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Fully-online coffee course launched in winter quarter 2019

From its roots in Africa to its position as the world’s favorite drink, the story of coffee is rich in history and mythology; it is also a great lesson in biology and ecology, of global climate change, politics, organic and sustainable agriculture, development, trade, and societal impacts. 

Those lessons are the subject of Just Coffee! (PLS007v), a brand-new fully online course launched this winter by Patrick Brown, Professor of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. The course introduces UC undergraduate students to the complex biological, ecological, and social interactions that go into a truly ‘just’ cup of coffee, and how our food and agricultural systems interact with human well-being. 

Dr. Brown has been offering Just Coffee! in the traditional classroom setting since 2018. In winter quarter 2019, the fully online version was offered to UC Davis students. The fully-online version features video lectures by Brown and other national and international experts and guest speakers, as well as  reading guides, reading materials, and presentations, comprehension activities, quizzes, small-group online discussion sections, discussion forum activities, and online office hours. Designed to support student learning and writing development in fully-online learning environments, the course also offers GE writing experience, social science, and science credits. 

As of Spring 2019, Just Coffee! is offered across all UC campuses. The online course  gives students from throughout the University of California access to Brown’s expertise in horticultural crop biology and plant nutrition and many years of involvement in international agricultural development programs worldwide.  He has served as Director of International Programs in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and as Chair of International Agricultural Development Graduate and Undergraduate programs. He led the instructional team’s course development, from its inception until its launch, and worked with the Center for Educational Effectiveness (CEE) and Academic Technology Services (ATS) to launch the course.

Brown says the winter quarter course was a great success.  “This course offers a unique opportunity for students to learn how to think and communicate across disciplines. The course provides students with real world, living examples of critical challenges facing mankind, issues such as climate change, the conservation of biodiversity, poverty and hunger, organic and sustainable agriculture all become real and meaningful when framed in the context of coffee. Students are engaged and excited.

The most frequent comment we get is ‘wow I had no idea how complex, interesting and challenging coffee production is, and I never knew how my decisions as a consumer can really make a difference’. 

Students in the initial online offering liked the course’s diversity of topics and presenters, “my favorite part of the course [is having] lectures from different professionals with different backgrounds in the coffee industry,” said one student. They also appreciate how the course design helps them learn at a self-directed pace,  “rather than scrambling to take notes in a lecture.” 

The course team of teaching assistants have also enjoyed working with the students in this online learning environment. Some of their comments include:

  • “being a TA for PLS007v has stretched me as an instructor. You have to adapt to a new teaching medium, learn new methods and technologies and bring the students along that same learning trajectory with you. It has been so rewarding to see their engagement with the course content. As TAs, we get to see their writing skills evolve and their awareness about the global coffee value chain expand as they draw connections with their daily lives as global learners and coffee consumers” (Lisa Artuso) 

  • “This is my 3rd quarter TAing for the Just Coffee course, and seeing it evolve from a face-to-face to an online course has been immensely exciting and challenging,” said Katie von der Leieth. “While taking the course online it was easy to think about teaching in terms of constraints and limitations- how are we going to put students into groups, how can we adapt this activity to be online. Somewhere along the way I think we started reframing our teaching to work with the technology rather than against it. After a few quarters of calibration, teaching online feels (almost) as natural as teaching in person.” 

Funding for the development of this course was provided by UC Office of the President’s ILTI initiative