Leveraging Online Learning to Promote Systems Thinking for Sustainable Food Systems Training in Dietetics Education

Spiker M, Hege A, Giddens J, Cummings J, Steinmetz J, Tagtow A, et al. Leveraging Online Learning to Promote Systems Thinking for Sustainable Food Systems Training in Dietetics Education. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2021-March-18;8(105).

Relevant to:

Dietitians-Nutritionists working in education settings.

Question:

This article shares perspectives about how educators can use online learning to develop systems thinking for future food systems professionals. A multidisciplinary group of educators, learners, and food systems experts representing eight different institutions across the US worked together over one year to develop, pilot test, and evaluate two interactive webinar series. Each series had three parts, including a training webinar (more didactic), a practice activity, and a synthesis webinar (more interactive); students completed pre and post surveys. The series was provided for dietetics interns and graduate students at four university sites in the United States between March and May 2019.

Bottom line for nutrition practice:

Nutrition and Dietetic professionals have an important role in transforming food systems to be more sustainable. The authors cite research suggesting that due to the multi dimensionality of this task, that educators need to prioritize higher order learning skills such as systems thinking in training future professionals.

Findings from this study suggest that an interactive webinar series offers an opportunity to combine more didactic lecture style materials with interactive activities that are more conducive to higher order learning skills* such as systems thinking. Online learning can also facilitate collaboration and information exchange across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries – it provides an easier and more efficient way to engage a variety of experts with both formal and embodied knowledge from a variety of settings, disciplines and locations.

See link under “of additional interest” for resources from these sessions including the training webinar recordings, practice activity templates, and a discussion guide.

*See also Bloom’s taxonomy under “of additional interest”.

Abstract:

Educating and training a multisectoral food systems workforce is a critical part of developing sustainable, resilient, and healthy food and water systems. This paper shares perspectives from a working group of educators, learners, and food systems subject matter experts that collaborated over the course of a year to develop, pilot test, and evaluate two interactive webinar series with a multi-site cohort of dietetics interns and graduate students. The three-part webinar series format included a training webinar, a practice activity, and a synthesis webinar. In reflecting on the effectiveness of this format, we provide direct assessments of student learning from subject matter experts alongside indirect assessments from pre- and post-surveys fielded with learners. Learners who participated in an interactive webinar series demonstrated skills in several dimensions of systems thinking and gained confidence in food systems learning outcomes. Learners also shared valuable feedback on the opportunities and challenges of using online platforms for this experience. As online learning opportunities become more common, it will become increasingly important for educators to prioritize strategies that effectively equip students with the higher-order thinking skills, such as systems thinking, needed to address the complexities of sustainable food systems. The interactive webinar series format described here provides an opportunity to leverage didactic webinars in combination with interactive experiences that enable learners to deepen their knowledge through practice with peers and subject matter experts. Though this format was piloted within dietetics education programs, many of the lessons learned are transferable to other food systems educational contexts.

Details of results:

Twenty experts from 8 different institutions worked on this project. One-hundred and forty learners were enrolled. Each series had three parts, including a training webinar (more didactic), a practice activity, and a synthesis webinar (more interactive, using video conferencing that enabled breakout rooms and online slide templates that facilitated collaborative editing).

In reporting effectiveness, the authors provide findings from the educator/ expert group on the successes and challenges of teaching and assessing systems thinking with Dietetic students online. They also present feedback from the learner pre- and post-surveys (closed and open question).

The first webinar series focused on individual, policy, system an environmental change using a conceptual framework (for more information on this framework, see: “Cultivating Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems: A Nutrition-Focused Framework for Action”, also under “Emerging Research” on this website). Educators assessed their ability to provide examples for each component of the framework, and whether examples accurately reflected each component. Based on information gathered through the synthesis webinar and submitted activities, educators reported that most learners were able to provide accurate examples of how to change organizational practice and by suggestions of how to modify physical space; they had the most difficulty identifying policy and legislation examples.

The second series focused on systems thinking in addressing malnutrition. Educators assessed learners for their ability to generate a logical flow of impacts and whether those impacts were aligned with impact areas (e.g., were the ecological impacts within the ecological domain?) During the synthesis webinar, educators reported that students were able to explain a logical thought process, and demonstrated systems thinking skills by identifying who might be affected by a nutrition intervention beyond direct recipients of the intervention. They were less able to analyze tertiary level impacts of shifting relationships in relation to food choice. Across both series, the educators found that practice activities encouraged student learning by helping them to consider how nutrition interventions might impact multiple areas. 

When considering insights from learners, information gathered from pre and post tests showed more consistent confidence after the series in the learning outcomes related to systems thinking. Students were also able to demonstrate skills in several dimensions of systems thinking. Learners also reported that completing the practice activity, interacting with peers and subject matters , and the interactive nature of the synthesis webinar were especially helpful. Reported opportunities for improvement included a number of issues specific to the webinar series, including ensuring technical issues did not occur during the synthesis webinar.

The authors pose that due to the complexity of food systems transformation, that educators need to prioritize higher order learning skills such as systems thinking. This type of online learning may also benefit mid career professionals that may need to upgrade their skills in this area. The authors underscore their observation that online learning – while not without challenges, in particular technical challenges – can facilitate collaboration and information exchange across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries.

Of additional interest:

Resources from these sessions including training webinar recordings, practice activity templates, and a discussion guide are available online: https://eatrightfoundation.org/why-it-matters/public- education/future- of- food/

For more information on Bloom’s taxonomy (hierarchy of learning) see: https://www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/media-library/instructional-resources/creating-learning-outcomes/wmblooms-taxonomy-of-learning.pdf

Editor’s comment:

This is an exciting project that has the potential to break down silos within the food system through the transformation of education. Authors cite the coronavirus pandemic (beginning in 2020) as a key factor that has shifted the expansion of online learning.

Open access link to article:

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2021.623336/full

Conflict of interest/ Funding:

Work included partial funding through National Dairy Council.

Corresponding author:

Marie Spiker, mspiker@uw.edu

Transparency | Diversity | Dynamism | Evidence-based |

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