Session 20: Improving rice productivity through IT
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.