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School of Public Health Will Launch Blended Master’s Degree

The Harvard School of Public Health will launch in June a new master’s degree program that for the first time will be offered largely online, with a small residential component.

Students enrolled in the trial program for a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology will complete around 10 hours per week in online coursework over the next two years, as well as come to campus for three weeks of residency in June 2015 and June 2016, according to Katie L. Vale, the School of Public Health's director of digital learning. At the end of the two years, the 55 students in the trial program will return a final time in May to complete capstone projects and graduate, she added.

Vale said this blended approach will target individuals who already have experience in public health who may be inconvenienced by a move to Cambridge.

“There are people who are out there doing good work already in the medical and public health arena,” she said. “What we heard from them is that they would love a way to further their public health education but not give up the good work they were doing around the world.”

The trial program will use Canvas, a Web interface currently used by many Harvard courses. According to Vale, the decision to use Canvas over other platforms like edX, a digital learning venture founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012, was motivated by the enrollees’ status as Harvard students.

“We really wanted them to be on the same footing as actual Harvard students because they will be actual Harvard students, as opposed to students signing up for HarvardX on the edX platform, where they could be anywhere in the world,” she said. “This is for a residential course, and it made sense to have it be Canvas.”

Justin Reich, a HarvardX research fellow, said online learning interfaces have more or less the same technical capabilities, and the choice of platform for any program is based upon the teaching needs of the courses.

“There’s half a dozen [platforms] that would be totally suitable, edX one of them, for hosting course content and learning interaction,” he added.

The School of Public Health has already developed several courses for HarvardX. Joshua M. Kim, director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the distinction between MOOCs and online programs offered by universities is often confused.

“The edX program is built to go to scale and serve thousands and tens of thousands of lifelong learners, whereas the education you get at Harvard, or our students at Dartmouth get, is really about the relationship between you and the faculty,” he said. “That can’t be scaled or go beyond a certain size.”

According to Vale, the School of Public Health's new online program will cost the same as the brick and mortar program. Joshua S. Goodman, professor at the Kennedy School of Government who is currently conducting research into Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science, said that despite the similar costs in tuition, the program may still be a better alternative for users who have been out of school.

“Separate from the price, the flexibility that an online degree offers is hugely attractive to people who are at stages of their life where they can’t simply stop what they are doing and go get a degree full time,” he said.

Yale is also planning its first full-time online degree for 2016, a master of medical science, which will also cost the same tuition as the brick and mortar program at the Yale School of Medicine.  

—Staff writer Hannah Smati can be reached at hannah.smati@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @HannahSmati.

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