Zubaida Qamar, PhD, RDN; Rebecca L. Hagedorn-Hatfield, PhD, RDN; Virginia B. Gray, PhD, RDN; Mical K. Shilts, PhD, MS; Cara L. Cuite, PhD
The Covid-19 pandemic upended the traditional model of face-to-face instruction and provided an opportunity to re-envision our teaching practices. Initial transition to online learning necessitated the development of new skills in delivering and participating in online learning for students and faculty alike. Additionally, heightened attention to multifaceted student needs (e.g., mental health, basic needs, and balancing family and work demands with school), alongside an increased attunement to social justice in Higher Education (HE), led many faculty to re-imagine their priorities. These changes also emphasized the importance of adaptability, resiliency, and formation of a contingency plan in HE, as we continue to deal with disruptions. Although the traditional model of HE is transforming, there is no unanimously accepted direction for this change. 1 Representing the Higher Education Division of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, we focus here on hybrid modes of learning, defining rigor and compassion in HE, and key experiences for future nutrition educators.
Hybrid model of education
Various modalities (fully online, hybrid, or blended) can provide flexibility for students to meet competing demands while facilitating the vital connection with peers and instructors. Despite some challenges associated with equity and access to technology, educators are undertaking efforts towards more human-centered approaches to ensure success in an online learning environment. These include cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social components of learning. 2 For example, a hybrid undergraduate senior seminar course used synchronous sessions for students to work collaboratively in groups, receive faculty mentorship, and participate in peer reviews and problem-solving exercises. Asynchronously, students continued to develop the capstone projects and applied technology skills to make Instagram reels for low-cost plant-based cooking demos, use Canva for nutrition education flyers, develop QR codes for food pantry recipes distribution, create a Google survey for a needs assessment, and use website development to promote body positivity in adolescents.
Rigor and compassion
In new ways, faculty are navigating a balance between upholding academic standards in a remote environment (rigor) and compassion for students facing challenges. No uniform definition of “academic rigor” exists, and perceptions of rigor differ between students and faculty. 3 Students perceive online courses to be more work as faculty try to ensure the online setting remains “rigorous.” 4 For educators, rigor enhances student growth and preparedness to enter their fields of practice. Recent perspective papers call for a re-orientation toward a culture of care in HE, emphasizing the importance of both faculty and student engagement. Open dialogue is called for among faculty to develop ways of balancing rigor and compassion.5 Faculty may take into consideration the needs of students 6 who value a challenge but desire flexibility, especially during times of distress. 7 Such time-intensive efforts need institutional support to be realistic.
Experiences for future nutrition educators
Internships and service-learning courses provide vital college experiences (i.e., application of skills and knowledge, networking, professionalism, and observing community assets and challenges) for future nutrition educators. The shift to virtual learning eliminated some opportunities, but many continued virtually with potential benefits of enhanced flexibility, creativity in communication, and reduced geographical constraints. 8 For example, in a virtual community nutrition service-learning course, students gained valuable experiences in telehealth and reaching clients remotely but desired to have some in-person contact with the preceptor and community. Incorporating the positive aspects of virtual experiences with in-person opportunities can promote student success and prepare students for an increasingly virtual world. 9 The pandemic continues to require flexibility, adaptability, rigor, and compassion in providing instruction. Simultaneously challenging and supporting our students in traditional and virtual modalities are important for preparing competent nutrition educators to work in a new hybrid world.