How is E-learning Employed in Food and Nutrition Courses?

To explore how teachers at HKU SPACE make use of technology to address the diversified needs of learners in Science subjects, the E-learning Team interviewed Dr Tian Zhipeng, Programme Manager of the College of Life Science and Technology, on 9 October 2017.  He shared his valuable experience and best practices in the use of E-learning in Food and Nutrition courses. Below is a record of our conversations.


How do you use E-learning in your programmes?

We apply E-learning via our SOUL 2.0 platform at different levels, from short courses to post-graduate programmes. Through SOUL 2.0, our part-time students submit their assignments online and take part in online discussions using the Forum function.  For assessment, we make use of quizzes available on this online platform.  Apart from providing instant feedback to students, it also helps teachers evaluate students’ understanding so as to enhance teaching effectiveness. For course administration, we employ the Choice function for our part-time students to select their tutorial timeslots and group presentation sessions that fit their time schedule. All these functions facilitate teaching-learning outcomes.

As for marking, we also use Turnitin to check that proper citations are included in students’ assignments and to identify potential plagiarism in their assignments. In our Bachelor of Food and Nutrition programme, students are required to prepare literature reviews on their research topics. With the use of Turnitin, students are allowed to view their own Turnitin e-report with comments and related issues on citation and plagiarism. After reviewing their e-reports, students are able to enhance their assignments for quality deliverables. Technology benefits both teachers and students.

Students of the Advanced Certificate in Human Biochemistry and Physiology programme are required to study the function of human systems. In the past, figures were printed in the lecture notes showing body structure and functions. Owing to low resolution, clarity remained a question until photos of higher resolution came into existence brought about by advanced technological improvements. Today, uploading high resolution photos online is one of the most effective methods to ensure learning outcomes.  Students are able to view the body structure on their computers or even mobile devices.

Furthermore, the Biochemistry module covers the study of how chemical compounds like carbohydrates, proteins and enzymes react in our body. We used to illustrate these chain reactions in photo format or present complicated processes in diagrams. However, it might not be easy to understand.  With the use of Augmented Reality (AR), we can explain chemical reactions with 3D animations. This greatly enhances students’ understanding of the subjects studied.  Complicated concepts, theories and practices are made easy for learners.

Glycolysis AR App (Demonstration video)

In the past, it was unavoidable to use animals in laboratory sessions for Physiology practicum. For example, hearts from frogs were used in experiments to demonstrate blood flow and cardiac cycle. However, the handling of animals involves ethical clearance and safety concerns. What is more, detailed introductions to ascertain safety were required at the start of each laboratory session.  All these made the practical sessions quite costly and time-consuming.  In the past 10 years, we have been using computer-aided simulation software called, Physio-Ex. The software facilitates the study of the effects of different temperatures, hormones, blood pressures on heartbeat rate by adjusting the parameters. This enables a hassle-free environment for teaching and learning of laboratory sessions.

We have also introduced Virtual Classroom to our programmes in the last two years.   Normally, an overseas lecturer, who is an expert in an aspect of nutrition, is invited to teach in Hong Kong. There was one occasion when the overseas lecturer could not come to Hong Kong due to emergency. It was difficult to find another experienced lecturer to replace her at the designated time schedule. With the help of the E-learning Team, we set up Virtual Classroom sessions for the overseas lecturer. The result was excellent although the class was operated without the lecturer’s physical presence.  The problem was solved at last! The merit of Virtual Classroom is that, apart from a laptop and Internet connection, no special equipment setup is required. Virtual Classroom allows students to join lectures not only in the classroom but in the comfort of his/her home, at an airport lounge, on an MTR train, etc.  In other words, students practically join lectures anywhere in the world! Teachers and students can make annotations on the presentation files, which are part of the learning process – an interactive one!

Students’ comments were, in general, positive as they found this was similar to the traditional mode of teaching. However, there were limitations, such as teachers’ absence in the classroom to facilitate discussion and occasional failures in internet connection. These minor hitches are outweighed by many advantages. Most importantly, Virtual Classroom sessions can be recorded and students can review the recorded sessions many times for familiarisation. In short, the interactive teaching in Virtual Classroom is just analogous to that in face-to-face mode.

Virtual Classroom really helps our students.

In addition, we have considered using Virtual Classroom in some Board of Examiners’ meetings if some overseas members cannot travel to Hong Kong. Overall, E-learning has been fully practised in our Science-related programmes.


Why do your programmes use Augmented Reality (AR) as E-learning pedagogy?

In the study of Science, it is quite difficult to explain and understand abstract concepts like the structures of DNA and biochemical reactions of the molecules.  Providing students with YouTube videos improves the situation but fails to maximise the teaching effectiveness.  With the help from the E-learning Team, the use of 3D models with AR technology solves the problem. Students can view the 3D structures by scanning the 2D information in the lecture handouts via their mobile devices. AR technology provides students with a direct and interactive view of the micro-structure of molecules.  Their learning consequently becomes more effective.

Most students have little background or limited experience of laboratory sessions. They may need more time to understand the proper procedures of handling the equipment and devices in laboratories. For this sake, we use AR to help students comprehend the instrument handling techniques with step-by-step procedures. With AR, students see animated objects through different angles of vision and enlarged objects for more detailed study and subsequent understanding. Students study these procedures and specific functions before attending their laboratory sessions. This saves time and improves efficiency.  We plan to add some self-test questions to these AR learning objects, with an aim to benefit students’ learning outcomes.


Pipetting technique AR app

Pipetting technique AR app


What are the lessons you learnt from your E-learning pedagogy in your courses?

E-learning is very useful and helpful in the digital age. It is also a good tool to consolidate traditional learning via different online tools, solve problems, and overcome difficulties.  For instance, virtual classes can be conducted in case of teachers’ emergency leaves. It saves costs in terms of time and money.

Furthermore, the use of VR/AR facilitates both teaching and learning. For example, in our Postgraduate Diploma in Dietetics, we are working with the E-learning Team to develop a ‘virtual’ dietetic consultation application for students. Students will see ‘virtual’ patients without going to hospital. Currently, they may need a certain period of time to adapt to the hospital environment. With the new application, we hope that they will get used to the consultation situation in a shorter period of time.  We will design a number of scenario-based practices assimilating different patients’ conditions for students’ use.  They will give individual advice on patients’ nutrition requirements. The scenario-based practices and learning process will be evaluated by our teachers and dietitians. We expect that this application will be introduced to our Programme in 2018.


What are the challenges encountered?

The first challenge is the acceptability of E-learning to all stakeholders. E-learning pedagogy, especially VR and AR, is still new in the education field.  At the beginning of our development, there were not many resources and we had to start from scratch and this required our close collaboration with teachers, students and other stakeholders so as to collect their feedback on this pedagogy.

The other challenge is that we have students with different backgrounds and prior experience in Science subjects. Younger students are keen to use E-learning technology whereas mature students may take longer to familiarise themselves with the various user-friendly E-learning tools. These are the issues we need to address in our future course development.


What is your advice to Programme Teams who may have no E-learning experience?

E-learning tools are helpful when they are employed in proper subjects in an appropriate way.  Programme Team should identify their difficulties and then explore and select the best and the most suitable E-learning tools. I recommend that different team members approach the E-learning team for advice, experimentation and implementation.


What would you like to improve in the future?

We are now at the first experimental stage.  We plan to apply E-learning in more programmes and areas.  For example, for lower-level short courses like Basic Chemistry or Biology, we propose introducing AR/VR to students who may have no Science background. For higher-level courses such as our Bachelor degree programmes, some experiments on Genetics may take 4 to 5 days to complete. They involve many steps from DNA preparation, transformation into bacteria and cultivating the cells to harvesting target protein. It is quite difficult for our part-time students to come to the laboratory for a few consecutive days to complete an experiment. Thus, we plan to employ computer simulation for these practical sessions. With the help of E-learning, we will shrink the time-consuming practices into shorter ones, thus ‘laboratory’ practices will be more manageable and more beneficial to our part-time students.



Dr Tian Zhipeng