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Autumn 2015 Issue
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World of Wine: Science to the cellar door

Wine barrel

“Academics must construct the learning task for today’s students. Teaching by reminiscence simply doesn’t work any longer.” - Mario Ricci
Over just five weeks, Associate Professor Mario Ricci will teach the basics of human biology to more students than he has taught in his entire 15-year academic career.

In the same period of time, Associate Professor Kerry Wilkinson will explain the chemistry of wine making to tens of thousands of students across the world.With teams of colleagues, the two academics have created the University’s first two Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and in the process put the University of Adelaide’s expertise before a global audience in a world where knowledge is currency.

“These MOOCs showcase our world-leading research,” says Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) and champion of the MOOCs project Professor Pascale Quester. “Knowledge is a global construct and MOOCs are an investment in human capital.”

An investment the University is making in excellent company, as part of the edX consortium, a MOOC platform founded in 2012 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The elite partnership now offers courses from 60 global education leaders, which three million people study in English, Hindi, Mandarin and Spanish.

Other MOOC providers are various universities groups and private providers who package courses for institutions. While some aspire to making money (by providing certification for students who pass a course, for example) courses that are free for all are the norm.

Professor Quester explains why this is so in the University of Adelaide’s case. “Yes, MOOCs are expensive, but we are not doing it for profit,” she says. “They showcase our world-reaching research, and increase our profile. But above all, they encourage pedagogical curiosity and experimentation amongst academics and we can extract fundamental ideas about the learning process from the data MOOCs provide.”

And this information applies on campus as well as online. “Academics must construct the learning task for today’s students. Teaching by reminiscence simply doesn’t work any longer,” she says. However, Professor Quester is firm MOOCs aren’t a substitute for on campus courses – you can’t do a full semester course in five or six weeks. However, there is a case, she says, for leveraging content created for MOOCs into on campus courses.

And while MOOCs may not be the way of the higher education future for students who commute to campus, they have transformed another great teaching tradition.

The idea of the MOOC is as old as distance education. But where off campus courses were taught via mailed material – or, if students were lucky, via radio, TV broadcasts and the occasional phone hook-up – the MOOC has exponentially increased access to, and improved the quality of, university courses.

The MOOC is available to anyone, anywhere, with a fast-ish internet connection. This means lecturers can teach to camera, but also use videos, interactive illustrations and animations, which students can consume at their own pace. Associate Professor Ricci says the biology MOOC includes dozens of short videos, which are essential. “Students don’t want to sit through a 50 minute narrated PowerPoint,” he says – it was this thinking that had already led him to create a YouTube channel for his on campus course.

Just as important, MOOC students can talk to each other online. Associate Professor Wilkinson says her course includes videos on the sensory experience of wine tasting. “We hope students will use the discussion boards to talk to each other and compare tasting notes,” she says.

When oenophiles enrol in Associate Professor Wilkinson and her colleagues’ six-week course, “World of Wine: From Grape to Glass”, they will learn about the joyous skills that take science to the cellar door. The course starts with an overview of wine styles, followed by a fortnight on the art and science of growing grapes and managing vineyards, and another two weeks focused on the craft and chemistry of actually preparing a vintage and how great winemakers present their work to the world, both in terms of physical packaging and marketing. It will then end with examples of how research can be used to support the future sustainability of the global wine industry.

As the first MOOC of its kind, the course will open up wine education to a global audience and provide new teaching tools. “One of my objectives as an academic is to develop online resources that support student learning, and we’ve developed an online wine-tasting tutorial, with a glossary of wine descriptors for the course. This is one of the first, if not the first, comprehensive online guides to wine tasting,” Associate Professor Wilkinson says.

And she expects it will appeal to an enormous international audience, including the emerging Chinese market for quality wine. Professor Quester agrees: “I suspect enrolments in this MOOC will really rocket. It has the potential to break edX enrolment records,” she says.

Associate Professor Ricci’s Essential Human Biology: Cells and Tissues course will also appeal to people, just not as many thirsty ones. While there are other biology MOOCs, he was surprised to find that his will be edX’s first on human biology. As such, it will appeal to people interested in understanding how the human body works and is affected by disease. And, it will meet a need for commencing university students, including some at the University of Adelaide, who need a bridging course to get them up to speed on the basics.

“Our MOOC covers the two fundamental concepts in human anatomy, the structure and function of cells, and the four basic types of tissue in our body. It’s a snapshot of the core concepts,” he says.

The mass of digital teaching material took six months to develop. “It was exciting and challenging because everything was new,” he says. “Sure, we could have used some pre-existing material but we knew we needed to create our own content from scratch.” It was a decision that paid off when on campus students evaluated the course (an edX requirement). “They were stunned, saying they would love to have this material in face-to-face courses.”

“Some staff have asked me why the University is investing in MOOCs when it is not charging for it. I point out that it is a fantastic way for the University to promote its research, it builds staff capacity to create engaging content, and the next generation of students expect content to be online,” Associate Professor Ricci explains.

This may explain why the University of Adelaide has three more MOOCs set to follow the initial two infirst semester this year; on coding, cyber warfare, and reviving disappearing languages – with more ideas in development.

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