Celebrating a decade of virtual nutrition education

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Tufts University was in a better position than many universities to transition to virtual education in large part thanks to the online graduate certificate (OGC) program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which is celebrating its tenth year. .

Former Dean Eileen Kennedy started the program with funding from public relations firm Food Minds in 2011, long before distance learning became all the rage. Taking advantage of the in-house educational technology team she hired to develop the Friedman MNSP hybrid / distance master’s program, which had been launched just before, the OGC started with a group of communication courses on nutrition and global nutrition programming.

“Online learning seemed like a great way to broaden our horizons, fulfill the mission of the Friedman School, and reach a wider audience,” said Diane McKay, who became director of the program in 2012 and teaches the Principles of Nutritional Science course.

It was a bold experiment at a time when many wondered if online education compared to in-person learning, recalls Rachel Cheatham, N08, who was invited to teach in the program during her second year. But Cheatham, who had left Boston after completing his doctorate, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “This online situation gave me the opportunity to be on the faculty, stay connected with Tufts, and teach content that I was qualified and interested in teaching, even though I resided in Chicago.” , she said.

And with the help of a team of instructional designers and educational technologists, McKay, Cheatham, and other professors at the Friedman School have proven e-learning skeptics wrong. Today, the OGC program has grown to include nearly 20 courses, which fall into six possible tracks or areas of focus: developing healthy communities, sustainable agriculture and food systems, nutrition science for health professionals. health, nutritional science for communications professionals, global nutrition programming, and nutrition for industry professionals and entrepreneurs.

Students can obtain a certificate in a given stream by taking two courses in that stream and a third course in the same category or any other category. Students also have the option of creating their own certificate by taking three courses, or they can just take one or two courses without obtaining a certificate. Overall, they are encouraged to take as many or as few courses as they wish in order to meet their own needs and interests.

Classes have no in-person component required and are conducted entirely asynchronously, meaning that students can listen to prerecorded faculty lectures, participate in online discussions, and complete readings and assignments on their own. schedule every week. Most quizzes and exams are open for several days.

This flexibility means that students are not limited to who is in Boston, or who might be able to attend a regular class schedule. “Every time I teach, I’m amazed at who’s in the class,” McKay said. “The students come from very different backgrounds and have different perspectives, which makes it a particularly rewarding experience as everyone learns not only from the instructor and the course materials, but from each other.

There are 30 to 70 students in the program in any given semester, and they come from all over the world. They include professionals in government, health care, and food manufacturing who seek to bring an understanding of nutrition to their work; retirees continuing their apprenticeship; nutrition enthusiasts looking to learn without the commitment of a graduate program; and people looking to pursue a passion or adopt healthier habits, a number of whom end up applying to Friedman degree programs.

Lori Rohleder, former of the program, said the program was a big transitional step as she returned to the workforce after raising her two boys. “The program allowed me to gain knowledge about nutrition, while broadening my knowledge in public relations and allowed me to get started in social media,” Rohleder said. “I was able to get an internship at edible Magazine as soon as I have completed the certificate. She also gained a better understanding of life-threatening food allergies from her sons and an insight into the science of decision-making that she still uses today in her work as a philanthropy manager.

Program alumnus Claudine DuFort followed a growing interest in nutrition and wondered whether to train as a dietitian or join a foundation in Haiti to help people from underprivileged backgrounds learn about healthy eating. “I told myself I’m not 22 anymore – first let me know if this is something I want to get into. A graduate certificate might be exactly what I need, ”said DuFort. She was right: the OGC program was flexible but required a commitment to learning and provided just enough structure to support DuFort in that learning. “I feel like I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, but at the same time, I can provide good information about things that I know are beneficial for my own circle of family and friends,” he said. she declared.

Looking back on the past ten years of the program, McKay said it had been an incredible experience that taught her many lessons, which she was more than happy to pass on. “It has been humbling and gratifying to be able to offer advice on online learning to my colleagues here at Tufts and other universities, especially during the pandemic,” McKay said. “I knew from the start that it was a worthwhile effort and that the online format of these programs would pay off at some point. “

Cheatham feels the same. “I’ve seen a decade of evolution, from something in its early days to something legitimate and in demand. It’s cool to recognize that real connections can form on a human level, even virtually, ”she said. “I hope that the quality of engagement can continue to grow and I hope to teach in the program for another ten years.”

Tailor-made nutritional education

Jim Moran, one of OGC’s first students, remembers his keen interest in food as a child of two parents who loved going to New York City restaurants. This interest grew when he moved on his own in his early twenties and realized he couldn’t cook.

A writer and teacher, Moran obtained a professional certificate from a culinary institute in Los Angeles and, after moving to Boston, began volunteering with two nonprofit organizations: Community Servings, which offers medically appropriate meals for seriously ill people; and Cooking Matters, which educates parents. and caregivers on healthy shopping and cooking on a budget. But more and more he felt the need for more nutrition knowledge, especially to be able to pass that knowledge on to the Cooking Matters clientele – and a full-fledged degree program didn’t seem like the right fit for him. “It was about knowing nutrition the way I needed to know it, as a layman,” he said.

Moran found exactly what he needed in Friedman’s OGC curriculum, including a “great hardcore nutrition science course” in a rigorous yet accessible format. “It was really great for people who were already working like professionals,” Moran said. He also bonded with his classmates, even arranging to meet in person with a few. “They were really interesting. They were able to tell me more about them online than in a live course, and I felt I got to know them, which really surprised me, ”he said.

When Moran was later accepted into Boston University’s Master of Arts in Gastronomy (Food Studies) program, he was able to transfer credits for two of his courses at the Friedman School and knowledge from his training in nutrition, which was not part of the BU program. “I felt I was at an advantage when I entered this program because I was able to bring my nutrition knowledge to the classroom discussions,” he said.

Moran will continue to use what he learned in the OGC program in his volunteering for Cooking Matters (now on hold due to the pandemic) and in a project he is considering after his retirement: an online whistleblower resource. poor nutritional information in the media.

“I had a great time, and it was a real degree that I was able to use,” he said of his experience in the OGC program. “And I think that will help me as I continue to move forward in terms of aspirations.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at [email protected].


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