Teaching the health education specialists of the future through a computer

I think the pandemic was a wake-up call in my corner of health education- higher education.

Many faculty were not ready for online education and worried about how they would transfer meaningful knowledge to students during this time. We had workshops and webinars about making better online educational opportunities for student while some faculty had yet to ever open up their Blackboard. If anything, we learned that in 2020 we MUST be prepared for educating anywhere and in any capacity. Specifically, we are health education specialists, shouldn’t we be best at adapting to a changing environment?

The early days of the pandemic were fascinating to cover in my undergraduate public health policy and advocacy class. I started with the motto “be prepared, not scared” as we looked at the early signs that coronavirus was seeping into the fabric of our continent. I had interested students (what an epidemiological marvel!), disinterested students and scared students.

At one point on an early remote WebEx class, I saw a student visibly crying as I was trying to now anchor a ship none of them had felt moved in their lifetimes. I found out she was not scared about contracting COVID-19 but was concerned that her parents would again lose everything like they did in 2008. I realized this pandemic was much greater than an infectious disease- it would challenge what we know as a country and how higher education would function in it. Mostly I learned that students didn’t much care how the content was presented; they wanted the comfort of our faces, the normalcy of routine and the connection to others they saw on a daily basis. Many were living frontline lives, whether it be in childcare, healthcare, or making sanitizer from brewery equipment at their home job.

As a public health faculty we also are forever changed. We had talks and meetings about how we were realizing that it was no longer an expectation of how much information we could shovel out- most of it could be Googled anyway. It was more important to have them DO SOMETHING with the information presented.

So instead of a comprehensive written exam over the semester’s policy and advocacy material, I challenged myself and students to get more involved. We ended up collaborating with another faculty’s mask making project in which my students developed culturally specific advocacy messaging about mask wearing. Some groups included were southwestern Navajo populations, midwestern Amish populations, and older adult populations scared of mask wearing. These infographics were then included in shipments of masks to these vulnerable populations. Students felt the satisfaction of helping when feeling helpless, while contributing to the increased chances of everyone following protocol to keep us healthy.

None of these tasks and lessons, no matter how small will be forgotten should we ever go back.

They will forever make us BETTER in our new normal. As I oversee student interns this summer and look forward to the Fall 2020 semester, I know that we have moved across a threshold in higher education. This will change us and how we do education forever. Most of it will be necessary and beneficial- if we’re up for the challenge.

Jodi Brookins-Fisher, PhD, MCHES®, FESG
Director/Professor/Internship Coordinator
Division of Public Health, School of Health Sciences
Central Michigan University

Read other blogs in this HPP series