Inspiring the public through online learning

Researchers at the Quadram Institute have been part of a multi-organisational collaboration, funded by EIT Food, that has developed a free, Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on The Human Microbiome.

The aim of the course is to enable participants to discover what the microbiome is, how it changes throughout your life, and the role it plays in human health. By 23 March 2021, 5,686 members of the public had already registered and were learning about the microbiome. Here we provide a taste of what the course is about and illustrate how participants have been inspired to use their newfound knowledge.

Development of the training course was led by Prof. Luca Cocolin of the University of Turin, with Dr Maria Traka from QI, Dr Marta Olivares from the Spanish National Research Council and Dr Anisha Wijeyesekera of the University of Reading acting as key ‘educators’. Additional support was given by the agro-industrial microbiology company Microbion. Mentors on the course were provided by each of the collaborating organisations. From QI, this included Dr Cathrina Edwards and Jenny Plumb.

The course includes videos, exercises, discussion, polls, quizzes and articles and is at an appropriate level for those with little or no previous experience. It takes approximately 12 hrs to complete, split into three sessions:

Week 1

  • The composition of human microbiota
  • The function of the gut microbiome
  • Physiological changes during the lifespan
  • How to determine our gut microbiota

Week 2

  • The link between food and the microbiome
  • Foods as vectors for microorganisms
  • Food meets your gut microbiota
  • Influence of different bioactive food components on gut microbiome
  • Probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics

Week 3

  • The link between health and microbiome
  • Microbiota and human host partnerships when things go wrong (dysbiosis, leaky gut etc)
  • Gut microbiota and immune health (infection, allergy, inflammatory bowel disease)
  • Gut microbiota and metabolic health: gut-liver-adipose tissue axis
  • Gut microbiota and mental health: gut-brain axis

Dr Maria Traka and Jenny Plumb led on the week two sessions covering the role of food in regulating the microbiome; they coordinated Quadram Institute’s contribution, compiled activities, and contributed to and edited text to ensure the science was understandable to all levels of learners. Included in the curriculum was Prof. Simon Carding’s ‘camera pill’ taking a trip down his digestive system, Prof. Pete Wilde covering food structure, Dr Cathrina Edwards and Dr Brittany Hazard covering carbohydrates/starch and Barbora Nemeckova and Dr Paul Kroon covering polyphenols.

In sections where participants learnt about the composition of foods, including a quiz, they were given log-in access to the FDNC’s searchable database on the Composition of Foods (CoF). This website was visited 95 times during the three-week live course. During the live course participants were also asked to be ‘gut masterchefs’ by providing recipes and their ideas on how they would change their diet after learning more about food composition and the microbiome. Submitted recipes included: Cauliflower rice, overnight style oats, beetroot hummus with whole-wheat pita bread, lentil pasta with goat ricotta and pumpkin sauce, Greek beans with spinach and autumn salad.

Other Quadram Institute scientists contributed popular articles during weeks one and three of the course:  Dr Lindsay Hall on early-life microbiome and Prof. Arjan Narbad on faecal microbiota transplantation.

The course was held ‘live’ online for three weeks, starting on the 30 November 2020, when educators and mentors were on hand to actively support participants. It was subsequently updated with a FAQ section with links to further reading, and is now available on demand to new participants, who can access it free of charge for a period of five-weeks. You can also upgrade from a free course, which enables you to take a final test and receive a completion certificate.

The course was ranked in the top 25 free, online University courses starting in November 2020 by Class Central.

It is always difficult to truly know what effect online courses like this have on participants and what outcomes occur as a direct result. However, there are several reasons why we are confident that participants have learned new information and been inspired to act upon it. For example:

1. Feedback comments from participants showed an improvement in awareness, including the health implications of making good food choices.

“Before this course I was interested in food, now I reflect carefully on all I eat to make sure it impacts positively on my microbiome.” Haydn B.

“I learnt a lot about how to improve my health.” Morwenna T.

“I enjoyed the course very much. I also recommended it to fellow nutritionists.” Elizabeta B.

“Really interesting and absolutely amazing. I am going to apply the information in real life.” Aleksandra S.

“One of the best MOOCs I have ever attempted, out of at least 100.” Keevil B.

“I have changed my lifestyle as a consequence of taking this course.” Elizabeth V.

“I learned a lot.” Haifa M.

“After this course I now have a better understanding and am more aware of the consequences of what I choose to eat regarding health.” Richard N.

“Learnt a lot academically and for personal benefit.” Samuel A.

2. Asude Berber, a student from Turkey, so enjoyed the course that she reached out to Dr Maria Traka for further information. She has since joined the FDNC as a visiting student and is assisting with work involving the eBASIS bioactives database.

3. Rebecca Tungate from the Kingsley Learning Foundation Trust, also contacted QI after completing the course to ask for assistance in using her new knowledge to benefit children and young people in her care. This has led to further discussions that could feasibly lead to collaborations with QI around the nutrition of meals provided and the development of accessible educational material

“We have long been interested in how the limited intake of nutrients by many of our pupils (all with additional needs) may be impacting on their well-being and learning. Following lots of fortunate events we were led to the FutureLearn course. The course has been instrumental in directing us to making changes to our understanding and provision of school food. We are enthusiastic to learn more and to pass on all knowledge to our pupils, their families and into changing our understanding of how food can support the ability to learn and the chance to live happy, healthy lives.” Mrs Rebecca Tungate, Education Development Officer, Kingsley Learning Foundation Trust.

This course has developed collaborative relationships, both within the Institute and amongst EIT Foods partner organisations; it has provided valuable engagement experience to the staff contributing, and it has informed and inspired members of the public to apply their new knowledge to their work and home life. We hope to hear many other reports of participants using their new knowledge to benefit health, wellbeing and the education of others in the future.

The human microbiome MOOC has received funding from EIT Food.

Related Research Areas

Related Targets

Targeting the understanding of the microbiome

Understanding the Microbiome

Targeting Future Foods

Future Foods