Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Wogs, bugs and grubs: Hands-on microbiology at home - an Open Learning Australia experience

Peta Edwards
School of Biomedical Sciences
Curtin University
Microbiology is a very visual subject and necessitates students visualising and working with living microorganisms. For full understanding of concepts and application of knowledge students require hands-on practical experience. Difficulty is often encountered in obtaining clinical material and students are at risk of exposure to potentially pathogenic microorganisms. These risks are even more pronounced when courses are taught externally, especially when providing practical experience for unsupervised students completing microbiology units at home.

This paper describes the development of the theoretical and practical program, the problems encountered and the health, safety and legal issues faced in developing Introductory Microbiology 1A through Open Learning Australia (OLA). The unit with its home-based practical kit is the first of its kind developed for the distance teaching of microbiology in Australia.


Given the present situation in the Australian tertiary sector of more students wishing to attain limited places in universities, increasing pressure is being placed on academics to produce innovative, quality teaching programs for students on ever decreasing budgets (Gawthorne, 1990; Baldwin, 1991). Australia's size and sparsity of population has meant that these study programs must be in a delivery mode that is suitable for both on and off-campus students. As well, students who are missing out on University placement and people in the general community who have a genuine desire to learn but placement and people in the general community who have a genuine desire to learn but who lack university entrance requirements are demanding access to tertiary studies.

Open Learning Australia which was established in 1992 is now providing University accredited units to all Australians and international students who wish to participate. Fees charged are equivalent to the HECS contribution paid by traditional university students.

Of the many units now offered through Open Learning Australia, most are print-based but there are audio and video supplements as well as broadcast television components in some areas. All units offered until the end of 1994 were non-science and theoretically based. Introductory Microbiology 1A, offered in the first study period of 1995 by OLA became the first science unit with a hands-on practical component which the students could perform at home.

Microbiology is a very visual subject and requires opportunities for students to view and experiment with living organisms. Practical experience is essential for the understanding of concepts and applications of knowledge to the clinical laboratory and other related areas. The laboratory sessions involve considerable repetitive practical work and difficulty is experienced in the provision of clinical material essential for these practical classes especially with increased potential hazard to students from diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. The problems are even more pronounced when microbiology courses are taught at a distance.

Laboratory based distance education courses usually have a requirement for student attendance at "residentials". However because of the large size of Australia, students can incur large travel costs as well as be incovenienced by the need to take leave from employment and family. When considering the provision of this essential experience for Introductory Microbiology 1A we were faced with the additional problem that this practical component would need to be completed at home.

Past developments

In the last few years at Curtin University we have been involved in the production of a number of teaching and learning developments used by students enrolled in Medical Science and Nursing microbiology units.

Since 1990, distance education students taking microbiology in the degree nursing program have been able to complete a practically orientated science unit without the need to come onto campus. This was facilitated by our development of the first tertiary accredited telecourse in Australia (Fox & Edwards, 1990). The difficulties of providing a safe and pertinent program for this unit were overcome by students attending a two day work-experience session at the nearest accredited microbiology laboratory.

Further developments have included:

Some of these teaching tools were incorporated into an introductory microbiology unit developed for the Open Learning Australia offered in March, 1995. The major problem in developing this unit, as with the telecourse, has been the provision of a practical component which could be safely performed at home.

This paper will discuss some of the issues that had to be faced in the development and adaptation of every day materials and equipment for the unit as well as the health and safety issues.

Debatable issues

There were a number of issues which were discussed before the developmental plan for the unit was finalised. These include:

Target Audience

We knew from OLA literature that the majority of students who enrol in open learning units are 21-35 years of age. We wanted to cater for this group but also develop materials that would attract a broader cross section of the community and have a possible place in the international market. To accomplish this aim we related the program to situations in everyday life, using materials students would be familiar and comfortable with.


We received from the OLA $4,700 for the theoretical component and $5,000 special funds for the setting up of the practical program. There were therefore constraining monetary factors on the design of the unit as well as a short developmental time frame. We felt however, with the materials that we had at our disposal and with thorough planning we would be able to achieve the objectives of the unit.

Theoretical Component Delivery Options

We needed to consider the materials we had already developed. As well, on-campus we were offering an introductory unit in microbiology to first year students in medical science, aquatic science and human biology.

The choices for delivery were:

Due to the expense and time commitment needed to develop another video telecourse and CAL programs, and the short development time we had available it was not feasible to go this route again, although TV production in the future has not been ruled out. However, we saw great advantages in including in the study package, clips from the video library as well as making available for sale to students copies of relevant videos from the telecourse and floppy disks containing the computer case studies.

The University of Southern Queensland had previously developed an external microbiology course without hands-on practical work which incorporated audio-tapes and photographs. However, we found this style of delivery did not satisfy our objectives. After much debate we eventually decided to use a print-based medium revolving around a very good commercial text for the delivery of the theoretical component.

Practical Component

We have always believed that hands-on practical experience is an essential requirement for fully understanding the concepts of microbiology. When the telecourse was developed we debated long and hard as to how we would provide this experience. The options available then were: The latter option was a very viable alternative because of the low numbers of students completing the telecourse, the fact that all the hospital scientists in the country laboratories were known to us and all wanted to assist. However when considering the OLA unit we were faced with the possibility of greater student numbers taxing laboratory facilities and organisation. As well, this was to be a general unit in microbiology and there was a need for students to be able to complete all requirements at home.

On further consideration, we decided to reinvestigate the possibility of developing a home experimental kit with many of the materials being available from the local supermarket and which would have direct relevance to the home environment.

Five practicals are now offered in the unit:

Advantages of the Unit Design

Unit materials

The unit materials consist of: Safety and legal issues The development of the practical program generated many questions as to the safety and legal issues of conducting microbial experiments in the home. There were many think tanks revolving around what-if situations:

Overcoming the Problems

We thought it was justifiable to seek a written legal opinion as to our liability. We are indemnified by University should a student seek to sue us, provided we have outlined as far as possible the safety procedures to adhere to.

The content of the practical manual was discussed with numbers of academics and the teenage children of staff members perused it for areas that needed possible further explanation or clarification. There are explicit directions for performing each practical, the handling of materials and cultures and the disposal of materials. We have spent considerable time running each practical under conditions present in the home. Our major headache has been disposal of potentially pathogenic material. We have conducted many in-use tests, using a variety of household disinfectants and chemicals. At all times we have needed to use standardised tests for these procedures and maintain impeccable logs always bearing in mind future legal repercussions.

The fungal practical, in particular, posed many ethical questions as to spore dispersion and possible risk of infection. We eventually designed a wet chamber from a two litre soft drink container which would permit observation of the growing moulds without risk to the student and which could be discarded in the garbage at the end of the experiment.

To date, we have not run into any problems. We remain in close contact with the students through telephone and written evaluations of each practical.


Designing a hands-on microbiology unit for use in the home has proven to be an extremely searching exercise and very different to similar exercises for use by on-campus students. At this stage 33 students are enrolled in the unit and to date things are running smoothly.

For the first time in Australia external students are able to complete actual hands-on practical components of microbiology at home without risk to themselves, family and friends.


Baldwin, Hon. P. (1991). Higher education: Quality and diversity in the 1990s. Australian Government publishing Service: Canberra.

Courntey, D. & Edwards, P. (1993). Testy bugs and testing nurses. In Herrmann, A. & Latchem, C. (Eds.), Sharing quality practice. Bentley: Teaching Learning Group, Curtin University.

Edwards, P. & Fox, R. (1993a). Interactive tutorials in clinical microbiology for nursing students. In Herrmann, A. & Latchem, C. (Eds.), Sharing quality practice. Bentley: Teaching Learning Group, Curtin University.

Edwards, P & Fox, R. (1993b). Enhancing the quality of teaching and learning through alternative teaching methods? A computer-assisted-learning case study. In M. S. Parer (Ed.), Academia under pressure. Theory and practice for the 21st century. Churchill: Higher Education and Development Society of Australia.

Fox, R. & Edwards, P. (1990). Microbes and the media: A telecourse for nurses. In R. J. Atkinson & U. C. McBeath (Eds.), Open learning and new technology: Conference proceedings (pp.147-153). Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/confs/olnt90/fox.html

Gawthorne, J. (1990). Is distance education out-moded? National Distance Education Conference (roneo).

Please cite as: Edwards, P. (1995). Wogs, bugs and grubs: Hands-on microbiology at home - an Open Learning Australia experience. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p73-78. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/edwards.html

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