Nutrition Online: An Internet-Based Distance Learning Course

Morton M. Sternheim <>
Helen R. Sternheim <>
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA

Nancy Cohen <>
Stella Volpe <>
Mary Jane Laus <>
Department of Nutrition
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA

Patsy Beffa-Negrini <>
Keene State College, Keene, NH 03435, USA


Earlier this year, the University of Massachusetts Department of Nutrition offered Nutrition Online, an experimental Internet-based course for secondary school teachers of science, health, physical education, and family and consumer sciences. Internet services were provided by UMassK12, a menu-driven Internet host service for Massachusetts K-12 teachers and students. The course started and ended with on-campus sessions. The first introduced the course materials and provided training in the use of UMassK12. The second, nine weeks later, was used for closure and evaluation of the course. Instruction was based on print materials supplemented with a variety of Internet resources, including local newsgroups, the World Wide Web, e-mail, a nutritional analysis database, and real time chat among the participants and instructors. The course consisted of eight units, each based on a printed booklet and a variety of online and offline required and optional activities. Preliminary evaluation indicates that the participants--the majority of whom had little or no previous Internet experience--found the course an excellent way to learn the nutrition content as well as how to use the Internet as a curricular resource. The work was supported in part by a University of Massachusetts Public Service Endowment Grant.

1. Introduction

Nutrition Online represents an attempt to utilize the Internet to deliver a new kind of distance learning experience, one which offers both flexibility and a high degree of interaction among the students and instructors, while keeping costs down. It is a joint effort of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Nutrition and the UMassK12 Internet service for Massachusetts K-12 teachers and students. The first cycle of the course was given in February and March of 1996, and was concluded just after this paper was completed. Hence, we are reporting on the design of the course and the preliminary evaluation data.

The correspondence course--based traditionally on print materials and now sometimes also on video tapes or computerized materials--allows students to choose the time and place where they study. It is relatively inexpensive to deliver, and it solves the access problems associated with living in remote areas, family needs or work schedules, or disabilities. However, such courses allow only for minimal communication between the learner and the teacher via paper or electronic mail; there is usually no interaction among the students. Similarly, the real-time video form of distance learning is often offered with no immediate way for the remote learners to communicate with the instructor and learners at other sites, except perhaps via a voice telephone connection; full two-way video has been too expensive for widespread use. In any case, if students must be in the video classroom, access may be limited.

For some students, correspondence courses or one-way video instruction via broadcasts or tapes are effective. For example, for two decades, the School of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts has successfully offered graduate engineering courses via satellite broadcasts and tapes of actual classroom lectures. These students are usually comfortable with courses in which the instructor lectures using a chalk board or overhead projector, with little or no class participation or discussion; being at a remote site makes little difference. However, teachers taking graduate courses in education expect to participate in seminars, thinking through ideas together. The "talking-head" instructional model is not effective for this group.

The basic premise of Nutrition Online was that print materials combined with Internet technology--newsgroups, mailing lists, e-mail, World Wide Web, real-time chat (Internet Relay Chat)--would allow us to retain the benefits of the correspondence course while adding the interaction among the learners that is so valuable. Nutrition Online was designed to use all the major Internet services to see which of these were most useful in constructing online courses. Internet access was provided by UMassK12, which features easy-to-use menus, pointers to a wide variety of educational resources, strong user support, and statewide dial-up access. In operation since 1993, it has introduced over 7,000 teachers to the Internet and to its value for education. It is available 24 hours per day, making it possible to for the course participants to access it according to their own scheduling needs.

Nutrition Online had several components: on-campus workshops, printed reading materials and assignments, and Internet access via a special course menu on UMassK12. The course began with an on-campus Saturday workshop designed to introduce the 50 participants to the course and to each other. After receiving their printed materials and taking a pre-test on their nutrition and Internet knowledge, attitudes, and practices, they were divided into two groups for hands-on Internet training and a nutrition workshop in which they discussed labels, recalls, portions, curricula, and dietary behavior change. A half day Saturday session nine weeks later was intended to provide the opportunity for a post-test of nutrition and Internet knowledge, attitudes, and practices, sharing lesson plans the participants developed, and project evaluation.

2. Audience, goals, and objectives

Nutrition Online was designed for secondary school teachers of family/consumer sciences, physical education, health, and science. In Massachusetts, teachers are required to continue their education and earn "Professional Development Points" to retain their certifications. Also, the state's new Curriculum Frameworks call for including nutrition in the health education curriculum. Yet the affected teachers are not uniformly trained in nutrition, and most of them generally (as was true in our group of course participants) have been teaching for 15 years or longer. Continuing education is vital for these teachers, as new developments arise frequently, and misinformation is rampant.

Even though UMassK12 was used to publicize Nutrition Online, over half of the group had no experience with the Internet or other telecommunications services. Thus an initial Internet training workshop and strong ongoing technical support were critical. Peer help from colleagues with more Internet experience was also helpful for some participants.

The basic projects goals were to develop and assess a new Internet-based model for teaching nutrition and other subjects, one which would allow for good interactions among the learners and the staff. Course objectives for the learners included:

3. UMassK12

Nutrition Online used the original UMassK12 system. This service provides a text-based menu driven interface with some command line short cuts that is well received by both novices and experienced Internet users. (Our newer, graphical system was not used because it could not be accessed by local calls for many participants, and because it required relatively powerful user work stations.) The online learning activities used in the course were accessed via the Nutrition Online menu, which is similar to many others on UMassK12 (Figure 1).

Nutrition Online Course
(go online)
1. Participant and Staff Biographies
2. Nutrition Online Conversation
3. Course Assignments and Announcements
4. Responses to Discussion Questions
5. Food-Net Listserv
6. Nutrition Information via World Wide Web
7. NIBBLE nutrition database (user name: Nibble Guest)
8. Send Email to the Course Instructors
9. Send Email to the UMassK12 Sysop
10. Online chat with course participants and instructors

Figure 1. Nutrition Online menu on UMassK12.

The menu selections are largely self-explanatory. Items 1-3 are local newsgroups; 4 is a sub-menu with one newsgroup for each of the eight units; 5 is a listserv converted to a newsgroup to reduce mailbox clutter. Item 6 points to the Nutrition Page on the UMassK12 web server, (Figure 2). This web page pointed directly to a variety of Internet nutritional resources. NIBBLE, a database developed and maintained by the University of Massachusetts Nutrition Department, allows users to look up nutrients in foods, analyze their diets, etc. Items 8 and 9 allow users to discuss course content with the instructors and get technical help from the Sysop (System Operator).

At the Internet training workshop, participants learned to use UMassK12 by sending e-mail, posting their biographies, browsing Food-Net, exploring the Web using the text-based Lynx browser, looking up information in Nibble, and chatting about the workshop.


Return to UMassK12 Home Page | Internet search tools

* FAO 50th Anniversary Symposium UN Food and Agricultural 
  Organization (in English, French, Spanish)
* Food Safety National Food Safety Database
* National Agricultural Library
* Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) at National 
  Agricultural Library
* FDA Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition 
* Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at University
  of Florida
* International Food Information Council
* Dole 5-a-Day Dole Company. Information on 5-a-Day and a CD-ROM
* FDA Home Page
* Food-Net newsletters
* Healthy School Meal Initiative USDA
* Nutrition Database UMass Amherst Nutrition Department (Username:
  Nibble Guest)
* Nutrition web sites from Yahoo 
* PENpages Gopher
* NCADI (National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information)
* PREVline Prevention online: alcohol and drug information 
* Food Recipes etc. from Yanoff's list 
* Food and Nutrition WWW sites Dr. Blonz's favorites 
* The Healthy Living Channel

Figure 2. Nutrition home page on UMassK12,

4. Course operation

The printed materials include eight booklets from the United States Department of Agriculture, "Dietary Guidelines and Your Diet" (HG Bulletins No. 253-1 to 253-8, 1993), plus a "Nutrition Online Workbook" developed by the staff. The workbook contains eight units complementing the booklets. As part of each unit, the participants are asked to

Participants were expected to choose two activities and adapt them to two lesson plans by the end of the course. They were encouraged to e-mail the course instructors with content questions and comments, and the UMassK12 Sysop with computer and Internet questions.

A typical assignment is the one below for Unit III , Maintain Healthy Weight. The workbook gives detailed instructions for each of the following activities, including sending e-mail to the course instructors or recording information in the journal for each activity below:

Learning Activity 3: Using the World Wide Web to locate resources related to obesity and/or eating disorders

Optional Activity 1: Use the World Wide Web to locate resources related to physical fitness and health

Two questions are included for discussion in the newsgroups:

Some nutritionists feel "diets don't work." Do you agree or disagree? What are your tips for losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight?
Share your recipe from Learning Activity 2 and how it tasted.

Real-time chat was done in alternate weeks, with participants signing up for one of several time slots designed to accommodate everyone's schedule. The question for this unit is:

Have you ever detected or suspected an eating disorder in one of your students? If yes, how? What can we do to help students with an eating disorder?

5. Participant response

Three of the original 50 students withdrew from the course early on, mostly because of concerns about the computer requirements. The remainder were still actively involved as the course approached its final week, with all or most of their assignments completed more or less on schedule. Mail sent to the Sysop requesting help with technical details had diminished to a low level as the participants had learned how to navigate UMassK12 and the Internet. The nutrition staff, however, was somewhat overwhelmed with the volume of e-mail and newsgroup messages which had to be read, tallied, and responded to.

An e-mailed request to the participants for feedback on the course generated responses from about one third of the group within a few days. Their remarks were very similar overall, and were consistent with the comments we had heard or read. Students appreciated the scheduling flexibility, enjoyed the interactive nature of the program, and learned a lot about nutrition and the Internet. Here are a few representative comments.

6. Concluding remarks and recommendations

We will learn more from the post-test and evaluation at the closing session, but several conclusions seem very likely. As noted above, the students appreciated the scheduling flexibility; many would not have been able to take a traditional on-campus course. They enjoyed the interactive nature of the program, with the student-student and student-teacher contacts. Many indicated a desire to have continued access to the Nutrition Online course materials on UMassK12, and an interest in taking future online courses. The combination of the Internet access and the print materials worked well. People learned more about nutrition and nutrition education because of the Internet connection. Both novice and experienced Internet users learned a lot about the Internet and its resources in the process of carrying out the course assignments.

We learned something about online chat discussions. We had asked people to sign up for one of several specific time slots in order to make it convenient for them and also to minimize the load on our host computer and modem pools. The nutrition staff shared the task of moderating these sessions. We found that we needed a critical mass of people to get a good discussion going--half a dozen or more. If there were, say, two students and a staff person, the conversation lagged. People who took part in the larger groups were much more impressed with the value of the dialog.

One unanticipated issue was the staff time commitment involved. It is fortunate that a grant was available to fund staff assistance, since it took more than a half hour per week per student to read all the e-mail messages and newsgroup articles, send appropriate responses, take part in the chat sessions, and tally what work had been submitted. (No grades were assigned, but completion of the course requirements was necessary for participants to receive the Professional Development Points.) The technology underlying Nutrition Online was inexpensive, but the faculty labor cost required to support the individualized learning experience was not.

We need to find ways to retain the benefits of this model while reducing the staffing costs. One idea we will explore is dividing the learners into smaller communities, and having one participant e-mail a report to the staff summarizing the week's discussions in that community. We will also consider other ways to obtain student-student interaction, such as an in person workshop midway through the course, or meetings of subgroups of the class who live reasonably near to each other. Larger chat sessions would reduce staff time.

In conclusion, the Nutrition Online project has succeeded in developing an Internet-based distance learning model which encourages discussions among the learners and the staff. The objectives for the learners--incorporating nutrition knowledge they gained into their daily lives, integrating it into the classroom, and having a better understand of computer use and the Internet--also appear to have been accomplished. We will use the lessons of this project in future distance learning programs.