Harnessing the power of online education in the fight against childhood obesity

Harnessing the power of online education in the fight against childhood obesity

It’s not yet 7am on any given weekday morning this past year. I’m peering in to a pot of hot cereal, trying to think of creative ways to add more fiber to a child’s gluten free diet. Our days are usually in full swing by 6:15. The lunches are packed and I’m searching for a package of chia seeds, that I’m sure must be there somewhere…

As I remind my eight year old, for the 20th time, to put on his socks and shoes, I’m running through the revisions I’d like to make for the next iterations of the two child nutrition classes I offered this past year. Both classes were the fruits of a 2012 Faculty Seed Grant from Stanford’s Vice Provost for Online Learning. Both were eye-opening and invigorating experiences for me.

Veggies being cut

The first of these courses, was an on-campus blended learning experiment called Introduction to Child Nutrition, which was offered as an Introductory Seminar to Sophomore students in the Winter of 2013. Students spent 90 minutes each week learning about nutrition science in a “flipped classroom” setting and a further 90 minutes each week actually practicing how to cook healthy, balanced meals in Stanford’s Arrillaga Family Dining Commons. Pre-recorded video modules prepared students for both the nutrition science sessions and the hands-on cooking sessions and students reported: “the use of online mini lectures [was] amazing. It is infinitely more engaging than reading from a textbook.” Another student: “loved the video lectures, which were great supplementary material. Cooking videos were also superb. I loved the use of multimedia in this class, as it definitely engaged us 21st century kids.” You can view a short documentary about the blended Introduction to Child Nutrition here.

Having successfully piloted the course at Stanford, the Child Nutrition and Cooking MOOC slowly came into sight. The course was 5 weeks long and aimed at addressing childhood obesity by inspiring a return to simple, home cooking (and providing some very basic nutrition education to support it.) We knew our audience would be diverse, both in terms of their levels of education and their comfort level with the English language. We also knew that many of them would be busy parents, and if we wanted to help them make any waves at all, we would have to be careful to keep them in the water. Delivered through Coursera to students from more than 60 countries around the world, the class was a huge learning curve for me.

I lay awake at night planning… Healthy recipe ideas turned into ideas for how to simplify the language of basic nutrition for an incredibly diverse student population. The first priority: not to lose the people we most wanted to reach by keeping the language simple. Then there were other questions – like how to maximize student participation in a class with 29,859 students enrolled on the final day of class – and since then, enrollment has exceeded 34,000. In the end, 7804 students received a certificate of completion for the course, with 6056 of those students completing the course with distinction. That’s a completion rate of just over 26%. And just over 2,700 students joined the Child Health and Nutrition – Just Cook Google Plus group that is still active today. But what’s even more exciting (for me, at least) is that the preliminary data suggests we might have been able to do some good.

Our best indicators showed that after completing the course:

  • Students who ate fruit daily increased by one third.
  • Students who ate vegetables daily increased from half to almost two thirds.
  • Students who prepared lunches and dinners at home increased from half to nearly two thirds.
Just Cooked! Cooking data graph

The percentage of students who cooked dinner, lunch, and breakfast (top to bottom) daily, as reported in the pre- and post-course surveys

Of course, we expect there to be a certain amount of bias here. It’s likely that the few thousand people who actually filled out both pre and post surveys represent a more highly motivated group. But if there’s even a chance that we’re heading in the right direction with this, we can’t quit now. The next iteration of the course (the one I now find myself lying awake imagining) will integrate basic nutrition education “inkings” with quizzes, hands-on, video demonstrations and peer-assessed home cooking assignments for the students. It will be a course in which even the non-scientist can put into practice the science of healthy food preparation.

My first experiment with MOOCing can be characterized as more of a public health message than an academically challenging course. It was aimed at parents from all walks of life who are struggling to decipher a slew of contradictory nutritional messages. The primary goal of the course was to help parents teach their children to enjoy reasonable amounts of healthy, homemade foods in an attempt to prevent and address childhood obesity, by reducing processed food consumption. I suspect that I learned more than anyone. Not only did I learn some survival skills for managing so many students and making health information more accessible to the general public, but perhaps even more profound, were the lessons I learned from the combined wisdom of an amazingly diverse group of students, each with something to bring to the table.

My personal take-home message: the power of these new teaching opportunities is staggering, for students and teachers. We really do have a way to reach out and shape the world around us for the better (while allowing ourselves to be shaped by the communities we reach.) At the same time, we can use these new tools to enrich the in-class experiences for our students and ourselves. The magic of face-to-face interactions with highly skilled professors doesn’t need to get lost in the process. In many ways, these technological advances can liberate them – allowing them to be even better teachers. My hope is to increase the breadth and depth of my teaching by harnessing the power of online learning. If I can change the world around me for the better (however subtly), by using these tools, I suspect that I’ll sleep well at night! 

Selected comments from the MOOC students:

“I loved the course! And I learned a lot. Maya is intelligent, caring, and down to earth, and I liked that she involved her kids in the cooking demos and that they took place in her own kitchen, because it made us easily relate to her. Her demos were clear and understandable. I also enjoyed the optional readings.”

“I loved it! The instructor was very nice, intelligent and made me feel like I could do it. Cooking has always been a bit intimidating but I learned it doesn’t have to be….just cook! :) Thanks Maya for all the work you put into this..I wish they would teach this in school!”

“This was absolutely PHENOMENAL! I am seriously considering a career change toward nutrition, and Maya was nothing short of fantastic. PLEASE hold another course!!!”

“I sent a happy kid to bed… all his meals today were made from scratch. he had all the vitamins, proteins and carbs he needs and he loved everything! thanks Maya.”