The world’s biggest provider of wine education launches online exams.
We hear that many of those laid off from the hospitality business have been spending their time upskilling. Lockdown restrictions have created ideal conditions for learning – so long as you have the willpower, a quiet corner, and the co-operation of your source of education.
In February, quite independently of the looming pandemic (and without, I may say, any consultation with his family), my prescient husband Nick Lander signed up for a history degree from the Open University, a great UK institution that has been offering distance learning for more than 50 years. He already has one from Cambridge (which has just announced plans to deliver all of its lectures for the next academic year online) and is thoroughly enjoying his OU course. He’s studying the Easter Rising at the moment.
So how has the educational body of most relevance to wine lovers, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, reacted to the ramifications of the pandemic, particularly in view of the fact that they had to close their London headquarters on 17 March, and virtually all of their 800+ education providers around the world did the same?
Energetic chief executive Ian Harris explains: ‘We already had the investment in place to up-weight our digital offering, including the education courses through the online classroom, and this investment has been fast-tracked.’
WSET currently offers online options for all of its courses with the exception of Level 3 Awards in Spirits and Sake. Although WSET’s Online Classroom currently provides courses only in English, they are currently working on developing all online initiatives in other languages. WSET’s Online Classroom supports the Level 3 Award in Wines (the old higher/advanced) and also Diploma, where they have also seen a marked increase in educators delivering Diploma sessions on-screen, Beijing-based Fongyee Walker MW being a great example, apparently.
The Trust has seen a dramatic increase recently in sign-ups for online courses, and has also launched a series of global initiatives, on its own and with major industry partners, to provide online Level 1 qualifications for people in the hospitality sector who have lost their jobs.
‘That said', says Harris, ‘we are seeing a slow return to classroom-based courses, particularly in Asia, but it is a trickle rather than a flood – so it will be a long time before WSET is back to the levels of student and candidate numbers which we were taking for granted until the end of January 2020. It is still remarkable to think that at the London awards ceremony at the Guildhall in January, we heard of a new strain of a pneumonia-like virus in China, but had no indication of the impact that would have both on WSET, and on the world. This has been a real test of my management capabilities, at a time when I was expecting continuing double-digit growth and further global expansion (and time to plan for my retirement in 2022!), but I have always relished a challenge, and this is about as big as it gets.’
Today the WSET announces the introduction on Monday 1 June of online exams for its English language online Level 1 Awards in Wines, Spirits and Sake and its Level 2 Awards in Wines and Spirits. This is part of WSET’s ongoing ‘digital first’ strategy, enabling as many students as possible to continue with their learning during the current pandemic.
Although students may currently take most WSET courses online, they have until now had to sit an offline exam to complete a WSET qualification. Because of social-distancing requirements, many WSET exams, just like this year’s Master of Wine exams, have had to be cancelled or postponed. The introduction of online exams means that students can now study for, and complete, Levels 1 and 2 WSET qualifications from home and means they can study and take their exams anywhere in the world.
Harris observes, ‘I had dreamt for 15 years about WSET providing an end-to-end digital solution for people who are unable to attend classroom courses, or indeed a physical examination. Now it is possible to do everything from the comfort of your own home at the lower levels (Levels 1 and 2). Online learning is never going to completely replace classroom learning but it’s a valuable add-on to be able to offer.’
The mechanism for administering suitably rigorous WSET exams involves remote invigilation software which enables a student to sit their exam at home on a computer while being monitored via webcam, screen-sharing technology and a secondary recording device, usually a smartphone. (The era of the quill pen is well and truly behind us, it would seem.) Online exams have been successfully piloted, apparently, and will be rolled out through its network of course providers across the world – although for the moment only in the English language. (WSET courses have usually been available in 15 languages in more than 70 countries.)
They say that students will still have the option to sit a traditional classroom exam if that is their preference, although presumably that all depends on local social-distancing requirements. WSET is also continuing to develop computer-based testing to enable students to sit exams online in the classroom with their local course provider.
Harris commented about this new development, ‘I am really excited that, with these latest developments, we can now offer our course providers and students a 360° digital learning experience at a time when traditional classroom education is very challenging or impossible. The integrity of our exams is of the utmost importance to us and we are confident that the award-winning remote invigilation system we have in place meets our stringent standards. At a time when many people in the industry have much more time at their disposal, it’s great that they can choose to upgrade their drinks knowledge, studying and qualifying for a WSET qualification without leaving home.’
To find out more about how remotely invigilated exams work here and to learn more about WSET’s online courses. visit WSETglobal.com.