I have been asked about my experiences of taking the six-week eCornell course in Plant-Based Nutrition, so now that I’ve had a few weeks to digest everything, I thought I would write a summary here, for anyone considering enrolling.
The course is an online course delivered via the eCornell platform. It is however a joint venture between eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies (a non-profit organisation based in Ithaca, New York). My impression, although I never saw this written anywhere, was that the Center for Nutrition Studies was largely responsible for the design and delivery of the course.
Although you can pay extra for US continuing medical education (CME) credits, this does not result in any extra teaching. CME students take a pre- and post-test to verify their learning. Otherwise the course is designed to be applicable to all comers, so it is walking the difficult path of speaking to people with no scientific background at all and also to people like me who have years of scientific training behind them. While personally I would have liked a bit more scientific and intellectual rigour, I have to acknowledge that this difficult balance was probably struck quite well in the end.
In my class there were people with a whole range of motivations for being there. Most had some personal motivation and were interested in improving their own diet and lifestyle, while a good number also had professional interests or were considering new roles in the health and wellness industries. The discussion forums were lively and extensive. The quoted 5-8 hours per week of study time was really the bare minimum required to complete the assignments. I and many others commented that they were spending a good deal more time on it than that, mostly in an attempt to keep up with the various debates. Lots of references and links to external sites and resources were provided, such that you could spend your entire time following up various suggestions and leads. I made notes of many of these to return to later, as it simply wasn’t possible to read them all at once.
The lectures themselves were well structured and easy to follow. There were short quizzes to test our understanding of the material, and various short assignments that had to be posted on the discussion boards. They were then graded and available for general comment. For most threads you had to post your initial comment in order to unlock the discussion and read others’ posts. This was a bit problematic for me at first, as I had set days of the week to complete my assignments, and by the time I came to posting mine there were often 100+ posts already and it was hard to read through them all and keep up. Also I had missed being part of the conversations as they happened. By the third of the three courses I had realised that I needed to crack on and post my assignments as soon as possible after the course started, so it was less of a problem then.
The discussion forums were facilitated by two tutors, who posted short but encouraging posts and occasional links to interesting external sites etc. They did not generally get involved with in-depth debates, and there were many questions that went unanswered. However there was a Q&A forum in the third course, which I was not aware was coming up while I was taking the first two. Had I known about this I might have saved my questions until then and got less frustrated by the brief or absent answers.
One thing to note is that the lectures were all audio recordings with slides, rather than videos of real lectures, and there was no opportunity to interact with the lecturers on the course at all. This was a shame, as that interaction was one of the things I was hoping for. It did lead to a bit of a feeling of being “processed”… a good thing for the organisers as they are clearly getting lots of interest in their course. Less good for those of us who wanted to “meet the experts” and pick their enormous brains on issues at the frontiers of research (but that might have been just me)!
On the subject of content, as far as I could tell the course covered key elements found in four books: The China Study and Whole by T. Colin Campbell, The Pleasure Trap by Doug Lisle and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell B. Esselstyn. There were some additional interesting lectures on things like the environmental impact of our food choices, nutrition for athletes and food and nutrition in the public school system. However if you like reading, money is tight and you do not need CME credits to prove your learning, you could just read these books. The course did not go much beyond what is contained in them, which for me, having already read three out of the four of them, was a bit disappointing. I had, and still have, many unanswered questions.
That said, the social element of the course was invaluable. The discussion forums were definitely its strength, and my classmates were very engaged in what they were learning, even if the facilitators had heard it all before a dozen times. I had wanted to take the course for a long time, and I am very glad that I finally did. I am still thinking about how best I might use it, and that might be an evolving process for many years to come.