Featuring the 8 Steps course: building communities, strengthening IT systems

Teresa Dussault manages training operations for PHII’s Informatics Academy. In this post, she discusses the popular Designing & Managing Public Health Information Systems course. To register for the current offering starting in September, please visit the course page on our learning portal.

Over the past four years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting the Informatics Academy’s first distance learning course: Designing & Managing Public Health Information Systems: 8 Steps to Success. The course is designed to help public health practitioners work with IT to implement information systems or other informatics projects to serve programmatic needs. During that time, we’ve trained over 300 individuals from state and local public health departments, the federal government, universities and health-focused NGOs. I know we’re doing something right when I see health departments send new teams year after year. As we ramp up for our seventh offering, I have spent some time reflecting on what makes the course so special, as well as identifying ways we can continue to deliver a valuable experience to the individuals and teams that enroll.

In 2010, PHII created the Informatics Academy to help address the lack of practice-based informatics training for public health practitioners in state and local government. Even though over five years have passed, the vast majority of informatics training available is still aimed at different domains (e.g., medical informatics), predominantly academic and/or theoretical (i.e., not reflective of practice within health departments) or of poor quality. We frequently hear from practitioners in the field who are looking for informatics training that they can immediately apply to their day-to-day work. The Designing & Managing Public Health Information Systems course (called “8 Steps” for short) is full of practical strategies and tools that participants can begin to put to use right away. Better still, through the community aspects of the course, participants are able to learn from each other by sharing stories, lessons learned and even templates.

So how does it work?

The course content is organized by the eight phases of the software development life cycle (IT life cycle), covering the key activities, common barriers and challenges, and role of program staff in developing and managing information systems within public health. The course utilizes several types of media to present the core content, including an eLearning module, articles, videos and case studies. This content can be accessed at any time that is convenient to the participants, a feature that is essential for working professionals with a full plate of responsibilities.

We use a couple of strategies to help deepen the participants’ learning by building stronger connections to their day-to-day work. First, we ask participants to identify a course project to bring with them into the course. Ideally, it is an information system project they are currently working on, but it can also be an upcoming project or a recently completed project. We require this to encourage each person to have a specific, relevant example from their own work to apply their learning to. Also, we encourage learning networks within the health department by offering a discount for health departments that enroll in the course as a team. In multiple course evaluations, we’ve found that learners who participate as a team enjoy improved working relationships and are more likely to put what they’re learning into practice on a current project. We suspect teams spend more time discussing the content in context of their work and thus engage more deeply with the content.

A sense of community

Another unique feature of the course is the social or community aspect. Participants have frequent opportunities to engage with each other and the instructors in an online discussion forum and a live weekly webinar. For example, as part of their weekly assignments, participants use the discussion forum to share successes and challenges for each of the phase of the IT life cycle, and these examples are discussed during the live webinars. In this way, the assignments help individuals reflect on their own experiences and share them with others to further the learning within the cohort. Participants frequently learn about new tools they can use, a particularly effective practice from another health department, or from a “do as I say, don’t do as I did” moment. One of the instructors, Therese Hoyle, often helps coach participants through specific issues they are encountering live on the webinar. She brings many years of practical experience designing and managing information systems within public health and is such a resource to the course participants. The other instructor, Dr. Ed Baker, insists on reaching out to enrollees before the course starts to learn firsthand what they hope to gain from participating. No other course is offering that level of attention.

Impacts and the future

When we ask past participants about the benefits of the course to their work, a few common responses emerge year after year. Having a framework to approach information systems work, as well as the resources such as exit criteria checklists, are frequently cited as the most valuable aspects. Many participants report increased confidence in participating in informatics projects, or even managing them. Several mention being able to “talk the language of IT.” As we’ve introduced more community aspects such as the discussion forum, participants are increasingly saying that they value being connected to other public health practitioners, sharing experiences, and learning together.

We are also working on several improvements to the 8 Steps course. We’re currently in the process of updating the eLearning module to incorporate more interactive scenarios. We’re also planning to expand the community by inviting all past participants to join the online forum, creating a space for participants to engage after the eight week course has ended. And, perhaps most exciting, we recently completed a pilot with participants outside of the U.S., and we are able to support participants from around the globe who work in public health. We’re delighted with what we’ve accomplished and can’t wait to see what the future holds.