Optimizing Online Learning for the Next Generation of Public Health Practitioners

“Data helps us make sense of and find truth in the world around us,” says Victoria Hart, a UVM biostatistics alumna and self-proclaimed data lover.

In her work as a full-time Assistant Professor in the Master of Public Health Program at the UVM Larner College of Medicine, Hart puts data front and center in her approach to public health. To her, data is a primary source of truth, a powerful means of uncovering public health problems and identifying effective interventions.

At the same time, Hart is realistic that not every epidemiology or biostatistics student shares her same affection for numbers. It was this realization — that presenting quantitative topics in an online classroom can be downright tough — that inspired her research into improved pedagogical approaches to quantitative subjects in asynchronous online classrooms. Her research aims to identify how to optimize online modules, curriculum, discussion boards, and student interactions.

“Online environments, for all their benefits, can also be hard,” she says. “I love teaching, so I really enjoy researching ways to do it better. I’m looking for teaching methods that work best in asynchronous online environments — but even more specifically, in public health sciences, how do we best teach quantitative courses?”

Hart’s research includes an ongoing review of existing literature on online teaching, a body of work that she expects to grow post-pandemic, and is involved with an online learning consortium, attending conferences to stay current on trends and changes in the world of online learning. Hart is also a member of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) Transformative Education expert panel, which explores new models for effectively teaching public health, including the online environment.

“This kind of research is still pretty new,” she says. “Where I see an untapped niche is this quantitative piece of online teaching. You know, it’s really hard to generate student engagement with probability theory. It doesn’t lend itself to a discussion-style course. I’m trying to figure out ways to get students to engage with the material and with each other.”

What’s doubly exciting about Hart’s research is its potentially broad application. She’s curious, for example, about how her findings could eventually be applied to training telehealth practitioners to operate effectively in remote care environments.

“The ability to study online has broken down barriers for students who wouldn’t be able to make it to campus. And with telehealth, I think the pandemic has ushered in a new era for telehealth that is here to stay,” she says. “Practitioners will need the ability to communicate quantitative findings to their patients, and developing best practices in online quantitative teaching can help with that.”

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