Synchronous Delivery of Online Graduate Education in Clinical Nutrition: An Inquiry Into Student Perceptions and Preferences

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Introduction: Online education has become standard for delivering graduate coursework in the medical and allied health professions, yet there is insufficient evidence regarding best practices and preferred methods of delivery for students in graduate clinical nutrition programs. Synchronous or realtime virtual classes vs asynchronous or static formats both have potential drawbacks and benefits. The purpose of this study was to evaluate graduate clinical nutrition student perceptions and learning outcomes using specific delivery modes in online instruction. Methods: A Qualtrics™ survey was piloted, validated, and disseminated to working health professionals completing master's level study in clinical nutrition at a midwestern university. Qualitative data were imported, coded, noded, and analyzed using Nvivo v.11. Scaled data was analyzed and graphed. Results: The results showed that students perceived significant benefit from synchronous online courses, in terms of interactivity, connectedness to peers and professors, and enhanced learning and accommodation of different learning styles. Evaluation of student learning outcomes from triangulated measures of the e-portfolio, oral comprehensive evaluation, and capstone experience shows improved learning with higher order synthetic capabilities in graduating students and improved professional competency in clinical nutrition and future ability to work as an effective part of the healthcare team. Discussion: The synchronous online environment may provide unique opportunities to foster learning through a variety of modalities and enhance interprofessional interaction in the virtual space. This may lead to improvements in synthetic abilities of practitioners and increased efficacy as part of the healthcare team.