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Agri Elearn

Agri Elearn

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Published by: elearning on Dec 31, 2008
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06/16/2009

 
574
 
Rice is life: scientific perspectives for the 21st century 
There is no doubt that the agricultural sector, no less than anyother, is facing a range of old and new challenges as a result of today’s economic and environmental pressures. Key amongthese are population growth, increased market complexity,continuing economic inequality, and the need to raise produc-tivity without adversely endangering the natural resource base(McCalla 2001).A growing global population means that agriculture willneed to produce enough food to feed an expected two billionadditional people by 2025 and this additional production mustbe achieved with less natural resources. Compounding theseproblems is the changing economic nature of agriculture, withincreased commercialization, sophistication, and globalization.There is a growing consensus that learning will be a majorfactor to help agriculture and agricultural producers success-fully deal with these challenges. “Knowledge—and relatedinformation, skills, technologies, and attitudes—will play a keyrole in the sustainable intensification of agriculture and suc-cess of rural development investments,” stated Alex et al(2002).Getting the essential knowledge to those who need itmost remains difficult and expensive, but much optimism hasbeen generated as a result of the increased growth and sophis-tication of new electronic information services—even in re-mote rural areas. Information and communication technolo-gies (ICTs), and such specialized ICT applications aseLearning, are offering new options to deliver knowledge andinformation to farmers directly and indirectly through knowl-edge intermediaries.eLearning is one form of distance learning, a type of educational situation in which the instructor and students areseparated by time, location, or both. eLearning typically in-volves the use of the Internet to access learning materials; in-teract with the content, instructor, and other learners; and ob-tain support during the learning process in order to acquireknowledge, construct personal meaning, and grow from thelearning experience.Proponents make several convincing arguments aboutthe power and potential of eLearning. eLearning provides learn-ing opportunities in subjects not offered locally or where localofferings lack quality. It is ideally suited for individuals wholack time for classroom courses. Perhaps most importantly,participating in an online class gives students the skills requiredfor lifelong learning.Although eLearning is still in its infancy, particularly indeveloping countries, some experience has been gained. Be-low, we will look briefly at where and how eLearning is being
Distance education and eLearning for sustainable agriculture: lessons learned
Robert T. Raab and Buenafe R. Abdon
applied in agriculture and continue on to examine some of thelessons learned.
Applications of digital technologies to agricultural learning 
eLearning and digital technologies are increasingly influenc-ing and enriching all forms of agricultural education. This ismost apparent in informal and formal education, but with ten-tative pilot applications in nonformal education as well.Traditional means of informal education and learning inagriculture, based on knowledge and skills being passed be-tween generations and between community members, are be-coming much less effective. This is a result of several factors,such as fewer experts in rural areas, agricultural innovationsare increasingly coming from outside the community, fewertraditional courses are being offered, and much information istime-sensitive and/or needed quickly (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2003). Comprehensive and growing reposito-ries of online agricultural information provide a powerful meansof overcoming these constraints and allow the independentlearner to delve deeply into a myriad of subjects with the click of a mouse.Formal education has long been limited by geography,high cost, and lack of access by particular groups; as a result,eLearning and associated technologies are increasingly beingused to overcome these obstacles. This trend is most promi-nent in higher education in developed countries and recent fig-ures show that 80% of the top U.S. and European universitieswill offer global courses in 2004, with many of these offeringsrelated to agriculture.While informal and formal education are certainly im-portant for the future of agriculture, nonformal education isarguably the most critical. There is now almost too much in-formation available online for informal learning and takingfull advantage of these resources requires special skills to lo-cate and evaluate. Agricultural knowledge acquired throughformal education is soon outdated and obsolete. Properly con-ceived and developed, nonformal eLearning can substantiallycomplement formal and informal efforts and provide up-to-date and relevant agricultural knowledge.
Lessons
Although schools and other providers of education first beganexperimenting with online education only just over a decadeago, much has already been learned. Below, some key lessonsare listed and discussed.
 
Session 20: Improving rice productivity through IT 
 
575
eLearning works
Recent studies have shown that some 50% of North Americanfarmers take advantage of the informal educational opportuni-ties available through the Internet through such services as e-mail (85%), searching information on agricultural products andservices (78%), and news on agriculture (77%). Although theseopportunities are not yet as prevalent in developing countries,evidence is clear that developing-country farmers and agricul-tural professionals are equally eager to learn in this way. Thesuccess of www.agriwatch.com and the ITC company’seChoupal project (www.digitaldividend.org/case/ case_echoupal.htm) provides convincing evidence of this.The best eLearning courses are characterized by incor-porating substantial interaction, are student-centered andconstructivist, provide learner support, and use an integratedtechnology environment. Several studies have shown that learn-ing outcomes associated with formal and nonformal eLearningare equal to the outcomes of traditional training courses givensimilar content and good instructional design.Experience also shows that, even in developing coun-tries, properly designed and delivered online courses are ef-fective and in demand. For example, over a period of threeyears, the agLe@rn program of the Asia Pacific Regional Tech-nology Centre (APRTC) provided some 900 learning oppor-tunities for agricultural professionals in 20 Asian and 17 Afri-can countries. A survey showed that alumni appreciated theknowledge they gained, were excited about their new abilitiesto network with peers around the world, and were better pre-pared to take advantage of digital learning resources. Perhapsmost importantly, they were actively sharing their newly gainedknowledge with students, colleagues, and farmers (Raab andAbdon 2003).
Rate of application and adoptionof eLearning approaches
The majority of eLearning-related initiatives to date in bothdeveloped and developing countries have been in the area of online publishing of information as resources for informal learn-ing. Almost all research and development organizations nowroutinely publish their findings and studies in electronic formand make these documents available through the Internet.Although aggregated data are not available on formal ag-riculture-related courses, it is clear that more and more univer-sities and schools in developed countries are offering onlinelearning opportunities. For example, the number of studentstaking online courses in the United States grew at more than25% from 1999 to 2002 and some sectors of higher educationexpect an annual growth rate exceeding 25% in online learnersover the next few years (Allen and Seaman 2003). Developingcountries lag seriously behind in this area as a result of highinitial costs and lack of access to information, training, infra-structure, and resources (UNDP 2001).Nonformal educational opportunities for agriculturalistsare virtually nonexistent in developing countries and, althoughsome are available, they are not widely taken advantage of indeveloped countries. In developed countries, the main factorsbehind this slow adoption have been identified as a lack of opinion leaders who can provide expert, trusted advice aboutonline learning and perceptions that
eLearning has uncertain or unproven benefits
Internet and computer access are not sufficient
Online interactions are insecure and not confidential
Advanced computer skills are required
The cost is high in relation to benefits (Agricultureand Agri-Food Canada 2003)These concerns are no doubt shared by farmers and ag-ricultural professionals in developing countries, who also haveto deal with more serious cost, computer literacy, and connec-tivity limitations, in addition to language and literacy con-straints.
 The most appropriate targets for eLearning in support of agriculture
While no one questions that the priority target for knowledgedevelopment efforts must ultimately be agricultural produc-ers, reaching this group remains problematic because of a rangeof cultural and technological constraints. It appears, however,that these constraints are much less serious among rural knowl-edge intermediaries, the many individuals employed by gov-ernment extension systems, nongovernment organizations,academia, and the private sector, who have the responsibilityto provide information and educational opportunities for farm-ers. It is also apparent that these individuals are effective inknowledge transfer and are at least as much in need of newknowledge and information as the clients they serve.
Sustainability of eLearning effortsis a major problem
Experience is showing that only a limited number of eLearning-related initiatives are economically sustainable, with the ex-ception of some informal learning resources. Farmers, in de-veloped and developing countries, with sufficient financialresources are willing to pay for various kinds of market infor-mation if they feel it can be used to improve profits. Students(or their parents) will pay for online learning leading to a for-mal degree or certification if convinced it will result in betteremployment opportunities or a bigger paycheck. It is muchmore difficult to convince a learner to pay for a nonformalcourse for which the personal financial benefits are not clearor for which the major beneficiaries may well be others.
Progress will depend on long-term, public-sector,and/or donor support
The majority of eLearning initiatives, in both developed anddeveloping countries, are now supported through governmentgrants or research and development money and are generallynot independently sustainable once the funding runs out. Giventhe current situation and the newness of this approach, it isprobably not realistic to expect most initiatives to survive with-out continued public funding except in a very few informallearning niche markets.

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