Proceedings of The Physiological Society

Physiology 2016 (Dublin, Ireland) (2016) Proc Physiol Soc 37, PCA092

Poster Communications

Evaluating the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) "Understanding Obesity"

A. L. Warnock1, C. Hume1, J. Maicas1, J. Menzies1,2, C. Caquineau1,2

1. Center for Integrative Physiology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. 2. Biomedical Teaching Organisation, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.


Misconceptions around the causes of obesity are widespread and ingrained (1,2). The MOOC "Understanding Obesity" (3) was developed from the EU FP7-funded research project Nudge-it (4). The course introduced the evidence base that supports scientists' understanding of obesity, highlighted gaps in this evidence base and explicitly challenged commonly-held beliefs about this complex problem. The course content was developed and delivered by senior researchers, postdocs and PhD students from four academic partners in Nudge-it. The learning activities included short films, podcasts, quizzes and peer-assessed exercises. A discussion forum gave participants the opportunity to reflect on and discuss their own knowledge, learning and beliefs. The primary aim of the course was to explore key concepts around the physiological control of appetite. The secondary aim of the course was to reflect on ideas around evidence: how it is collected, interpreted and disseminated. This was supported by three Citizen Science projects run during the course. Participants collected and reported data and were invited to interpret and discuss the study design and results. These projects attracted 765 participants and led to extensive discussion on the forum. The course was well-received. 74% of participants rated the course as very good or excellent, and 82% said it met or exceeded their expectations. Many participants praised the high level of interaction between the instructors and the participants, particularly in the discussion forums. It is more difficult to determine whether the course was an effective learning tool. The course provided diverse learning activities to promote students engagement and learning, and many participants passed the course, illustrating they achieved the course learning outcomes. However, pre- and post-course surveys testing the students understanding of the causes of obesity revealed that misconceptions are difficult to overcome. For example, there was no change in the percentage of participants who agreed with the statement "Low calories diets are an effective way to lose weight" despite discussion on the ineffectiveness of diets in the longer term. This ‘learning status quo' suggests that students did not apply what they learned in the course. Promoting deep learning in MOOCs is recognised as challenging (5) but we aim to overcome these limitations in future iterations. From the instructors' perspective, designing and delivering the course help bridge the gap between research and the public. The course allowed the dissemination of the underlying principles of our research to a wide audience in an innovative, dynamic and interactive manner. The course was also an effective professional development tool, especially for the PhD students, as it helped them better understand how to interact with non-specialist audiences and facilitated the development of key communication skills.

Where applicable, experiments conform with Society ethical requirements