Authors Discuss Self-directed Online Leadership Learning Choices of Public Health Professionals


At JPHMP, our mission is to advance and disseminate impactful, practice-based evidence to inform initiatives and policies to improve population health. The public health researchers, academics, policy makers, and practitioners who contribute content to the journal support this mission and strive to improve public health for all communities through their research.

We sat down with Claudia Fernandez, DrPH, MS, RD, LDN, and Cheryl Noble, MSW, MSPH, to discuss their article “An Examination of the Self-directed Online Leadership Choices of Public Health Professionals: The Maternal and Child Health Leadership Institute Experience” published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

JPHMP Direct: Does this research build on or complement any previous research? What led you to look into public health leadership training?

Fernandez/Noble: We see distance education as the most difficult component of training to provide to any workforce due to the vast differences in technical skills of the audience as well as their differing needs in terms of their stage of development and specific issues they face. It was gratifying to see the results of our study indicates our approach has worked well for participants, and to learn the next steps to make it ever more useful to a variety of audiences.

Especially in the arena of public health, budgets have been getting leaner while the leadership challenges are becoming more complex. Such challenges require public health leaders to be particularly skilled in dynamic, innovative leadership practices. Leadership development training is useful to equip leaders in the types of skills needed to address the complex public health challenges of our day. Distance-based leadership training has become more and more attractive as budgets for workforce development have been shrinking. Such distance-based approaches allow for continued skill development, while not requiring as much investment in costly onsite trainings. Recent studies have shown that public health leaders do value the opportunity to utilize distance based training options, and prefer such opportunities to be self-paced, self-directed, and short – allowing them to customize their learning to the time they have available and the leadership challenges they currently face.

Our team has a keen interest in evaluating the impact of leadership training, and in particular, how to making a lasting impact on skill development in leaders who are shouldering significant responsibility. Our approach to leadership training includes both intensive onsite training sessions and comprehensive distance-education components. The distance-education components offer a self-paced, topically customized system, with both basic and advanced levels of information. Our published studies have been able to demonstrate statistically significant differences in perceived skill level, as well as use of those skills, across a variety of key competency areas in public health leaders, academicians, and health care providers. Such findings led us to inquire how specific components of our training performed, namely the distance-education components.

JPHMP Direct: Why is this type of evaluation in leadership development important?

Fernandez/Noble: Because of the cost and issues associated with travel, there has been a great interest in providing as much education and support as possible in the distance environment. While creating the infrastructure to support a high-quality distance-based experience is certainly not low-cost endeavor, it can be an important component that helps the leadership development participant continue their learning despite the daily challenges they face at their home organization. This type of evaluation is important because it sheds light on how to create a successful distance-based learning support program – indicating whether participants find this approach useful and impactful in their leadership practice, and to help determine the topics of most interest to the intended audience.

JPHMP Direct: Which distance-learning modules received the most engagement and why? Which received the least?

The five least viewed module topics were cultural competence, social marketing, communication and advocacy, fostering meaningful family partnerships, and building learning organizations. Our research did not examine the motivations behind participants’ module choices. It may be that some topics represent technical skills are relevant to a smaller number of leaders, based on their specific responsibilities. It is also possible that some of these topics may already be covered extensively in other training modalities, and participants didn’t feel the need for further training.

Participants rated all the modules provided by the Maternal and Child Health Public Health Leadership Institute as relevant and practical. The top five most viewed module topics were employee engagement, talent acquisition strategies, employee motivation, emotional intelligence, and workforce development strategies. Such findings suggest participants had a strong interest in honing interpersonal skills in working with and through others as a leader and manager.

JPHMP Direct: How is the Maternal and Child Health Public Health Leadership Institute (MCH PHLI) funded?

Fernandez/Noble: The Maternal and Child Health Public Health Leadership Institute was supported in full by a Project T04 MC12783 from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (Title V, Social Security Act), Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services. The Program closed in 2014.

JPHMP Direct: Did any of your findings surprise you?

Our previous experience in creating engaging distance-based learning opportunities that allowed our participants to customize their learning helped us fashion both our approach in MCH-PHLI and in our research about the effectiveness of the materials. While we had strong suspicions that our tools were highly effective, it was gratifying to take a rigorous, scientific approach, which confirmed our suspicions of how useful and powerful a tool the leadership library is. The findings also shed light on the topics most sought after by participants, and have helped inform the topic selection for other leadership training programs we currently administer.

JPHMP Direct: What important implications does this have for the development of future online leadership development programs?

Fernandez/Noble: Not only do different learners require different information, learners need information at varying times. A distance-based learning environment allows the learner to choose the materials that will benefit them most in the moment. Creating this Just-In-Time Leadership Library of modules was a significant contribution to the MCH-PHLI leadership development program. We currently use a new version of the library across our many programs. Research into the educational uses and impact of the module library has helped us continually refine our approach to distance-based methods of supporting leadership development of public health leaders and those working in other sectors as well. We hope the findings from this evaluation encourage others to develop and refine distance-education training programs to meet the needs of participants with a flexible and participant-directed approach.

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About the Authors

Claudia Fernandez, DrPH, MS, RD, LDN, is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-author of It-Factor Leadership: Become a Better Leader in 13 Steps. Dr. Fernandez has extensive experience developing custom and nationally award winning executive education programs that focus on personal leadership development, innovation, and business skills for mid-to-senior level managers and leaders; three of her programs have been recognized as top leadership programs in the US. [Full bio]



Cheryl C. Noble, MSW, MSPH, is an Evaluator and Research Associate in the Maternal and Child Health Department at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Noble earned her BA in International Studies from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN, in 2003 and her MSW and MSPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011. She is an alumnus of the UNC Maternal and Child Health Leadership Consortium. Her areas of expertise include the development and implementation of research study protocols and instruments, collection and analysis of qualitative data, and program development and management. [Full bio]