RANDOMIZED STUDY ON THE IMPACT OF COOPERATIVE LEARNING: Distance Education in Public Health

Article excerpt

Numerous developments in distance education, technology-enhanced learning, and curriculum improvement have resulted in making public health higher education more responsive to public health practice and more accessible to public health workers. However, educators in graduate programs rarely scrutinize the results of our teaching effectiveness beyond performance on objective tests, course evaluations, and job placement rates. As a consequence, graduate education programs in schools of public health lag behind other health science and management disciplines in pursuing empirical study of teaching effectiveness and learning outcomes.

This lack of pedagogical structuring is especially true in distance education, where many traditional verbal and nonverbal communication channels are precluded when compared to the classroom setting. Distance education programs are closely evaluated to ensure they meet institutional and accreditation standards and learner satisfaction (Cannon, Umble, Sleekier, & Shay, 2001; Umble, Shay, & Sollecito, 2003); however, a review of the literature indicates very little systematic inquiry has been done to research the effectiveness of teaching methods on learning in public health higher education through distance learning.

THE PURPOSE OF STUDY

The purpose of this study is to explore the effects of cooperative learning on cognitive outcomes in a public health graduate level Web-based distance education course. Specifically, we use a randomized control trial to determine the impact of two teaching pedagogies on learning effectiveness in three areas of the cognitive domain: declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and higher cognition. Examining effective teaching in public health requires asking three questions: (1) how do students learn, (2) how effective is our teaching, and (3) how can we apply the scholarship of teaching and learning to the discipline of public health?

Education researchers have long established the techniques of effective teaching and learning pedagogy in higher education. However, these concepts have been slow to diffuse to graduate-level public health education. A literature review reveals that empiricallybased pedagogical approaches are only sporadically applied and curriculum based on modern educational theory is rare in both the traditional and nontraditional public health classroom. This study examines various learner outcomes in distance education as influenced by cooperative learning.

We will test the effectiveness of cooperative learning on knowledge acquisition in a distance education course. Specifically, we will examine whether cooperative learning is associated with improved learner performance in three levels of knowledge: declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and higher cognition. The following research questions explore this association:

1. Can declarative knowledge acquisition (remembering) be achieved equally through independent-learning and cooperative learning pedagogical techniques?

2. Does cooperative learning improve procedural knowledge (knowing how to inquire and present knowledge in public health)?

3. Does cooperative learning improve performance on higher cognition (setting problem solving strategies and assessing lines of inquiry)?

PEDAGOGICAL THEORY

The need for understanding teaching pedagogy based on evidence is becoming more apparent in public health education. Graduate-level public health education involves more than acquisition of specialized knowledge. As a practice discipline, public health focuses on skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and inductive reasoning. While it is fairly easy to impart and assess knowledge acquisition through objective tests in a Web-based course, the development of deeper thinking skills is a particular challenge with graduate public health students in distance education because of the time gap between the learning point of the lesson and the learning moment of the student. …