Inaugural UNC public health MOOC hailed as great success

May 20, 2014

What is a MOOC, and can I have one?

Hint: It isn’t one of these:

  • A book designed to look like a magazine or a contemptible person (Random House)
  • A slang term for the hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys in written or filmed heroic fantasy mowed down with impunity by The Hero (TV Tropes)
  • A cellist, political strategist or graffiti artist (Wikipedia

However, as is true of some of its homonyms (mook), the MOOC is an emerging phenomenon with an offbeat, populist history. It also takes advantage of innovative new technologies to provide educational material to unprecedented numbers of learners.

Image designed by Andy Brawn

Image designed by Andy Brawn

Begun around 2008, MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses – have become a popular teaching and learning tool in the last couple years, increasing in number from one course (in 2008) to an estimated 1200 or more  in 2014.

MOOCs typically do not have a maximum enrollment, so some have enrolled more than 100,000 students.

They are ‘open’ because they are available to anyone, without cost; however some students chose to complete a “signature track” which has a fee and requires course authentication and earning a specified grade in the course.

Although the online format – formerly called “distance learning” – might suggest isolation, the MOOC format encourages active involvement with the material, sharing ideas and networking with other students.

In spring 2013, UNC partnered with Coursera, an online education company that works with top universities to offer free, online, not-for-credit courses to anyone interested. 

UNC developed five courses for the inaugural 2013-2014 academic year – in music, public health, law and policy, entrepreneurism and information science. (Read more about the UNC offerings online.)

Dr. Lorraine Alexander (left) and Dr. Karin Yeatts taught an epidemiology MOOC -- one of UNC's first.

Dr. Lorraine Alexander (left) and Dr. Karin Yeatts taught an epidemiology MOOC — one of UNC’s first.

Lorraine Alexander, DrPH, clinical associate professor, and Karin Yeatts, PhD, research assistant professor, both in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public  Health’s Department of Epidemiology, piloted the first UNC Gillings School MOOC this spring after Alexander’s MOOC proposal was chosen as one of UNC’s first five.

“We at the Gillings School were so excited to have one of the first MOOC offerings at UNC be related to the field of public health,” said Anna Maria Siega-Riz, PhD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and associate dean for academic affairs at the School.  “There is growing interest in public health among undergraduates in the U.S., and this course exposes prospective students to one of the fundamental core public health disciplines — epidemiology. With this course, which was open to the public, and the addition of a public health track to the undergraduate entrepreneurship minor at UNC, leaders in the Gillings School are reaching out to say ‘Come see what public health is all about!’ and ‘Help us improve population health, locally as well as globally.'”

The course was designed to introduce students to basic epidemiologic concepts by utilizing short tutorials, handouts and quizzes to engage learners.  “Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health” had typical enrollment numbers and participation rates when compared to other MOOCs.

Of 27, 632 people who enrolled in the course, 12,632 began it, and 3,053 completed all requirements. Students from across the U.S. and in 45 countries around the world (including China, Brazil, Syria, Italy, India, Ghana and others) were enrolled.  In the U.S., North Carolina and 17 other states were represented.

The six-week MOOC, launched on Feb. 17, introduced students to basic epidemiologic concepts, including measures of disease occurrence and association, study designs and causal inference. Examples from multiple areas of public health in the U.S. and globally were used to illustrate concepts.  Each week, a current “epidemiology in the news” item was highlighted in an email from the faculty instructors that allowed students to “make a connection” between epidemiology content they were learning in the course and a public health study they might read about in the media.

“I was astounded,” Alexander said, “at the wide range of backgrounds the MOOC students had – from practicing public health professionals to current and future public health students to the grandmother who wanted to learn about epidemiology because her granddaughter was going to study epidemology in graduate school! It was so satisfying to us that our course was able to engage learners, no matter their background. We also were pleased to read student discussions sparked by the course content and to share their excitement in exploring epidemiology and public health.”

Yeatts said the best part of developing and implementing the MOOC (“aside from working with wonderful colleagues”) was receiving emails from students in other parts of the world.

“One such email, from a student in Bhopal, India,” Yeatts said, “told us that the course helped her understand concepts she hadn’t been able to grasp before – and that the course was useful to her, as a public health worker with no formal epidemiology training.”

Student evaluations were positive.

A veteran, studying at a university in Democratic Republic of Congo, said this was his first experience learning epidemiology. “I have worked on several development projects in the U.S. and Africa over the past 18 years,” he said. “This course was well organized and presented and was documented with such clarity that it makes me want to undertake some in-depth study.”

Another MOOC class member, who studies physiology at a U.S. university, had thought medical school would be a career path.

“I love science and want to make a difference in the world,” the student said. “But when I realized that medical school wasn’t my dream, I enrolled in your course and fell in love with the study of epidemiology.”

In an effort to document information about MOOCs and their value as an educational tool, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation established the MOOC Research Initiative, providing grants to researchers to connect and analyze data on the effectiveness of MOOC learning. Those evaluations were published this spring in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Whether the MOOC is here to stay may be up for debate. There is little doubt, however, that Alexander and Yeatts were great ambassadors for the Gillings School in UNC’s first ventures with the technological tool.

“The hard work of Lorraine and Karin to create this outstanding epidemiology MOOC is quite notable,” said Andrew Olshan, PhD, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology and epidemiology department chair.

“Their MOOC is among the first in the U.S. to focus on epidemiology and therefore provides exposure of our field to an incredibly wide audience,” Olshan said. “In addition, the tools and instructional materials used in the MOOC will enhance the teaching of epidemiology in our residential courses. This is quite an accomplishment.” 

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or