Virtual lessons in public health

February 12, 2001

Heather Heilman

Nine students arrived in New Orleans to receive master of public health degrees at the December commencement ceremony. It was their first time on campus. Eight of their classmates received their degrees without ever setting foot on campus at all.

These students completed their MPH in occupational health and safety management through a groundbreaking distance-learning program. Distance-learning programs that use video-conferencing technology are not uncommon, nor are programs where students click onto a Web site to get material and assignments. But at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, students meet together several nights a week in a virtual classroom.

They hear the professor's voice and the voices of their fellow students. They ask and answer questions. They take their tests online. They write papers and work on group projects. We structure it after a classroom experience because that's what people are comfortable with, said LuAnn White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health, who spearheaded the development of the distance-learning programs.

In addition to the program in occupational health and safety management, which was launched in 1998, an online program in occupational health for health professionals is available, and one in industrial hygiene is in the planning stages. These are niche programs for mid-career professionals. One of the admission requirements is three years of professional experience in a relevant field.

Because of the high level of specialization, these programs are actually more feasible in a distance-learning setting than in a traditional on-campus program. One of the reasons we're able to offer these degrees is that we're able to take people from around the country, White said.

Most of the students have careers and families that would make it difficult for them to attend on-campus programs. At the same time, there's probably not enough demand locally to support the programs in a traditional format. The program in occupational health and safety management was developed in response to a need for a program that addressed the management concerns particular to the field.

At first, White thought that a program could be built by adapting elements of the traditional MPH program in occupational health. But what we found was that we really had to create a whole new thing, she said. We use some of the same core courses, but our students already have a lot of technical knowledge. So we build on that and add in the management concepts.

We've included some of the newest, cutting-edge material thats in the literature. And we've built not only a delivery system that's state-of-the-art, but an academic program that's state-of-the-art. The programs are just as demanding and just as competitive as any at Tulane. And they offer some of the same fringe benefits--including the chance to network.

Many of our students are very isolated, explained Susie Allen, clinical assistant professor and manager of the distance-learning program. Often they work for large plants in extremely rural areas. It's fabulous for them to get to meet and discuss with other people in similar jobs from all over the country. The students share advice and often meet up at professional conferences. Response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive and attrition has been remarkably low. I'm happy and proud to say we are getting rave reviews, Allen said.

I get notes all the time saying things like this helped me get a new job, this helped me get a raise, I can't tell you how much this program has done for me. The program has proven to be just as popular with professors, although it can take some practice before faculty members become comfortable in the online format. It won't do to just deliver a lecture.

PowerPoint presentations have to be ready ahead of time. And simple lecturing can be dull to students who are physically isolated from one another. Darrin Pruitt, instructional design coordinator for the programs, helps professors adapt to the new medium. On the whole, I think professors really like teaching in our program, Allen said. I think they enjoy our students. They're so motivated. They've done their homework. They're very involved in discussions.

In fact, some well-respected experts from other universities have approached them about teaching in the program, which pleases White. We're trying to be the Nieman Marcus of distance learning, not the Wal-Mart, she said. The curriculum we have is very special and it's evolving year to year.

Another reason for the program's success is the level of personal attention given to students, something other online programs may neglect. We pay a tremendous amount of attention to our students so they feel that they're connected, White said. Your program is only as good as the service you give. It might be distance learning, but you still need warm personal connections, Allen added.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000