Global Health Network Supercourse: Toward the Enhancement of Classroom Learning

Ron LaPORTE <>
University of Pittsburgh

For over 3,000 years classroom learning has been the most important information technology (IT) in higher education. Classroom teaching has beaten back many challengers. Printing in many ways led to the first form of distance education by allowing for knowledge transmission without the teacher and the student being in the same room. Instead of the printed word replacing classroom learning, classroom learning absorbed the printed word, with the methods of classroom teaching remaining relatively intact. In this century attacks have come fast and furious on classroom instruction. In the 1920s, the radio and movies were expected to replace classroom instruction, but they have had little impact. In the 1950s many educators were certain that television would replace classroom instruction, but it did not. Now as we move into the next century many people think that satellite-based voice-video instruction or high-bandwidth Internet learning will replace classroom instruction. It is very likely that classroom instruction will beat back even this competition.

So why has classroom instruction been so competitive, lasting from 1000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.? The reason is that classroom instruction is a very powerful and successful form of information transfer. It is extremely cost-effective, and it works quite well.

Why will classroom instruction beat back the competition of distance learning, as it has successfully done with other electronic challengers this century? Examination of distance learning reveals vulnerabilities that classroom learning does not have. The first is the concept of separation of faculty from student. Distance learning as currently constituted is designed to mimic the classroom. The problem is that in mimicking with the ideal distance learning telecommunication system the most that we can hope for is that distance learning is as good as classroom teaching. There is very little evidence that distance learning will ever be better than classroom teaching. A second problem is that even with the use of the Internet, an additional cost is being borne by the higher education system. For only a small percentage of students will distance education be cost-effective (e.g., those students who live far from the school).

Finally, and most important, distance education as embraced by higher education is predatory. A university distance education program is designed to recruit students in distant markets, such as Oxford recruiting students from Tokyo. It is also predatory on faculty. Universities love distance learning for two reasons: (1) additional income could be raised from students who are learning from a distance (although, again, there is little evidence that this is the case), and (2) universities can begin to outsource their teaching. Thus in the year 2007 all students in the world taking Epidemiology 101 could be taught by a single instructor in Oxford. By the next year, even the instructor might not be needed; the lectures could be given through "canned" courses on the Internet.

Therefore, distance education can be very important in selected instances for higher education; however, it likely will not be cost-effective for the vast majority of students. Moreover, the close interaction between faculty and students, part of which comes from face-to-face interaction, is difficult to replace.

Perhaps we need to rethink the paradigm of the Internet and higher education and step back from the concept of a single teacher with a million students. Instead of trying to replace this very powerful and effective IT of the classroom, perhaps we should try and enhance classroom learning. Clearly, the printed work had a profound effect on enhancing, not replacing, the classroom. The Internet could have the same effect.

We have been developing a different paradigm to globalize and enhance higher education without moving away from the model of classroom instruction. As such, we have established a program called the Supercourse ( The Supercourse model uses as its basic assumption that classroom instruction works quite well and should be enhanced, not replaced.

How can this be done? The premise is very simple: the Internet is a very powerful interactive tool that allows us to share information among colleagues almost instantaneously at virtually no cost. The idea is that the best way to improve classroom teaching in colleges and universities around the world is for faculty members to share their most important and passionate lectures.

What is the best way to achieve good teaching? Have better lectures. How do we get better lectures? Have faculty share their best, most passionate lectures. In one semester, an experienced teacher may give 50 lectures on many different topics yet be an expert on only 5 of those topics. Thus, there will be 5 great lectures where the students are sitting on the edge of their chair, 40 average lectures, and 5 "dog" lectures. The system of lecture preparation is ancient and highly inefficient. Every faculty member creates each lecture from scratch; thus, basic epidemiology is likely being taught by 5,000 instructors, each one creating his or her own lectures. What if we shared our top lectures with each other? An expert on the epidemiology of diabetes could use part or all of a lecture on the epidemiology of leukemia to enhance a course. This would markedly reduce instructors' preparation time.

In many ways, educators are like actors, but educators are expected to write all of their own plays, rather than performing the plays of expert playwrights.

Expert teachers can replace "dog" lectures, thus improving teaching. New, inexperienced teachers do not have to face the burden of preparing a course entirely on their own. Why can't new teachers "borrow" and improve upon lectures of those who are much more experienced? Students get to hear better lectures, and young teachers have better material and less preparation time. Finally, this approach would dramatically improve training in developing countries, where teaching is poor because of the lack of access to the latest scientific information. One cannot teach well about the latest scientific findings if one has not seen a scientific journal in 15 years because journals are so expensive. In this model, therefore, bringing better material into the classroom enhances teaching.

How then can this be accomplished? The goal is the establishment of a system to share lectures. To accomplish this we have established the Supercourse, a global sharing of lectures through the use of a library of lectures. Anyone can go to the library, take out lectures for free, and use the lectures in the classroom.

The Supercourse we developed concerns epidemiology, global health, and the Internet. It was established partly because most students in medical school, veterinary school, or nursing school think that epidemiology and public health are extremely boring. Students do not want to take these courses and quickly forget the materials. However, if one wants to improve health in one's community, public health and prevention are by far the most important pathways. It has been estimated that of the 25-year improvement of life expectancy in the world during the past 50 years, 24 of the years were due to prevention. Also, many of the people in prevention and public health love what they are doing, yet this passion for prevention is not being transmitted to the young students. We want to transmit our excitement for the field to the next generation. To have a lecture from, say, Peter Bennett, the father of diabetes epidemiology, that we can use in our classroom is very powerful. We do not want to bring Peter Bennett into our classroom. Instead, we want to be able to use a Bennett set of slides, which are available on the Internet.

Scientists from around the world are flocking to this experiment. We currently have 1,200 faculty from 104 countries who contribute. We have 120 lectures that are developed by the faculty members for free in PowerPoint and then put onto the Web. All lectures are hypertext based so that the teacher can obtain additional information on topics covered in the lecture.

One of the major difficulties of distance education is the lack of quality control. However, we can bring into the classroom and lectures Deming-based statistical quality control procedures, whereby lectures are reviewed by our colleagues worldwide. We receive the comments and change our lectures. In addition, the lectures are rated over time so that we can see which lectures are rated high and which low.

Classroom instructors need not use a complete lecture. They decide which lectures or parts of lectures they want to use, often using the available slides to construct their own lectures. The time savings in slide preparation alone is enormous. To prepare a lecture from scratch in an area that we know little about usually takes 30-40 hours, and the first time we give the lecture it is not very good. With the Supercourse, lectures take only a few hours to prepare.

We use the latest cognitive psychology approaches, including iconic learning. Iconic learning is based on a simple concept: a picture says a thousand words. We remember pictures much better than words. We have coined the term "hypertext comic book" to describe lectures that are put up with hypertext links; thus, if more information is needed, one can dig deeper using links to find it.

The Supercourse is taking off quickly with a broad international membership. Faculty have joined for many reasons, the main one being that this is an opportunity to help improve the teaching of health. In addition, faculty can improve their own teaching by borrowing from others' lectures. Also, it is most interesting to realize that our best traditional classroom lectures are seen each year by only 50 students or so, but through the Supercourse, we could be training over 20,000 students. As the mechanics of the manufacture of lectures are being worked out with acquisition, storage, and quality control, we have also begun a distribution network.

Distribution of the Supercourse has been developed along several lines. A major problem with high-bandwidth Internet is that few have it. Thus, to pull down a lecture in Tokyo from Havana may take five minutes a slide. Learning will not be enhanced if the distribution time is so long. We have therefore established a program of mirrored servers. We currently have 25 mirrored servers in 20 countries. Copies of the Supercourse are in the Ministries of Health in China, and in Cuba, and about to be put up in Egypt. We are working with BIREME/PAHO to distribute through their network mirrored servers to the more than 400 medical schools in Latin America. We want to have the Supercourse into every medical school in Latin America in a year, and hopefully in all medical schools across the world in five years. There are two reasons to work to mirror the course: (1) speed of access and (2) ownership. Faculty are more likely to use the lectures if the lectures are in their schools than if the lectures are not.

In addition to this distribution approach, we are working with a company called WorldSpace. WorldSpace has three geostationary satellites over Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They have agreed to provide 5 percent of their bandwidth for development of a public health channel. WorldSpace sweeps the Internet and collects home pages overnight, and those pages are transmitted directly into one's computer. Then one can surf almost as if one is connected. The Supercourse was the first to join, and the British Medical Journal is now participating.

We are in revolutionary times, but we cannot forget what has proven so effective in the past. Classroom learning works. Through simple concepts such as the sharing of lectures, the Internet can improve classroom learning. We encourage all to visit our site and to comment.