Saving lives by sharing knowledge online

March 2018

Open WHO

The early 21st century – with its increased travel and trade, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change – could have been fashioned to help epidemics thrive and grow.

As public health emergencies have become more complex so have the responses – with local, national and international personnel involved, all bringing different backgrounds, cultures and levels of knowledge.

For WHO’s experts, it became clear that a crucial tool in the war against epidemics and pandemics would be getting timely, accurate, up-to-date information to the growing cadre of responders – regardless of how remote or difficult their location.

“The major epidemics we have seen this century highlighted the need for a system that quickly transforms scientific knowledge into action on the ground,” said Dr Gaya Gamhewage, Manager of WHO’s Support for Response team in the Department of Infectious Hazard Management

For epidemic disease, it is particularly important to make sure that responders and volunteers know how to protect themselves.

Actionable Knowledge

“The key is actionable knowledge,” adds Dr Sylvie Briand, Director of Infectious Hazard Management at WHO. “What we have is knowledge. For us the value of knowledge is when it is shared – and it is especially important that responders have enough knowledge to protect themselves and do good work. We had information on diseases like Plague, MERS and Ebola, we had a number of courses but they were on paper, not accessible from the field.”

To tackle this 21st century problem, WHO turned to a 21st century solution – the creation of a suite of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

Since first emerging in the early 2000s, these courses have quickly become a popular internet-based learning tool for millions of people, who follow courses created by global experts and institutions that can be accessed anywhere, anytime, by anyone.


In June 2017, WHO publicly launched its own MOOC platform – OpenWHO – offering online courses specially tailored for health emergency responders. The space is interactive, allowing experiences and expertise to be shared and kept fresh via discussions and feedback.

“We don’t call it training – we call it knowledge transfer. OpenWHO allows us and our key partners to transfer life-saving knowledge to large numbers of frontline responders quickly and reliably,” said Dr Briand.

The platform offers four channels of self-paced learning materials that cover key technical, operational and social elements of epidemic and pandemic response.

  • The Outbreak Channel cover the science of fighting pandemics and epidemics.
  • The Ready for Response Channel focuses on improving emergency response operations.
  • Get Social covers necessary soft skills such as risk communications, social mobilization and community engagement.
  • The GOARN channel contains information for Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network participants – preparing them for emergency field work.

So far more than 34 courses have been uploaded onto the on the Platform. More are in the pipeline – along with multiple language versions. A new channel dedicated to pandemics will be launched in the next few months.

WHO partners with NGO Translators Without Borders who can translate into more than 122 different languages and dialects, as required. The most popular courses so far are those on the Incident Management System, Pandemic and Epidemic-prone Diseases, and Communications.

The courses are free although most users must register. To date, more than 25,000 users from more than 190 countries and territories – with the most registrations coming from Nigeria, India and the USA – have enrolled in 43,000 OpenWHO courses, many for more than one.

The MOOC platform is also integrated with WHO social media outlets – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – which helps people find it. It has been configured to work on smartphones and tablets, as well as computers.

The platform was designed for use in remote setting where internet connectivity could be weak or absent. Course materials can also be downloaded – for use offline where there are poor internet connections.


Although the platform has only been available for a few months, user responses have been enthusiastic.

“Many thanks indeed to the WHO team for informative training with real objectives,” said one student on the Incident Management Systems course.

“It is good that WHO took the leadership in emergency response and developed these systems and frameworks,” said another.

Up to 250,000 students can access the courses at any one time and an unlimited number can register on OpenWHO – so the plan is to develop and expand the platform’s content and reach.

“We want to establish OpenWHO as a leading, trusted source of public health information, which can react quickly to new health information needs as they arise,” says Dr Briand.

“Too many people have died from lack of knowledge. We want these online courses to help save lives.”

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