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In view of the cost of bringing IPHU participants together for face to face courses and the rapid developments in internet based communication technologies, PHM has experimented several times offering IPHU courses on line, IPOL.  

The first IPOL was presented in early 2012 in the lead up to the Third People's Health Assembly (PHA3) in Cape Town in June 2012. This was conceived in part as a mechanism to assist in selection of participants in the face to face IPHU held just before PHA3.  See Study Guide here.

The second IPOL was a stand-alone generalist course offered from June to October 2013.  See Study Guide and Tasks & Timelines table.  

The third IPOL was a stand-alone specialist course focusing on Global Health Governance and linked to PHM's WHO Watch project. Study guide here.

The purpose of the IPOL program was articulated in 2013 as "to provide opportunities for people’s health activists to learn, share and plan.  Through IPOL (and other movement-building initiatives) PHM aims to strengthen the networks, organisations and movements around the world struggling to achieve ‘health for all’."  

It was also announced in the announcement of the 2013 course that "IPOL also provides basic preparation for participation in one of PHM’s face to face IPHU courses. Activists who have successfully completed the IPOL program will be given preference should they apply to participate in future face to face IPHU courses."

The IPOL (2013) study program comprised eight topics, broadly corresponding to the core topics described under Learning Together.  

Each topic was supported by: a set of learning objectives; a reading program; a webinar presentation and discussion; written exercise (with feedback), and one on line small group discussion. Each topic cycle took two weeks including the webinar, reading, submitting the written exercise, circulation of feedback and the small group on line discussion.  

The GHG IPOL was directed to a more specific set of objectives and include topics more directly related to global health governance and WHO Watch.  However, the framework for study (learning objectives, readings, webinar, exercises, group discussion, etc) was as for the generalist 2013 version.

Our main channels for advertising these courses have been email, website and social media. Advertising should start no less than eight weeks before scheduled commencement with a (first) deadline for applications four weeks before commencement. This gives time for consideration of applications and notification and for supplementary advertising if this is necessary.

Applicants are urged to use the on line application facility. Email applications add significantly to the workload of the organisers because of data entry onto the on line system. 

Activities and platforms

The package of activities comprising each topic included: learning objectives, readings, webinar, exercise, email feedback on exercise, facilitated group discussion.

The groups on which the course was based included (initially) around eight participants plus two facilitators.  The groups were formed on a time zone basis with diversity as the second criterion.  

The burden associated with a two week cycle may have been excessive with significant attrition with respect to both participants and facilitators.   In particular, several facilitators found that providing useful email feedback for exercises from around six students every two weeks was too much.  Having two facilitators per group was designed to share the work and protect against sickness and other unavoidable absences.  In fact it maybe that having two facilitators may have encouraged some to drop out on the assumption that their partner would continue.  

A heavy burden of readings was also a challenge for some participants. A clearer distinction between core and optional reading is important.  Some participants also found the written exercises challenging.  

The cycle of readings > webinar > exercises > feedback > discussion appeared to work, apart from the workload. The workload could be addressed by extending the cycle to three or even four weeks or by reducing the burden or both.  

The IPOL was limited to free communications technologies (Skype, Google Hangout, Skype and YouTube). However, the most pressing limitation was the bandwidth available to participants.  Webinars on Google Hangout which video as well as audio signals were particularly affected.  The webinars were conceived as interactive spaces for participants to engage with the resource people.  It might be better in future to ask the resource people to record a video and post it on YouTube and then participate in an interactive audio only group discussion. 

Communications technologies are developing rapidly and different platforms might be appropriate for future IPOLs.  However, the problem of limited bandwidth is likely to remain a problem.  

Keeping track of the participants and their exercises and the facilitator feedback involved a series of email groups so all exercises within each group were shared and a spreadsheet for each group to record the exercises and comments.  The spreadsheets are stored in a shared Dropbox folder so that all of the facilitators have access to them.  

Periodic meetings of the facilitators' group were useful to share experiences in facilitating the groups.  

The IPOL model lends itself to presentation in different languages.  The translation and modification of the announcement and Study Guide with new language appropriate readings is not onerous.  

As with the face to face IPHUs certificates were generated and mailed to participants on completion of the course.