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Building community across borders

UW Information Technology

Students across Africa connect on long distance learning platform developed by the Evans School and UW-IT

International Program in Public Health Leadership Allumni

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approached the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance to pilot a long-distance international public health leadership program in Africa, Professor Justin Marlowe knew exactly where to turn for help.

UW-IT’s Learning Technologies — now part of Academic and Student Affairs — was focused on refining the online teaching and learning experience with simple technologies that could help connect faculty to students at multiple locations across the globe.

Justin Marlowe

Justin Marlowe
Associate Dean for Executive Education

“They were experimenting with all these ideas and they understood our challenge right away,” said Marlowe, associate dean for Executive Education at the Evans School.

“Our goal was to recreate the Evans classroom experience in an online long-distance course that would bring together 18 participants from a half-dozen African countries across several timelines,” Marlowe said. “For us, it wasn’t enough to simply have one of our faculty members lecture online. The fellows would be coming to the Seattle campus after 10 weeks of online classes, so we wanted to build community before they arrived by providing a genuine, interactive experience.”

Marlowe asked Molly Jay, chief digital officer at the Evans School, to work with Nate McKee, director of Learning Technologies, and to come up with a solution for creating an interactive community. Access to simple tools that could be used from anywhere was particularly important for the African fellows, who work in countries that don’t have robust communications networks.

McKee’s team – including Julie Cruse, Robyn Foshee and Dave Coffey – recommended Canvas, the University’s learning management system, and coupled it with other online tools, including Zoom, for live video collaboration, and Slack, for instant messaging online. With these tools, the fellows — mid-career professionals from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — could easily collaborate with each other and with their UW instructors.

Marlowe said the Gates Foundation approached the school because of its reputation in creating training programs for professionals. The foundation saw value in bringing together health professionals who don’t typically interact with one another on such a large continent as Africa.

The program was designed for public health professionals who “operate in a demanding and changing climate.” The Evans School’s program emphasizes analysis, leadership, communication and persuasion skills to help participants advance population health in their respective countries.


Building community one online chat at a time

Abiola Ogunenika, program manager with the Ondo State Ministry of Health in Nigeria, said she and colleagues quickly adopted the online tools provided by the UW, and used them to establish bonds long before they arrived in Seattle for two weeks of classroom work.

“By the time we were meeting face to face, it felt like we all had known each for a long time,” Ogunenika said. “I could even fix a number of faces of co-participants with their names and surnames from day one. Canvas, Slack and Zoom helped the group establish community among all of us, making it easier to learn.”

These tools facilitated group development faster, even while we were thousands of miles apart across our different countries. By the time we came together in Seattle, our group had reached the performing stage, which is why we could take on the very busy schedules in those two weeks as a team. — Abiola Ogunenika

Class group discussion comes easily due to familiarity with each other

Ogunenika also appreciated how much effort was put into crafting the one-hour online sessions with Scott Fritzen, an associate professor in the Evans School who led most of the discussions.

The online classes, via Zoom, started informally, with people checking in and saying hello and sharing their day.

“I particularly recall colleagues letting us see their cute pet dogs, their kids, through Zoom while we awaited others to log on,” she said.

Slack forums were less formal but just as helpful.

Abiola Ogunenika

Abiola Ogunenika
Ondo State Ministry Of Health, Nigeria

“When you needed clarification about something, you only needed to post on Slack, and someone would always respond to help you out,” Ogunenika said.

Of even higher value, she said, was the professional connections she made through the program with like-minded pros who want to improve health in their countries and on the continent. The program was designed to facilitate continued communications among all the participants.


Evans School readies second program

Marlowe and McKee said they were gratified by student feedback and are fine-tuning the online classes to make them even better.

“Online learning is challenging for students,” said McKee. “Everyone is often working alone. By tweaking Canvas and bringing in the appropriate technologies, we drove community first — so the fellows could feel they were all working together on their projects.”

We took a big leap into the unknown, but we learned a lot. It is easy for students to drift away online, which is why it is essential to present materials in a more streamlined way. So we are recalibrating and adapting the online classes to make it easier for students to learn without losing them. —Justin Marlowe

The Gates Foundation has committed funding for two more years and is in discussions with the Evans School to lengthen that commitment. And the Evans School program is attracting attention from other UW departments that want to enhance the online learning experience.

The Evans School graduated its first cohort in September 2017, but the fellows continue to remain connected through the platform the UW created for them. As Marlowe looks to the spring and a new set of cohorts, he knows they have delivered on the most important part of the program — developing a strong network among public health professionals.

“Our fellows are heavy hitters in public health in Africa, and many are at a level where they can help influence public policy within their countries,” Marlowe said. “Our program was designed to facilitate a working relationship among the cohorts that would last long after the program ended.”

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