The U.S. Agency for International Development Bureau of Global Health has long been providing distance education to health professionals worldwide through the Global Health eLearning Center (GHeL). Born out of a need to keep the Agency’s field staff up-to-date on global health topics, the platform now hosts more than 40 courses and serves over 67,000 health professionals.
The success of GHeL is attributed to USAID’s persistent desire to reduce what Michael Moore coined “transactional distance
,” or cognitive space, between the instructor and learners around the world, as well as to capture and incorporate feedback from its users. As information and communication technologies emerged throughout the years, GHeL has been able to effectively connect its learners who are separated by space and time to the information. Now, with social media, learners are not just connected to courses but are able to interact with the source and provide valuable feedback in a less formal context, compared with structured forums or expert involvement.
The Knowledge for Health Project
(K4Health) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Communication Programs, which manages GHeL’s course development process, has used the social-networking website Facebook to share information on new courses and capture feedback among its users. For example, Mohammed Duban, a health professional at Egypt’s Ministry of Health, wrote on K4Health’s Facebook page
that the Ministry has benefited from GHeL and has used the information in the courses to update the country’s national family planning training package.
“We translated a big part of the [Family Planning 101
] course into Arabic,” Duban said in an interview conducted on Facebook. He added that the Director General of the Public Family Planning Services, Deputy Director and other key officers reviewed the translation and provided comments and recommendations to ensure that the course met the needs of the national service providers and to guarantee that it respected the culture of their target audience and clients.
According to Duban, the Ministry reviews the suggested resource in the courses to assess whether or not they would be meaningful if used domestically. He added that after they receive approval the team begins translation followed by a meticulous review, testing, finalizing the resource and then distributing it. To date, the Ministry has used two courses – Family Planning 101 and Family Planning Counseling
– and plans to use the courses on Community-Based Family Planning
and Postpartum Family Planning
Although Facebook is not the sole source of user feedback for GHeL courses, its potential to reach the right people at the right time is great. The social aspect on which the network is founded also encourages engagement and feedback, which is invaluable when developing user-centered services such as distance learning. Social media is changing communication in fundamental ways and closing the cognitive space between learners and the source of information. With these new tools, GHeL will be able to provide more individualized attention and communication with learners throughout the world and increase public health knowledge and, through the transference of information, save more lives.
Chris Rottler is a Senior Communication Manager at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs (CCP) and works on the Knowledge for Health Project, which is funded by USAID and implemented by CCP, Management Sciences for Health and FHI.