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Public Health ‘Blended’ Online Degree Draws Praise

The Harvard School of Public Health in 2012 before it was renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health following the announcement of a $350 million gift to the school.
The Harvard School of Public Health in 2012 before it was renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health following the announcement of a $350 million gift to the school. By Daniel M. Lynch
By C. Ramsey Fahs, Crimson Staff Writer

In May 2017, more than 50 students will undergo Commencement exercises despite having spent only eight weeks of their two-year program in Boston. These students will represent the first class of graduates from the School of Public Health’s blended Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program.

Launched with its first cohort in June, the blended degree program combines on-campus and online courses: two three-week residencies in Boston in June 2015 and June 2016, online classes otherwise, and a final two-week residency in May 2017 to present a capstone project before program completion.

The School of Public Health in 2012.
The School of Public Health in 2012. By Daniel M. Lynch

The School of Public Health’s program joins several online MPH programs already offered by peer institutions. Johns Hopkins University first began its online MPH in 1999.

Currently in its first year of a three-year “test” period approved by Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, the program will undergo regular evaluations. Jenny Bergeron, director of educational research and assessment at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, prepared a review of the program’s early stages for a special committee in the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning.

According to statistics released by Ian Lapp, the School of Public Health’s associate dean for strategic educational initiatives, the report found an average student satisfaction score of 4.9 out of five for the first three-week residency in Boston in June and 4.6 out of five for the first online courses completed by students.

Lapp, who said the ratings qualified the blended program as one of the most well-reviewed courses at the School of Public Health, added that the report also showed similar admissions rates, yield rates, and caliber of students interested in the blended program as compared to those interested in residential MPH programs. Although twice the length of a residential program, the blended degree costs a similar amount. The two-year blended MPH program costs $60,000 in tuition, compared to $56,000 for the one-year residential program.

According to administrators, students enrolled in the blended program represent a different kind of scholar than those the School of Public Health has drawn in the past. Every student in the program has already completed a doctoral or master’s level degree, and 60 percent are physicians.

MPH student Jaleel Durrani, a practicing anaesthesiologist from Louisville, Ky., stumbled across Harvard’s new program while Googling “online MPH degree.”

Though Durrani found the six to eight hours per week that he devotes to the program manageable, he said June’s three-week Boston residency proved more challenging, though “worth the effort.”

Durrani said the Massachusetts College of Art and Design dorms where the students stayed “could use some improvement,” but added that the residency prepared him “very well” for the online courses.

Samuel F. Stolpe, a pharmacist interested in health policy and another blended MPH student, said the residential program “was seamless from start to finish.”

An in-house team of course designers and videographers based at the School of Public Health’s Longwood campus, opting not to partner with HarvardX despite previous courses on the virtual education production, produce the online components of the blended degree.

According to epidemiology professor E. Francis Cook, undergoing course production in-house faced challenges.

“It’s a lot of work,” Cook said. “Everyone is underestimating what it takes to put these things together, and we’re learning as we go along.”

Still, Cook said he is confident the program can overcome any initial trials in course design.

“I think we’re building what will be the best blended online on-campus MPH program that the world will have,” said Cook.

Both Cook and Lapp referred to discussions of potentially adding more blended programs at the School of Public Health if administrators deem the MPH in Epidemiology successful.

“Colleagues from other professional schools have shown significant interest in what we are doing,” Lapp said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

—Suproteem K. Sarkar contributed to the reporting of this story.

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