When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tufts University was in a better position than many universities to transition to virtual education in large part because of the Online Graduate Certificate (OGC) program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, which is celebrating its 10th year.
Former Dean Elaine Kennedy created the program with funding from PR firm Food Minds in 2011, long before distance learning came into vogue. Leveraging the in-house educational technology team I hired to develop the Friedman hybrid/distance master’s program, which launched just before, OGC has started with a suite of Nutrition Communications and Global Nutrition Programming courses.
“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 MacKay, who became program director in 2012 and teaches the course, Principles of Nutritional Science.
It was a bold experience at a time when many people questioned whether online education was on par with in-person learning, recalls Rachel Cheetham, N08, who was invited to teach on the program in its second year. But Cheetham, who moved away from Boston when completing her Ph.D., couldn’t miss the opportunity. “This online position afforded me the opportunity to be a faculty member, stay connected with Tufts, and teach content that I was qualified and interested in teaching, even though I reside in Chicago,” she said.
With the help of a team of instructional designers and educational technologists, McKay, Cheetham and colleagues at the Friedman School proved the skeptics of online learning wrong. Today’s 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 Communication Professionals, Global Nutrition Programming, Nutrition for Industry and Entrepreneurs .
Students can obtain a certificate in a specific track by taking two courses from that track, and a third course from the same track or from any other category. Students also have the option to create their own degree by completing any three courses, or they can just take one or two courses without earning a degree. In general, they are invited to take as many or as few courses as they want in order to meet their individual needs and interests.
Classes have no personal component required and are conducted completely asynchronously, meaning students can listen to pre-recorded college lectures, participate in online discussions, and complete readings and assignments on their own schedule during each week. Most exams and exams are open for several days.
This flexibility means that students are not limited to those who happen to be in Boston, or who may be able to fit into a regular class schedule. “Every time I teach, I am amazed at who is in the class,” McKay said. “Students come from very different backgrounds and have different perspectives, which makes it an especially enriching experience because 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 hail from all over the world. They include professionals in government, health care, and food manufacturing looking to understand nutrition in their work; Retirees continue their education; Nutrition enthusiasts who are looking to learn without committing to a graduate degree program; And people looking to pursue a passion or adopt healthy habits, a number of them end up applying to Friedman’s degree programs.
Program alumna Laurie Rohleder said the program was a wonderful transitional step as she returned to the workforce after raising her two sons. “The program allowed me to gain knowledge about nutrition, while broadening my knowledge of public relations and providing the opportunity to take the leap into social media,” Rohleder said. “I was able to get an internship in Edible magazine Once I completed the degree.” She also gained a better understanding of life-threatening food allergies, and an insight into the science of decision-making that she still uses today in her work as a charitable director.
Alum Claudine DuFort has been following a growing interest in nutrition and considering whether he should train as a registered dietitian or join an organization in Haiti to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds learn about healthy eating. “I thought I wasn’t 22 anymore — let me find out first if that was something I wanted to get into. A graduate level certificate might be exactly what I needed,” Dufort said. She was right — the OGC program was flexible but required commitment. By learning, and providing enough structure to support DuFort in this learning, she said, “I feel like I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, but at the same time I can provide good information on things that I know will be useful to my circle of family and friends.”
Looking back at the past 10 years of the programme, McKay said it was a wonderful experience that taught her many lessons—which she was more than happy to impart. “It has been a great humility and pleasure to be able to advise on online learning to my colleagues here at Tufts University and at other universities, especially during the pandemic,” Mackay said. “I knew from the start that it was a worthwhile effort, and that coordinating these online programs would pay off at some point.”
Cheatham feels the same. “I have seen a decade of evolution, from something in its infancy to something legitimate and desired. It is wonderful to realize that real connections can form on a one-to-one human level even virtually,” she said. I hope to be a teacher in the program for another ten years.”
Tailor-made nutritional education
Jim Moran, one of the first class of OGC 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 went out on his own in his early twenties and realized he didn’t know how to cook – and it grew even more as public awareness of good nutrition blossomed.
A writer and educator, Moran completed a professional degree at a culinary institute in Los Angeles, and upon moving to Boston he began volunteering with two nonprofit organizations: Community Services, which provides medically tailored meals to critically ill people, and Cooking Matters, which educates parents and caregivers in shopping and cooking Health on a budget. But increasingly, he felt the need for more knowledge of nutrition, especially so that he could pass that knowledge on to clients of Cooking Matters – and a full degree program didn’t seem to fit. “It was about knowing nutrition the way I needed to know it, as a normal person,” he said.
Moran found exactly what he needed in the Friedman OGC program, including a “Fantastic Classroom of Nutritional Science” in an equally rigorous and accessible format. “It was really cool for people who were already working as professionals,” Moran said. He also made contact with his classmates, even arranging to meet in person with a few of them. “They were really fun. They were able to tell me more about themselves online than live classes, and I felt like I got to know them, which was really a surprise to me.”
When Moran was later accepted into Boston University’s Master of Arts in Gastronomy (Food Studies) program, he was able to transfer credit for two Friedman School classes—and knowledge from his nutrition training, which was not part of the BU program. “I felt like I was at an advantage when I joined this programme, because I was able to take my nutritional background to class discussions,” he said.
Moran will continue to use what he learned in the OGC program in his volunteering for Cooking Matters (now suspended due to the pandemic), and in a project he is envisioning after his retirement: an online resource dedicated to reporting poor nutrition information in the media.
“I had a really good time, and it was an actual credit I was able to use,” he said of his OGC experience. “And I think it will help me as I keep moving forward in terms of my aspirations.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at email@example.com.