With the right online learning tools, global health training could achieve more with less

As Internet technology has evolved, global health practitioners have taken advantage of it to complement in-person healthcare training. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, nearly all training programs went fully remote overnight – a dramatic shift that is unlikely to roll back much given the tremendous distances involved in global health.

IGHS was in the thick of virtual training efforts during the early days of the pandemic, partnering with San Francisco and the state to train contact tracers and case investigators. Train, evaluate, modify; train, evaluate, modify: This is how the group gradually honed its craft. Participant feedback surveys made it abundantly clear that adult learners need online trainings to be engaging and effective, without technological glitches.

That’s not easy to achieve, as anyone who has ever taken an online course will know.

“I’ve always taken a training and workforce development aspect to the projects I’ve been involved in,” said Andrew Maher, MPH, who leads the Learning Design and Management group that is part of IGHS’s Center for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. “But the focus on effective online pedagogy has been much more emphasized since we began doing the virtual COVID trainings.”

To wit: Maher’s team now includes three people with advanced degrees in education, two focused on instructional design and one on learning management.

As the COVID workforce training scales back, the Learning Design and Management team is hoping to take its expertise on the road, helping other research and workforce development projects in IGHS and across UCSF develop better hybrid and online training modules faster.

It took this team several months in the tense of the early pandemic to find an open-source learning management system (LMS) – Moodle – load it with content, and make the UCSF modules available without a university log-in. They also developed templates, project management tools, and workflows to facilitate the design process the next time around. They have systems in place to collect demographic data on the learners and serve them pre- and post-tests that make it possible to analyze how effective the training is. And they’ve got the education theory chops to boot.

“It could save research teams a lot of time to work with us instead of figuring all of this stuff out for themselves. And with more projects, there are economies of scale,” Maher said.

Moodle is open-source, but it requires paid-for server space to run.

The team is rolling out a range of support packages – to be paid for by research grants – ranging from one-time training on online learning best practices, to a new course built from scratch where the faculty researcher provides the subject matter expertise and the Learning Design and Management team does the rest.

The LMS could eventually provide dedicated space not just for IGHS’s programs but also for continuous education efforts led by partners in lower- and middle-income countries. “In line with the IGHS mission, we would like to not simply push content out but create a building block for our partners to use to design and publish their own trainings,” Maher said.