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Free online nutrition course attracts more than 3,800 global participants

A free online course on infant and young child feeding, developed jointly by Cornell's Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) and UNICEF, has enrolled more than 15 times as many participants as expected since being launched in late July.

"I was quite surprised at the amount of interest," said Christina Stark, senior extension associate in DNS, who coordinated the development of the course jointly with Mandana Arabi, Ph.D. '07, former nutrition specialist at UNICEF headquarters, and her colleagues Nune Mangasaryan and Christiane Rudert in the Infant and Young Child Nutrition Unit at UNICEF headquarters in New York. Stark also serves as course coordinator and program leader for Cornell NutritionWorks, DNS's online professional development program hosting the course.

Approximately 200 participants were projected to enroll in the course, Programming for Infant and Young Child Feeding, in the first year; instead, 3,800 individuals from 150 countries have registered for the course so far, and more than 900 from 104 countries have successfully completed the course requirements.

The bulk of registrants are from developing countries, Stark noted. For example, almost 500 are from India and 500 from Kenya, and such countries as Ethiopia, Somalia, Indonesia and Tanzania have more than 100 registrants each.

The course, which is administered by Cornell and funded by UNICEF, was originally envisaged as a training course for UNICEF staff and partners. But when UNICEF circulated the announcement to various networks, news of the course spread rapidly, and more than 84 percent of course participants are not UNICEF-affiliated. Registrants include employees at universities and nongovernmental organizations around the globe.

Since the course is freely available online and has attracted thousands of participants from around the world, it is similar to the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered through other universities. Compared with MOOCS, which can have some 100,000 students per course, the number of registered participants in the nutrition course is small.

"It feels like a mini-MOOC," said Stark.

Cornell, in fact, is in the midst of deciding whether to offer MOOCs. Provost Kent Fuchs and Joe Burns, dean of the faculty, have appointed a committee to consider the issue. "We should decide by the end of this semester" whether or not to join a consortium of schools that offer MOOCs, Fuchs said.

The nutrition course is designed to be completed in about three months and features nine lecture units and three case studies. Each lecture unit is interactive, featuring a videotaped lecture with accompanying PowerPoint presentation, self-check mini-quizzes and a unit quiz that participants must pass before advancing to the final. DNS Professors Kathleen Rasmussen, Rebecca Stoltzfus and Jean-Pierre Habicht (emeritus) lecture on the basics of infant and child nutrition; UNICEF staff and other international experts teach the remaining units.

Participants who successfully complete the course, which includes a comprehensive final exam, receive a certificate of completion jointly from Cornell and UNICEF as well as continuing professional education credits.

Feedback has been positive, with 86 percent of participants who completed the course rating it as "very good" or "excellent."

Over half [of the participants] felt that online training was equally as effective as face-to-face," said Stark, although she noted that a combination of online training and in-person workshops would most likely be the best training program.

As the number of course participants grows, new challenges have emerged.

"Even though the course is in theory self-running, there are always people who have questions about the content or need help with the technology. So we're now giving customer support to 3,800 people," said Stark.

More information on the Programming for Infant and Young Child Feeding training course can be found online.

Graduate student Joyanna Hansen is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.