Need an Online Curriculum in Data Science or Public Health that is Engaging? Here are my Freebies and Hacks!

This blog post talks about how I use deeper learning principles when I develop online curricula for public health and data science.

Need an online curriculum right now that is ready-to-use in the fields of data science or public health that will immediately get your learners engaged with your topic? Then you’ve come to the right place! In this blog post, I’ll share my freebies with you – as well as my hacks for throwing together a curriculum when under time pressure that provides value to learners.

Need an Online Curriculum that Keeps Learners Interested? Turn to Science!

When I need an online curriculum, I think in terms of evidence-based methods. I’m a scientist who actually does studies about online teaching and learning in higher education. One of the landmark papers I always find myself revisiting is this article about “deeper learning” by Wickersham and McGee that I’ve written about before.

The article has a table in it which makes several points about how embed “deeper learning principles” (DLPs) into an online curriculum in order to make sure learners stay engaged, and pick up real-world skills, as well as higher-level knowledge. It is this article that inspired me to come up with the tips and tricks I will share here for improving the value of an online curriculum, even if you don’t have a lot of time.

Including Real-World Problems in an Online Curriculum

This has been my best hack for quickly throwing together some valuable and interesting learning activities when I’m in a hurry and need an online curriculum. For example, if you’ve ever taken one of my R or SAS courses on LinkedIn Learning, you will see that I use a real dataset available on the internet for demonstration. This dataset is a health survey that is redone every year – so using this dataset allows me to give the learners examples of “real-world problems”.

Here are my tips for using real-world problems when you need an online curriculum.

Start by Choosing an Ideal Topic

  1. Think about recent months. Ask yourself – what have my learners been asking me about? What topics have they been wondering about? Keep track of actual instances of questions or help you gave to a learner. These learners represent “future employees in the field”.
  2. Think about recent work. Ask yourself – what have my colleagues been asking me to help them with? What challenges are they experiencing? These colleagues represent “future hirers in the field”.

Focus on Real-World Files and Experiences

Once you find something that you have done recently that seems to be a topic of interest to both future employees and employers, then go to that project folder. Now ask yourself:

  1. What files from this folder are the most important to the project? These are ones that the learners should be taught about.
  2. What is a good way to prepare learners for a project like this at a workplace? Prioritize experiences you think the learners should have first in your online classroom before being out in the work world and having the experience!

Create a Scenario for Simulation. and Make Learning Materials for the Simulation

At this point, you have an idea of some files you want the learners to work with, and some experiences you want them to have. These are files from a real project you did – so now, you have to put on your creative hat! You have to come up with a scenario that is sort of like the scenario of your project, only changed so that you can increase the learning value, reduce the unnecessary detail, and of course, de-identify the real people and organizations originally involved. I find it helpful to think of multiple similar projects, and combine important files and experiences from these into a learning scenario that is geared to hit the most important points.

Need an Online Curriculum as an Example?

If you take my free online course in how to set up data collection for research, you will see that I create a scenario with characters in it to serve a number of purposes. Here are rationales to keep in mind when developing the educational scenario:

  1. To keep concepts clear: Some of the files and processes I teach about in the course seem very similar to other ones, but they have critical differences. To keep them separate in the learners’ mind, I make the example use-cases in the scenario different for each application. I also associate each application with different characters in the scenario.
  2. To show multiple applications of the same concepts: The scenario in the data collection course is just “too perfect” for the topic. It’s about a fictitious research team, where one team member needs to do a survey, and another needs to do record abstraction. This way, I can show applications of the data collection tools in two totally different contexts. In reality, I’ve never been on a research team that needed to do both of those things in one project. I just made the scenario that way as a teaching tool for the course.
  3. To be as realistic as possible: If you take the data collection course, you will see that there are a lot of files used for educational purposes that contain extraneous data on them that are not used by the team. For example, I provide fictitious lab reports based on the format of real lab reports, where the team is only interested in a few data fields on the reports. By using real lab reports that have been edited to add confidentiality and to emphasize the teaching points, I created an interesting teaching tool that allows my learners to gain experience with a very realistic lab report – which is confusing and messy, as lab reports often are. As educators, we may lean toward providing “clean” examples to learners – but then, they do not learn about how things are in a real workplace setting.

In terms of process, I typically write up the scenario in some way first, and then, I create a situation where I will share it with learners. The learners must understand the scenario and their role in it, or it will not be a very useful real-world simulation.

Then, after they learn about the scenario, their role in the scenario, and how the simulation is intended to teach them skills and knowledge, they usually really love participating. Research studies I’ve done using this approach have shown that learners really gain a lot from these online educational implementations.

Other Examples of Real-World DLPs in my Curricula

Real world small data with online tools

In my online statistics course, one of my most popular videos talks about how to make a box plot. When I taught the course at a local college, I also assigned learners to use this online tool to make a box plot. I had them look up data from American Hospital Directory online (, then do systematic sampling of number of beds in hospitals in the state where the college was (Massachusetts) and plot the results.

Real world challenges that make the learner accomplish something

In my free online course in getting started with SAS OnDemand for Academics (SAS ODA), I include a challenge for the learner. The challenge focuses on getting registered and being able to load a SAS dataset into SAS ODA that I provide from my GitHub site.

This is a practical challenge. Even if the learner chooses not to take the rest of the courses in my boutique course series (which are for cost, and are based on my book on how to run SAS data warehouses), the learner comes away from the course having completed a real-world, practical task. If I’m taking a college course, I think of it like “making an assignment to help the student get their homework done” – an ultimately practical task.

Many Real-World Examples to Illustrate a Few Basic Concepts

This is the approach I took when developing my data curation course on LinkedIn Learning. I gathered up my best, most informative, and most common examples of curation files from real projects. Then, I changed them all to conform the objectives I described above: simplified, de-identified, and developed to focus on teaching certain concepts.

I also like to demonstrate application of the concepts in multiple settings. For example, I just made this blog post giving a real-life use-case of an R-SAS integration I did. Of course, I reduced the example to just the most basic concepts. But I selected the concepts highlighted strategically, to impart the most learning.

Need Online Curriculum – but in Too Much of a Hurry?

As I write this, I realize we are turning the corner on 2022, and college campuses are up-in-the-air about holding online vs. in-person courses due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 omicron variant. Are you a professor caught up in this, and need some emergency online curricula fast? E-mail me or connect with me on LinkedIn, and I’ll hook you up!

Updated December 29, 2021.

Need online curriculum in data science or public health that keeps the learners engaged? I share a links to free resources as well as my hacks to interest high!

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