The Nutrition Online Experience:

A Comparison of Internet Education for Traditional and Non-traditional

Undergraduates and K-12 Teachers



Nancy Cohen, Ph.D., R.D.

Department of Nutrition

University of Massachusetts

Amherst, MA 01002


Brian Miller, Ed.D.

Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration

University of Massachusetts

Amherst, MA 01002



             Introduction: For over five years, the Department of Nutrition, in cooperation with the STEM Education Institute, has offered online nutrition courses for teachers and undergraduate students.  The Nutrition Education Online (NEO) course is designed to provide elementary and secondary teachers with the experience and skills to utilize technology for applying nutrition information in the classroom. The Nutrition for a Healthy Lifestyle Online course (NHO) is designed to meet undergraduate general education science requirements.  Both courses focus on nutrition science and applications, along with use of computer technologies such as web searches, online quizzes, and threaded discussions.  After an introductory in-person workshop, the courses are completed solely at a distance, using the O’Reilly Webboard software for communication among participants and instructors.  This interface allows for in-depth discussions, debates, and collaborative projects. 


            Methods:  Course participants have been evaluated using a pretest/posttest design for knowledge and behavior change, satisfaction with the amount of interaction, perceptions towards learning online, and course satisfaction.  In order to compare in-person and online learning, the NHO course was evaluated using a quasi-experimental design, in which students from a large on-campus lecture-style introductory nutrition course were compared to those taught via the Internet.  This has enabled comparisons of student attitudes and outcomes among traditional-age and non-traditional (age 24 or older) students in both lecture and online formats.


            Results: Nutrition knowledge and comfort.  Participating NEO teachers increased their comfort teaching nutrition and using the Internet in teaching, increased the amount of nutrition used in classroom teaching, and gained nutrition knowledge. Among undergraduates, the non-traditional online NHO students began the course with higher nutrition knowledge than traditional online and lecture students.  Final grade scores were also higher among non-traditional online students than the younger students or their lecture counterparts.


Interaction. Overall, teacher participants in the NEO course rated the level of participant-participant and participant-instructor interaction highly, while NHO undergraduate students rated the interaction as moderate. The non-traditional online NHO students posted more messages in the Webboard than traditional online and lecture students.


Course perceptions. Overall NEO course ratings were very high among the teachers.  Perceptions of the value of the NHO course, the amount of nutrition learned, and effort expended were all highest among the non-traditional online students, moderate in the lecture students, and lowest in the traditional online students.  However, ratings of overall NHO course usefulness were similar in both groups of online students, and higher than ratings from those in the lecture course.


            Summary. Through these courses, we have noted that teachers and older students tend to have more positive experiences with online learning  than traditional undergraduates.   Lessons learned and recommendations for designing online courses for different learners will be discussed.