COVID-19 has presented institutions of higher learning with a difficult challenge: how to educate students from a distance. With all the videoconferencing tools at our disposal these days, this might seem—at first—like an easy task. But as I have learned through years of experience in graduate and executive education, the intimacy and interactivity of the classroom are among an educator’s most valuable assets. So back in May, with COVID-19 social distancing mandates in place throughout much of the world, the PPP Initiative (PPPI) found itself facing a difficult challenge: without a classroom, how would we educate graduate students and public- and private-sector executives on something so subtle, so complex, and so interdisciplinary as public-private partnerships?

From July 13th to July 24, PPPI and the National University of Singapore’s School of Public Health (NUSSPH) set out to answer this very question, offering—for the first time in our history—a 100% digital workshop. “Introduction to Healthcare PPPs,” a pilot program that engaged a diverse and talented group of healthcare professionals and executives, demonstrated a compelling proof of concept for distance learning, and offered a glimpse of what the future might hold for distance-based healthcare PPP executive education.

Co-taught with Professor Kee Seng Chia, NUSSPH’s founding dean, the workshop took place over six sessions, each about three to four hours, spanning two weeks. Conducted entirely over Zoom, thanks in no small part to NUS’s excellent technology platform and support staff, the program combined lectures, Q&A sessions, and two participatory group projects in which students gained experience with the skills and frameworks that underpin successful PPPs. Learning directly from PPPI’s newest core curriculum, the 135-page PPP Government Guide, participants engaged with eleven carefully-selected case studies, which allowed them to gain hands-on experience with real-world PPP examples. 

Participants were recruited from a wide variety of institutions, including public-sector entities like Singapore’s Ministry of Health, National Kidney Foundation, and the Health Promotion Board; private-sector companies like Fitbit, GlaxoSmithKline, and Apple; and academic institutions like NUS. Productive interaction between sectors is a key element of any successful PPP, and as such, project groups were sorted specifically to encourage cross-sector engagement. As one participant wrote, “I enjoyed the diverse perspectives from different partners: public, private, and academic.”

Of course, executing a successful program via Zoom was no easy task. Without a classroom dynamic, our ability to “read the room” and make adjustments “on the fly” was significantly compromised. To compensate, PPPI engaged in extensive preparation. For each one-hour lecture, PPPI prepared a detailed slide deck—usually 40-50 slides—with content that was closely tied to the Guide and relevant case studies. These decks were distributed 24 hours in advance to give participants the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the content before attending each session. Lectures emphasized repetition and “re-capping” of previous lectures to ensure that participants had a strong foundation in the fundamentals before moving on to more advanced concepts.

A significant time difference also presented unique challenges. Each class began at 8am in Singapore, which is 8pm in New York. Between lectures, group projects, and presentations, the sessions would often continue late into the night, EST. The time difference necessitated a “hand-off” between Professor Trager, who delivered the lecture/Q&A, and Professor Chia, who—along with a group of highly-competent teaching assistants—directed the participatory group projects. Both professors’ extensive experience in healthcare executive education enabled them to execute this transition seamlessly; though each offered a unique perspective on the workshop’s content, the program maintained a smooth flow and a clear forward thrust. 

Students were consistently engaged and insightful, and frequently pushed the discussion far beyond what we would have thought possible over video-conference. In fact, over the run of the course, we devoted approximately one third of our total lecture time to answering over forty distinct participant questions, which were—without exception—challenging, thoughtful and creative. This was no doubt due partly to the high caliber of our participants, but also to the consistently high attendance rates, which were regularly perfect or near-perfect. By the time participants were asked to present their final projects, in which they applied what they had learned to a real-world healthcare challenge in Singapore, they were able to demonstrate a clear facility with the frameworks and skills that underpin successful PPPs. 

In their anonymous course evaluations, participants consistently praised the course’s “balanced approach” between hands-on work and lectures, and cited the “discussions” and “group projects” as among the most beneficial parts of the class. “The lectures were insightful and organized, clear and concise,” wrote one participant, while another felt that “the group work segment was the most enjoyable, as it allowed us to bounce ideas off one another and think about different perspectives.”

Thanks to the generous support of Amgen, PPPI will continue to expand our programming at NUS and beyond over the next year. By refining our curriculum materials and improving our distance-learning methodologies, PPPI is eager to lead the way in distance-based executive education for healthcare PPPs—both within Southeast Asia, and around the world.