Inaugural HSPH edX course draws thousands of students from around the globe

In a still shot from the online course PH207x, professor E. Francis Cook discusses how epidemiologists use measures of association to link risk factors with outcomes.

Professors ‘amazed’ by level of student interaction online

February 21, 2013 – Beginning last October, thousands of students from around the globe began studying at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in a totally new way. They studied biostatistics and epidemiology, the building blocks of public health research, at home or in cafés, at any time of day or night, for a few minutes at a time or for hours at a time—as part of HSPH’s first-ever course offered through edX, the online education platform.

The course—“Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical and Public Health Research” (PH207x)— was taught by [[Marcello Pagano]], professor of statistical computing, and E. Francis Cook, professor of epidemiology. Both were thrilled with the response to the course.

HSPH launching second edX course

Through edX, Harvard University and five other universities are partnering to offer online courses for free to students everywhere.

The initiative was launched in May 2012 by Harvard and MIT. Later, several other schools joined the consortium, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas system, Wellesley College, and Georgetown University.

The first edX course was offered in spring 2012; six were offered last fall. Of two fall Harvard courses, one was a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) course titled “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical and Public Health Research” (PH207x); the other was an introductory computer science course. This spring HSPH is launching a second course, PH278x: Human Health and Global Environmental Change, taught by Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at HSPH, and John Spengler, director of the Center and Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Department of Environmental Health. The new public health course will examine how global environmental changes, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, may harm the health of billions of people worldwide—and will engage students in thinking about solutions

In fall 2012, edX offered eight courses. This spring, it’s offering 19. By next fall, edX organizers hope to develop 12 new full courses and as many as 50 “modules”— discrete online offerings such as a single lecture, lesson, or skills training.

“We were able to keep a huge number of people interested enough in the topics to stay with us for about three months and they spent, on average, about 12 hours a week on the course,” said Pagano.

[[David Hunter]], HSPH dean for academic affairs, said that the enthusiastic participation of HSPH in edX was aimed both at increasing the numbers of trained public health workers around the world and at improving teaching in the School’s residential degree programs.

“Online teaching not only increases our global reach, but it provides materials and methods that we hope will make classes at HSPH more flexible and student-centered,” Hunter said. He said the next priority is to have the other elements of the core master of public health curriculum available in edX format.

Signups and “meetups”

Of the 55,000 who initially signed up for PH207x, about 28,000 answered at least one question on a homework assignment—a sign of a student with “real interest,” Pagano said. Of the 28,000, 8,000—about 30%—completed the course, and 5,000 did well enough on the homeworks and final exam to officially get a certificate.

“This was a really dedicated and hard-working bunch of students,” said Cook.

More than a third of the 55,000 initial enrollees came from the United States. India was next highest, with 8,000 enrollees—about 15% of the total. Last November, edX arranged a “meetup” in Bangalore to give students a chance to virtually meet Cook and Pagano via Skype, discuss how the course was going with the teachers, and connect with other students. In Mumbai, about 150 PH207x students arranged their own meetup.

Big effort, positive student feedback

To prepare for PH207x, Pagano and Cook spent many hours filming lessons in the Leadership Studio on the 10th floor of the Kresge building at HSPH. Their mini-lectures—ranging in length from about 5 to 15 minutes—were paired with video labs presented by four teaching assistants: Lauren Hund, Elizabeth Mostofsky, Pamela Rist, and Brian Sharkey. “We could not have done this without them,” Pagano said.

Before the course began, Pagano and Cook wondered: Would students be as engaged as in a traditional course? Would they learn as much? How well would the online chat rooms—where students could post questions or comments, and the teachers, teaching assistants, and other students could respond—work??

The results were gratifying.

“We were impressed with the tenor of the course,” Pagano said. “The level of discussion and achievement was quite comparable to what we see when we teach our students here, live at HSPH, if not even better.”

“I was amazed by the amount of interaction, discussion, and support among the students in the chat rooms,” Cook said. “They taught themselves in many ways.” Added Pagano, “Wrong answers lasted a very short time before being challenged.”

Feedback from students was very positive. “That was a million-dollar lecture, sir,” one student said of one of Cook’s lectures. Another posted, “Marcello Pagano for President!”

Khushboo Gala, a medical student from Mumbai, wrote to thank Cook and Pagano—“not only on my behalf, but on the behalf of the thousands around the globe who have greatly benefited by your excellent teaching,” he wrote. “I … only now begin to comprehend how vastly important [statistics] is in the field of medicine.”

Benefits of ‘active learning’

Cook said the course taught him a lot, too—about teaching.

“I think the ‘chunk and test’ method we used—in which we present a small amount of material in a few minutes and then provide a few problems or homework sets for the students to gauge their understanding of the material before moving into the next topic—is a great way of teaching,” he said. “The next big challenge will be determining how we might ‘flip’ this course for HSPH students, whereby the students would view lectures on their own schedules and use class time for asking questions, doing problem sets, analyzing data, developing study proposals, or critiquing papers—with lots of interaction.”

The online course highlighted the benefits of “active learning,” Pagano said. Students could use applets (small applications that run within larger programs) to run their own simulations—rather than just digest simulations presented to them—which helped them explore and better understand concepts, he said.

“Plus, very importantly, students had complete control of the speed at which they received the material,” Pagano said. “They could literally speed up or slow down the speed at which the videos ran. They could stop them or replay them or skip them. They could pause them as they searched for information on the Internet. In other words, they did not just sit in class and sleep while the professor performed—they had to be active in learning the material.”

Before the course began Pagano was concerned about not being able to chat with students in class or in the cafeteria. But, he said, “It’s amazing how much of the student you can ‘see’ from the chat rooms. It was very much like the way pen pals formed friendships in the old days that lasted lifetimes.”

He added, “I had believed that the ‘brick and mortar’ classroom setting—where we sit in a lecture hall and absorb the pearls being cast at us—was the superior experience. Now I see that a good course can be delivered in another way.”

PH207x will be offered again in the future, probably in the fall of 2013.

— Karen Feldscher