Master of Public Health in Population and Health Sciences. While some faculty from the school previously collaborated with the center on opportunities in the open space, focusing within the framework of a graduate curriculum that all faculty were largely familiar with was an important initial step in creating an exemplary experience for both the faculty developing content and students who would take it.

Additionally, the creation of a degree focused on Population Health encouraged a generalist’s perspective by incorporating elements from all of departments within the school. The design of the program also allows students to explore two elective series provided by the different departments, creating an opportunity for students to create their own pathway in public health. This general focus presupposes the opportunity to introduce students to the core concepts in public health taught from the perspectives of each of the different departments within the school, and these core introductions have shaped SPH’s initial ventures into the OLX space and the contours of its OLX portfolio.

Taking the courses developed for the Master of Public Health in Population and Health Sciences, SPH faculty have worked with teams at the center to think through how that content can be successfully delivered to audiences more widely situated than the master’s students faculty interact within their residential degree courses. This meant reviewing and tweaking video content, ensuring reliance on resources that would be readily available to a wide audience, and determining which existing assignments would be beneficial for an open audience and where new assignments reflective of the open experience would need to be created. Through a careful design process remixing this introductory content for wider audiences, the School of Public Health launched a standalone MOOC (Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health) and a multi-course specialization (The Influence of Social Determinants on Health) with plans for other introductory opportunities on the horizon. By drawing directly on the experience developing courses within the degree, the SPH teams are able to quickly create similar experiences for broader audiences.

Benefits to Learners

Among the many benefits to this approach, learners across the globe are now able to benefit from the expertise of faculty within these fields generally. Additionally, learners who might be interested in pursuing higher education with the field of public health have an opportunity to explore the subject from the perspective of a course within a master’s degree, but in a lower-stakes, more affordable environment than a graduate course. This provides learners more information to help them make the best decisions for their future course of study. Students can explore and gain an idea of what they would learn as a public health student at U-M, receiving exposure to the same content that U-M students would.

For those who have begun their Public Health graduate studies already, these open courses provide the chance to review material, or to gain additional viewpoints on these core concepts, whether they are students at the School of Public Health or elsewhere. Students interested in previewing content in their program will be able to enroll in these courses and have a chance to improve their understanding of concepts they will revisit when taking the class in full later.

Through platform partnerships, U-M has made certain that the university’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni have free access to these online courses. As offerings within the School of Public Health OLX portfolio expand, there is the potential for immense benefit to alumni to continue learning. Graduates may be able to take open versions of elective series that they may have been unable to take during their graduate studies, or they can revisit new offerings from the departments that their chosen elective series. By building from the work in their generalist degree, the School of Public Health has positioned itself to offer continuous benefit for its open learners, its students, and its alumni.

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