Online Learning in Robust Health at Johns Hopkins

By Linda L. Briggs

Distance learning has come a long way. Just ask students at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Online courses there are taken by some 2,000 graduate students in 84 countries around the world. But the school has discovered that fully half of those courses are being taken by full-time students on the Baltimore, MD main campus. Some of the appeal is the convenience and flexibility of an online offering, of course. But Bloomberg is clearly doing an extraordinary job designing online courses, some of which are rated more highly by students than their onsite counterparts.

In another interesting twist, converting a standard course to online often results in positive changes to the onsite course as well, according to Brian Klaas, senior Web systems developer.

Students at Bloomberg are public health professionals and research scientists from around the world. The sophisticated courses that the school offers over the Internet include audio lectures, slides, animations, interactive quizzes, professional illustrations of health issues, movies, online threaded discussions, live lectures, and more. To participate, a student needs just a Web browser and an Adobe Flash plugin.

All the online courses are optimized to work with either broadband or slower connections such as dial-up or low-speed wireless.

The courses are produced through a variety of Adobe software, some of which the school began using back in 1996. Bloomberg now offers 56 online courses and has become something of a model for developing and delivering sophisticated distance learning products. The school's Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology, of which Klaas is a part, uses Adobe tools that include Acrobat, Illustrator CS2, Photoshop CS2, Macromedia Breeze (now called Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional), Dreamweaver, and Flash.

Courses are connected to Bloomberg's course management system, developed in house using ColdFusion, also an Adobe product. The fact that they're using Adobe in so many phases of course development helps, Klaas says—as does the fact that, he says, Adobe typically builds lots of convenient integration points into their software.

Creating an online course averages four to five months, beginning with meetings between the faculty member and an instructional designer to focus on the course's goals, and ways to translate content smoothly from face-to-face to online presentation formats, events, and activities. "Of course, there are some things you can't do online that you can do face to face, and vice versa," Klaas says.

Meanwhile, technical writers, illustrators, and others work on content, creating visual materials and recording and editing the instructor presentation in a professional studio setting. Much of the content is tied together using Adobe Presenter, a plugin for Microsoft PowerPoint.

In addition to creating online courses, Klaas says, he and his team have added some sort of online components, such as threaded discussions, to 213 of Bloomberg's roughly 500 courses. Adding components such as an online library for posting course files or a method for collecting homework via an online drop box is often done in response to student demand, he says.

And it's often beneficial to the course materials when professionals on his team step in to take an onsite course and make it suitable for online presentation. "If nothing else," Klaas says, "a lot of changes get made that make the PowerPoint slides look really really good."

Also, faculty who teach online courses begin asking for the same tools for their face to face courses, such as online review quizzes or discussions. When instructors use a threaded discussion system for an online course, Klaas says, "they start to see the kind of discussion that's possible, the kind of interaction, and they decide they want that [in their onsite courses]."

Students themselves are also pushing forward the use of various online components in standard on-site courses. "There's an enormous student demand" for online components in general, Klaas says. "Students definitely have a big voice in the matter. They want tools and materials that make their lives easier as students."

For more information on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, click here.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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