Would you spend hours figuring out ways to help students in another country learn an important subject if you didn’t receive any compensation or academic credit for the project? That’s exactly what a group of graduate students in the Organization Information and Learning Sciences program at UNM are doing. And, although they don’t talk about it in these terms, they are also pushing the frontiers of international online learning.

Many people are familiar with the term MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs can attract thousands of students although many don’t complete the course. UNM students are experimenting with a DOCC, a Distributed Online Collaborative Course, a new way of designing where physicians in Ghana generate content that is relevant to their cultural context which is designed on mobile and elearning platforms by UNM students. The collaboration happens in the act of design and the facilitation of the course.

The UNM students have taken on an extraordinary project to bring technology to students in a physician’s assistant program in Ghana. Charlotte Nirmalani (Lani) Gunawardena, a UNM regent’s professor and director of the Organization Information, and Learning Sciences program is working with a small group of student volunteers to put together courses for Central University College Accra in Ghana.

The students from rural areas of Ghana come to the university campus to take clinical courses during the summers. They then return home and continue to study, using information delivered on their digital tablets as they treat 40 to 50 patients a day. 

These physician assistants-in-training are often the only medical assistance available in their small villages. The students work in difficult conditions, sometimes without access to running water, although they frequently have some kind of wireless connection. The students are carefully grouped according to region, so that when an individual can’t solve a particular medical problem, they can sometimes catch a bus to a nearby village and work with another student to find an answer.

Course screen shot.

The challenge the UNM student volunteers have taken on is finding technical ways to get current information about treating medical problems faced by pregnant women and women with small children into the hands of the students. “We’ve learned to put the lesson information into PDFs,” says Gretchen Kramer, one of Gunawardena’s student volunteers. “That’s because they can download the information and carry it with them.  Internet connections are not always available.”

The UNM students help physicians at the university in Ghana work with Moodle, a learning management system that assists them in putting together information on specific treatment topics.  But Gunawardena says it’s been a little challenging to train physicians about social media tools such as chat rooms.  The Ghanaian students immediately caught on to the idea of discussing problems that come up in their practices online, but the physicians teaching the courses in Ghana were a little slower to realize the need to participate in the discussion. 

Gunawardena began monitoring the discussions among the students. “I was thinking somebody has to facilitate this discussion until the physicians learn how to facilitate online learning,” she said. So when one of the students began to complain that women in Ghana are considered to be responsible for the sex of the child, Gunawardena jumped in. “If a man comes and tells you that the wife should be blamed for the sex of the child, how would you advise them?” she wrote. That began a longer discussion about ways to address the cultural aspects of the medical information.  

One of the UNM students, Nicole Berezin, just returned from Ghana. She was there to learn more about problems the students faced in the new distance learning program. She conducted focus groups with students who came on campus and brought the results back so the design team at UNM could improve the learning designs. Another student, Grace Faustino was instrumental in getting approval from the UNM Institutional Review Board for the research component of the project and set up the questionnaires in Opinio, which the Ghanian students filled out online.  The research and evaluation component is providing the needed feedback to address challenges faced by students in Ghana.

(l. to r.): Nicole Berezin, UNM regent’s professor, and director of the Organization Information and Learning Sciences program Lani Gunawardena, Gretchen Kramer, Grace Faustino. Gunawardena and her graduate students volunteer their time and expertise to help develop the distance learning program for the physician assistant courses at Central University College Accra in Ghana.

Gunawardena and the UNM students are able to do limited travel to Ghana as part of a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, an organization funded by the Canadian government. The initial grant to buy equipment and set up the pilot program is expiring so the group consisting of Ghanian, Canadian and UNM collaborators is hoping to prepare a request for a larger grant to continue the program and to expand the online classes to a larger group of health providers in Ghana. UNM signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Central University College in Ghana to facilitate this international collaboration. 

UNM’s efforts are beginning to attract international attention. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper in Great Britain explores UNM’s collaboration with Central University College Accra in Ghana, citing the way UNM uses technology to address a complex local problem in Africa.

“I think the Organization, Information and Learning Sciences faculty and students are ready to do this work,” said Berezin. “We have people to lean on and to lean into each other. I never felt alone in Ghana, except when the internet didn’t work.”

Gunawardena says she is proud of the students. “The best thing for us is the learning experience. And not only the learning experience, but we are showing the university at large that it is possible to do this international collaboration. And there is value in it for UNM as well, to show that yes, our students can do this.”

Gunawardena would like to involve other UNM students in the project. Interested students should email, lani@unm.edu.