Celebrating a Decade of Virtual Nutrition Education

The Online Graduate Certificate programs at Friedman School, a pioneer in online learning, offer a deeper dive into topics like healthy communities, sustainable agriculture, and food systems

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tufts University was better positioned than many universities to transition to virtual education in large part because of the Online Graduate Certificate program (OGC) at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which is celebrating its tenth year.

Former dean Eileen Kennedy created the program with funding from the PR firm Food Minds in 2011, long before remote learning came into vogue. Taking advantage of the in-house educational technology team she hired to develop the Friedman MNSP hybrid/distance master’s degree program, which had launched just prior, the OGC started out with a cluster of nutrition communications and global nutrition programming courses.

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

It was a bold experiment at a time when many people questioned whether online education was on par with in-person learning, recalled Rachel Cheatham, N08, who was invited to teach in the program in its second year. But Cheatham, who had moved away from Boston upon completing her PhD, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “This online situation afforded me the opportunity to be on the faculty, stay tied in with Tufts, and teach content 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 fellow Friedman School faculty proved online 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, nutrition science for communications professionals, global nutrition programming, and nutrition for industry professionals and entrepreneurs.

Students can earn a certificate in a given track by taking two courses from that track, and a third course from the same or any other category. Students also have the option to build their own certificate by completing any three courses, or they can just take one or two courses without getting a certificate. Overall, they are welcome to take as many or few courses as they want in order to meet their own individual needs and interests.

Classes have no required in-person component and take place fully asynchronously, which means students can listen to faculty’s pre-recorded lectures, participate in online discussions, and complete readings and assignments on their own schedule within each week. Most quizzes and exams are open for multiple days.

This flexibility means that students aren’t limited to who happens to be in Boston, or who might be able to take on a regular class schedule. “Every time I teach, I’m amazed by who’s in the class,” McKay said. “Students come from very different backgrounds and have different perspectives, which makes it a particularly enriching experience because everyone learns not just 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 hail from all over the world. They include professionals in government, health care, and food manufacturing looking to bring an understanding of nutrition to their work; retirees continuing their learning; nutrition enthusiasts looking to learn without the commitment of a graduate degree program; and people looking to pursue a passion or adopt healthier habits, a number of whom end up applying to Friedman degree programs.

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

Program alum Claudine DuFort was following a burgeoning interest in nutrition and mulling whether to train as a registered dietitian or join a foundation in Haiti helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds learn about healthy eating. “I thought, I’m no longer 22—let me find out first if this is something I want to get into. A graduate level certificate might be exactly what I need,” DuFort said. She was right—the OGC program was flexible but demanded a commitment to learn, 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 on things I know would be beneficial to my own circle of family and friends,” she said.

Looking back on the past ten years of the program, McKay said it has been an amazing experience that has taught her many lessons—which she has been 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 at other universities, especially during the pandemic,” McKay said. “I knew from the start 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 infancy to something legitimate and in demand. It’s cool to recognize that real connections can form on a one-to-one human level even virtually,” she said. “I hope the quality of engagement can continue to get even richer, and I hope to be teaching in the program for another ten years.”

A tailor-made nutrition education

Jim Moran, one of the first cohort of OGC students, recalls his keen interest in food as the child of two parents who loved going to New York City restaurants. That interest grew as he moved out on his own in his early twenties and realized he didn’t know how to cook—and it grew even more with blossoming of public awareness of good nutrition.

A writer and a teacher, Moran completed a professional certificate at a culinary institute in Los Angeles, and upon moving to Boston began volunteering with two nonprofits: Community Servings, which provides medically tailored meals to seriously ill people, and Cooking Matters, which educates parents and caregivers on healthy shopping and cooking on a budget. But increasingly, he felt the need for more knowledge of nutrition, particularly so he could pass that knowledge on to Cooking Matters clientele—and a full-blown degree program didn’t seem to fit. “It was about knowing nutrition the way I needed to know about it, as a layperson,” he said.

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

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

Moran will continue to use what he learned in the OGC program in his volunteering for Cooking Matters (on hold now due to the pandemic), and in a project he’s envisioning for after he retires: an online resource dedicated to whistleblowing on bad nutrition information in the media.

“I had a really good time, and it was an actual credential I was able to use,” he said of his experience in the OGC program. “And I think it’s going to help me as I keep going forward in terms of my aspirations.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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