April 21, 2021 12:10 PM

A New Online Master’s Degree Changing the Game

Health professionals now have a flexible 12-month path to earn a leading edge health improvement focused degree.

graphic of woman sitting at computer with professor on screen and bubbles floating around about science and health

This article was last updated on October 1, 2021.

Prospective students are invited to attend virtual information sessions before the February 1 scholarship priority deadline or the June 1 application deadline.

When Catherine Irwin was working at IBM Watson Health she was frustrated by why some hospitals consistently out-performed others. She wondered, “Once things have been improved, why don’t they stay better?”

That question led her to the Health Infrastructures and Learning Systems, or HILS, graduate program in 2018 where she became a part-time master’s student in the Department of Learning Health Sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School. However, as a working professional, she would have jumped at the chance to enroll in the new flexible online version of the program she came to love.

Launched this year, the Health Infrastructures and Learning Systems Online master of science program, or HILS-Online MS, is a purpose-built online degree designed to provide health professionals like Irwin with the methods they need to address social and technical challenges in making health improvements routine. 

The program is a part of an international movement towards learning health systems, which are organizations and/or networks that continuously self-study and adapt using data and analytics to generate knowledge, engage stakeholders and implement behavioral changes that transform practices.

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The courses are taught by the same faculty who bring their expertise in implementation science, social science, quality improvement, data and knowledge representation to the residential HILS program. Like all HILS professors, Anne Sales, Ph.D., R.N., works with a learning architect to revamp her Implementation Science in Health 1 course, which is specifically for online students.

Our students need a tool kit with approaches for quality improvement,” she says. “We’re using a game approach that will offer a standardized problem. First, students get comfortable with the tools and then, in the second half of the course, they work on their own problem.”

According to program director Caren M. Stalburg, M.D., M.A., addressing students’ time constraints was a priority for the department when envisioning the flexible structure. Asynchronous class offerings allow students to binge-learn a course if they are absorbing the material quickly. They can also repeat-watch a challenging class, which means that they can complete the degree in 12 months or spread their coursework out over the span of three years.

"It’s also a full-fledged University of Michigan degree available without the need to relocate to Ann Arbor."
Caren M. Stalburg, M.D., M.A.

Irwin notes that the versatility of the program is quite significant: “To be able to go faster or slower, revisit more technical lectures and to choose the time of day to go to class, that’s a big deal,” she says.  

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However, Irwin doesn’t want students to miss out on interacting with their peers when using this new online version of the course.

“The diversity of students in each cohort is wonderful,” she says.  “Everybody brings their own professional experiences and rich backgrounds to each course. This is really important for everyone.” 

In order to best capitalize on this diversity, the program’s faculty members make room for idea-sharing and feedback among students and staff. Beyond the normal office hours and discussion boards, students will also participate in three in-person institutes on campus where they can meet with faculty and peers for various learning activities. Stalburg adds that these meetings serve as an opportunity for participants to brainstorm their Learning Cycle Capstone projects, where students partner with a faculty member and focus on a specific problem of interest.

Having designed a long-running massive open online course for Coursera Stalburg is no stranger to the reach of online learning. She recalls the need for HILS-Online emerged over the residential program’s first four years. The majority of students were not typical full-time students who went from undergrad directly into a master’s program, but those already working in health care or social service fields.

Stalburg explains how this flexible online master’s will cast a wide net for those looking for a U-M experience, “Not only does the HILS-Online MS provide graduates with combined skills in health care infrastructures, data analysis and change implementation; it is also a full-fledged University of Michigan degree available without the need to relocate to Ann Arbor.”