Background (Background, Rationale, Prior Research, and/or Theory): The internet and new information technologies have transformed education. Nutrition education is among many postsecondary subjects being taught using online instructional methods. With increasing demand for flexible coursework to prepare nutrition professionals, educators will benefit from a synthesis of what is known about effective online learning for nutrition education courses.
Objective: To investigate the current use of online instruction in undergraduate and graduate nutrition courses, determine course effectiveness, and identify practical recommendations for educators.
Study Design, Setting, Participants, Intervention: We systematically reviewed studies via a comprehensive search of major databases using a standardized search strategy. Studies selected for inclusion were those that evaluated the knowledge and/or perceptions of undergraduate or graduate students in postsecondary nutrition education courses delivered completely or primarily online. We considered both experimental and epidemiological study designs.
Outcome Measures and Analysis: We extracted data on course instructional design, study design, participants, and outcomes from the studies meeting our inclusion criteria. Four reviewers independently assessed study quality using the Nutrition Evidence Library Bias Elimination Tool.
Results: Nineteen of 5,803 search results met the inclusion criteria. Most involved asynchronous online courses in health professional studies (e.g. dietetics, nursing, medicine). Few studies employed an experimental design and many lacked details regarding the course's instructional design. Among studies with a comparison group (n = 7), there were no differences in nutrition knowledge between online and face-to-face learners. Results were inconclusive regarding students' perceptions.
Conclusions and Implications: Current reports suggest that neither online nor face-to-face nutrition courses are superior and students' experiences with online learning vary. Recommendations for educators include being engaged with the online class during discussions, providing regular feedback, becoming comfortable with different technologies, and developing course content that facilitates discovery learning. The heterogeneous methods and limited descriptions of instructional design we identified highlight the need for research that elucidates effective approaches to online learning in postsecondary nutrition education courses.