Katie Ferraro: Making an Online Connection

Photograph by Lisa Peirce

In 2012, Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing who helps colleges and universities develop online nutrition curricula, was approached to help develop the first Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) on human nutrition for Coursera. Since then, the free six-week course has been taken by more than 100,000 students from more than 100 countries. "Nutrition is unique in the sciences in that much of what we teach our students translates very well to the online learning environment" she says. "The global reach of online nutrition education represents enormous potential for our field."

Tell us about your work and what inspired you to undertake it.
Sharing evidence-based diet therapy information with medical and nutrition-minded students and healthcare professionals around the world is exhilarating. I have had the opportunity to interface with students from Iran, Lebanon, Nepal, pretty much every corner of the planet — an experience I would never have had without this project!

In the class, the students' culminating project is to document the preparation of a dish that links diet to health in their culture, geographic region or religion. I have had submissions of a "healing porridge" prepared over an outdoor open fire in Mali, and an elaborate casserole dish a French AIDS activist prepares for patients. The preventive and curative powers that food represents around the world is truly a universal theme.

How has your work made a difference in your community?
While I firmly believe that registered dietitians should be the go-to experts for nutrition information, I find it concerning that the majority of primary care providers in our country have never had a dedicated nutrition class. I enjoy teaching primary care providers about the importance of nutrition, and most would readily admit that they don’t get nearly enough instruction on this very important topic.

What kind of feedback have you received?

There are certainly criticisms about MOOCs, namely with regards to low completion rates. However, both times my course has been offered, more than 5,000 students completed it – and I don’t regularly have 10,000 students in any given school year, so I consider that an accomplishment!

What do you find most rewarding about your efforts?

The sheer number of students who access this course and benefit from the evidence-based diet therapy recommendations is an extremely rewarding component. I am also proud that we are able to offer 20 continuing education credits for RDs, MDs and pharmacists who complete the course.

Looking ahead, how would you like to see your project develop or grow?

My course will be offered again in early 2015. My hope is that we can reach another 100,000 students in 2015 with at least 10,000 completing the course.

Related Resource

Learn more about Coursera's Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

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Food & Nutrition Magazine publishes articles on food and diet trends, highlights of nutrition research and resources, updates on public health issues and policy initiatives related to nutrition, and explorations of the cultural and social factors that shape Americans’ diets and health.