Doctors Without Borders nurse brings her experience to Penn State MOOC

Katie Jacobs
November 21, 2014

The man watched the nurses rush by, scanning their feet and looking for a particular pair of black-and-white polka dot Wellington boots that belonged to Danielle Ballantyne, his nurse. He’d already been waiting in the Ebola Management Center for an hour, but he was prepared to wait longer.

He needed to speak with her.

After waiting another half hour, the man finally saw the polka dot boots. He waved Ballantyne down — he’d been declared cured of Ebola and was free to go home. Although he’d had the chance to leave the clinic immediately, he’d decided to wait until he saw her Wellingtons and he had the chance to say “thank you” and “goodbye.”

Ballantyne, a registered nurse who’s worked in the humanitarian field since 2011, recently returned home to Australia in October after three weeks in Monrovia, Liberia. It was her sixth assignment as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, the humanitarian-aid organization that brings humanitarian medical assistance to victims of conflict, natural disasters, epidemics or health care exclusion.

Now safe at home, Ballantyne has been taking the Penn State MOOC “Epidemics — the Dynamics of Infectious Disease” while studying to earn her master’s degree in international public health.

The massive open online course (MOOC), in its second run, teaches students worldwide about infectious diseases: how they’re spread, how they’re cured and how they’re evolving. Students watch lecture videos, complete quizzes and participate in discussion forums, where students like Ballantyne can discuss anything from the class material to their own experiences.

Ballantyne worked as a nurse supervisor in the confirmed area in one of Doctor’s Without Borders Liberian health centers, which means all her patients were confirmed to have Ebola. Despite fully knowing the risks, Ballantyne was eager to help those in need.

“Usually, the most difficult and dangerous assignments are in places that need the most help,” Ballantyne said. “If you’re going to a war-torn country, you can mitigate the risks, but with Ebola you just never know. It wasn’t an easy decision to go, but I obviously trust Doctors Without Borders or I wouldn’t have gone.”

Ballantyne tried to prepare herself for her time in Liberia, but when she got there she realized nothing could have prepared her for the “living hell” she experienced. She says even the experienced humanitarians she worked with said they’d never seen anything like it.

“Ebola is very hard to catch, but it’s also very dangerous. It doesn’t discriminate among the old, young, healthy or sick — Ebola takes anyone it wants,” said Ballantyne. “Sometimes you lost the patients you thought would survive, and other times the ones you thought would die didn’t. It was an emotional roller coaster.”

A typical day for Ballantyne included assessing patients’ condition, serving meals, and giving medications and other care as needed. She also oversaw data entry and collection, admissions, discharges, training and communication with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which processed blood samples and swabs.

After returning home, Ballantyne learned about Penn State’s Epidemics MOOC after exploring Coursera’s website on recommendation from a Doctors Without Borders human resources officer.

“I have practical, hands-on experience in the field, but I wanted to increase my theoretical knowledge,” says Ballantyne. “I also liked the idea of hearing the ideas and views of students from different backgrounds. Also, the online component gives you the freedom to work on the course when you can.”

Matt Ferrari, one of the Penn State faculty members teaching the MOOC, said Ballantyne is a prime example of the way MOOCs can bring together students who may not have connected otherwise.

“Because MOOCs are free to anyone with an Internet connection, we’re casting a huge net across the globe,” Ferrari said. “In a classroom setting, most of the students will be of a similar age and background. But in a MOOC, you have a much higher chance of attracting a more diverse group of students.”

Ferrari also said having students like Ballantyne in the MOOC is energizing for him as a faculty member.

“It’s very engaging but also daunting,” Ferrari said. “It definitely makes you step up your game. Many of the students in the MOOC, like Ballantyne, have advanced degrees and a wide breadth of experiences. Thoughtful students really raise the bar.”

Teaching the MOOC has also helped change the way Ferrari thinks about teaching his classroom courses, from the length of his lectures to how he incorporates current and real-world events.

Each lecture video for the MOOC is recorded and edited to average only about six minutes in length. But Ferrari said so much thoughtful planning goes into each one that each video covers a lot of material in a short amount of time.

“It’s helped me learn to be more strategic in planning my classroom lectures,” Ferrari said. “I’ve learned that if I plan my lessons very carefully, I can condense my lectures and still cover the same material.”

Condensing lectures leaves more time for in-class discussion, which is another way Ferrari is striving to boost engagement and participation.

“I’ve noticed how much the students in the MOOC are affected by the other students’ real work experiences,” Ferrari said. “I think that a younger student hearing stories from someone like Ballantyne is a real eye-opener for them. It’s made me want to incorporate real-world events into my classroom more than I had been.”

With headlines about Ebola swarming media channels around the world, Ferrari said current events have also played a bigger role in this round of the Epidemics MOOC. While last year’s students asked more individually focused questions, Ferrari said this year there’s been a lot of discussion around the epidemic in Africa.

It’s an opportunity to talk about issues not covered by the mainstream media, Ferrari said, and that he’s seen a lot of worry about the disease spreading but not a lot about what will happen once the disease is brought under control in Africa.

“The health systems in Africa are taking a huge hit right now. The system wasn’t strong to begin with, and they’ve lost many health workers to the disease,” Ferrari said. “This could be a greater crisis after the epidemic subsides while the health system is being built back up. There will be a need for continued vigilance.”

Ballantyne agrees that while Americans should work to keep the United States safe from Ebola, they can’t forget about the people suffering across the ocean.

“Time is our enemy, and we need people on the ground — both medical and logistical,” Ballantyne said. “Please do not turn your back on the people of West Africa.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit

  • Ballantyne standing next to her recovered Ebola patient

    Danielle Ballantyne stands next to the recovered Ebola patient that waited an hour and a half to say goodbye to her.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Danielle Ballantyne

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 24, 2014