Transforming a face-to-face BEES course to fully online

Pic. Croucher James


Friday, 29 July, 2016 - 15:00


Mathews Theatre D, UNSW Kensington


School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Type of event: 


Audience / Guests: 

Public / All

Some years ago Carol was perched on a high rocky outcrop with two geologists. As they looked across the ancient dusty red hills speckled with spinifex Carol listened while the pair talked about an entirely different landscape. What they were seeing was a shallow sea all around them dotted with living rock – stromatolites - in the geological quietness between two volcanic episodes billions of years ago.  They were imagining the early co-evolution of Earth and life in the deep past, and it was a shared vision. They were, in effect, time travelling. How could they share this kind of field trip experience with students in the lecture hall, the tutorial, and eventually to a fully online course?

BEES6741 Astrobiology: Life in the Universe is a third year science elective course transformed last year into the online environment with adaptive e-learning and Virtual Reality features aimed at achieving the above. Traditional lectures and the final exam were abandoned in favour of tested alternative teaching techniques in the online environment. Student engagement correlated with the final grade. In 2015 it attracted 52 students – double the number in the face-to-face mode - and that number has been increased this year. This presentation shares the steps Carol and her colleagues took in transforming this course, and what they learned from the first iteration and from the student electronic data generated from their interactions with the course.


Dr Carol Oliver is Deputy Director of UNSW’s Australian Centre for Astrobiology. Her key research interests are the impact of the use of technology in science teaching and learning and evidence-based science communication. In 2015, she led a small team to transform BEES 6741 Astrobiology: Life in the universe from face-to-face to fully online. She subsequently used the digital data from the 2015 online students to adapt the course more closely to student learning behaviour for the 2016 iteration. Carol is also a Co-Director of iCinema, a UNSW virtual reality facility, which currently has a $360,000 internal grant to create adaptive e-learning immersive virtual reality experiences including one for geology. In addition, she collaborates with the NASA astrobiology teams at MIT and Arizona State University on the creation of Virtual Field Trips to Australian sites of astrobiological interest (

Carol has been strongly involved in community outreach. Her grants totaling $5.5m in the past five years have enabled two major projects. Several grants established the now international Mars Lab education and research facility at the Powerhouse Museum, which is now entirely self-supporting.  In the other project, the Smart Science Initiative, her team piloted four adaptive e-learning science modules, including two from BEES (climate change and astrobiology), and tested with 1,600 students across Australia. CSIRO is now employing the technology to develop more science modules for high schools.