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MOOC reaches, teaches in Somaliland and beyond

on December 13, 2013 EpiCH, Faculty, Homepage News, Impact, News, Students and Tags: , , with 0 comments

MOOC students at Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland.
Credit: Bria Schurke

Somaliland in the Horn of Africa is an internationally unrecognized country few want to visit and one that’s nearly impossible for its citizens to get visas to leave. They are trapped—college students among them—due to diplomatic complications from neighboring Somalia’s civil war.

The regional fallout from the conflict has left Somaliland with a higher educational system that provides limited opportunities and training. Anyone wanting more advanced education has to be smuggled out of the area and then be willing to run a gauntlet across Africa—one that includes kidnapping and ransom—hoping to reach Europe or North America. What’s more, most educated people fled long ago and are afraid to come back.

The education vacuum means Somaliland is lacking in healthcare professionals. In recent years, the country has welcomed volunteers and practitioners from around the world to help train a new generation of medical workers. That’s why SPH student Bria Schurke was there to intern with the Edna Adan University Hospital, a facility specializing in providing and teaching maternity care. Schurke is an EMT with an undergraduate degree in public health and previous maternity health experience in Kenya. She was in Somaliland last May to see the situation for herself and help before starting her graduate program with SPH.

“The country has one of the highest maternal child death rates in the world, which is 1,600 deaths per 100,000 births, when we’re at 13 deaths per 100,000 in the U.S.,” says Schurke. “You can’t even put those statistics on the same graph.”

When Schurke arrived at the hospital, professors were lecturing about medical and public health topics with little more than a chalkboard. Before long, they asked Schurke if she had any good ideas for helpful learning materials.

The hospital did have computers and an Internet connection and that’s when Schurke thought of using MOOCs.

Mastering MOOCS

A MOOC—short for “massive open online course”—is a free college course offered by many universities, including the University of Minnesota. Schurke felt that SPH’s Michael Oakes’ social epidemiology MOOC would be a great way to help the motivated and knowledge-hungry Somaliland students satisfy their desire for earnest public health education.

Somewhat serendipitously, Oakes, a Division of Epidemiology associate professor, developed the graduate course just a few months earlier as part of a UMN pilot project.

“Last February,the Provost asked five professors at the University to create the first MOOCs and I was one of the people selected,” says Oakes. “I wanted to have the first social epidemiology MOOC in the world, which we were.”

Oakes based the seven-week, no-credit course on the social epidemiology class he teaches on campus. Just like the classroom edition, the online course included lectures, homework, and tests geared for graduate students. But as it turns out, the course appealed to way more people than those seeking a college degree.

“Most of the students taking this course were not college-aged,” says Oakes. “They were younger and in high school; or older persons, mid-career, thinking of changing careers; or people 40, 50 or 60 years old who were just interested in learning more.”

Approximately 20,000 people from all over the world took part in this first-of-its-kind course. They logged on from Asia to South America and even from Somaliland.

“For the simple sake of educating”

To help the Somaliland students prepare for the online course, Schurke tutored them on using the computer and navigating the Internet by visiting websites like Facebook. Then she facilitated the MOOC course so they could get the most out of it and to help them through any difficulties.

“Sometimes the streaming videos wouldn’t play very well and the students would have to get together around one computer,” explains Schurke.

Despite the technical difficulties, together Schurke, Oakes, and his online course breached Somaliland’s unrecognizable borders to bring public health education to a group of students eager and able to learn it.

“The course was very helpful for Bria’s mentees in Somaliland in how they’re viewing the social and institutional structures that their country is building to improve health,” says Oakes. “There are 20 people in Somaliland who are, dare I say, getting a world-class education.”

Given the surprising success of the social epidemiology MOOC, Oakes has questions and ideas about how SPH might take online learning to the next step.

“SPH offers lots of online courses already,” says Oakes. “But the popularity of this MOOC shows there’s another aspect of our online offerings that could be pure global outreach. I wonder if SPH could be a leader in teaching aspects of public health for the simple sake of educating.”

~ Post by Charlie Plain

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