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Distance education and eLearning

for sustainable agriculture: lessons learned

Robert T. Raab and Buenafe R. Abdon

There is no doubt that the agricultural sector, no less than any applied in agriculture and continue on to examine some of the
other, is facing a range of old and new challenges as a result of lessons learned.
today’s economic and environmental pressures. Key among
these are population growth, increased market complexity,
Applications of digital technologies to agricultural learning
continuing economic inequality, and the need to raise produc-
tivity without adversely endangering the natural resource base eLearning and digital technologies are increasingly influenc-
(McCalla 2001). ing and enriching all forms of agricultural education. This is
A growing global population means that agriculture will most apparent in informal and formal education, but with ten-
need to produce enough food to feed an expected two billion tative pilot applications in nonformal education as well.
additional people by 2025 and this additional production must Traditional means of informal education and learning in
be achieved with less natural resources. Compounding these agriculture, based on knowledge and skills being passed be-
problems is the changing economic nature of agriculture, with tween generations and between community members, are be-
increased commercialization, sophistication, and globalization. coming much less effective. This is a result of several factors,
There is a growing consensus that learning will be a major such as fewer experts in rural areas, agricultural innovations
factor to help agriculture and agricultural producers success- are increasingly coming from outside the community, fewer
fully deal with these challenges. “Knowledge—and related traditional courses are being offered, and much information is
information, skills, technologies, and attitudes—will play a key time-sensitive and/or needed quickly (Agriculture and Agri-
role in the sustainable intensification of agriculture and suc- Food Canada 2003). Comprehensive and growing reposito-
cess of rural development investments,” stated Alex et al ries of online agricultural information provide a powerful means
(2002). of overcoming these constraints and allow the independent
Getting the essential knowledge to those who need it learner to delve deeply into a myriad of subjects with the click
most remains difficult and expensive, but much optimism has of a mouse.
been generated as a result of the increased growth and sophis- Formal education has long been limited by geography,
tication of new electronic information services—even in re- high cost, and lack of access by particular groups; as a result,
mote rural areas. Information and communication technolo- eLearning and associated technologies are increasingly being
gies (ICTs), and such specialized ICT applications as used to overcome these obstacles. This trend is most promi-
eLearning, are offering new options to deliver knowledge and nent in higher education in developed countries and recent fig-
information to farmers directly and indirectly through knowl- ures show that 80% of the top U.S. and European universities
edge intermediaries. will offer global courses in 2004, with many of these offerings
eLearning is one form of distance learning, a type of related to agriculture.
educational situation in which the instructor and students are While informal and formal education are certainly im-
separated by time, location, or both. eLearning typically in- portant for the future of agriculture, nonformal education is
volves the use of the Internet to access learning materials; in- arguably the most critical. There is now almost too much in-
teract with the content, instructor, and other learners; and ob- formation available online for informal learning and taking
tain support during the learning process in order to acquire full advantage of these resources requires special skills to lo-
knowledge, construct personal meaning, and grow from the cate and evaluate. Agricultural knowledge acquired through
learning experience. formal education is soon outdated and obsolete. Properly con-
Proponents make several convincing arguments about ceived and developed, nonformal eLearning can substantially
the power and potential of eLearning. eLearning provides learn- complement formal and informal efforts and provide up-to-
ing opportunities in subjects not offered locally or where local date and relevant agricultural knowledge.
offerings lack quality. It is ideally suited for individuals who
lack time for classroom courses. Perhaps most importantly,
participating in an online class gives students the skills required
for lifelong learning. Although schools and other providers of education first began
Although eLearning is still in its infancy, particularly in experimenting with online education only just over a decade
developing countries, some experience has been gained. Be- ago, much has already been learned. Below, some key lessons
low, we will look briefly at where and how eLearning is being are listed and discussed.

574 Rice is life: scientific perspectives for the 21st century

eLearning works behind this slow adoption have been identified as a lack of
Recent studies have shown that some 50% of North American opinion leaders who can provide expert, trusted advice about
farmers take advantage of the informal educational opportuni- online learning and perceptions that
ties available through the Internet through such services as e- O eLearning has uncertain or unproven benefits
mail (85%), searching information on agricultural products and O Internet and computer access are not sufficient
services (78%), and news on agriculture (77%). Although these O Online interactions are insecure and not confidential
opportunities are not yet as prevalent in developing countries, O Advanced computer skills are required
evidence is clear that developing-country farmers and agricul- O The cost is high in relation to benefits (Agriculture
tural professionals are equally eager to learn in this way. The and Agri-Food Canada 2003)
success of www.agriwatch.com and the ITC company’s These concerns are no doubt shared by farmers and ag-
eChoupal project (www.digitaldividend.org/case/ ricultural professionals in developing countries, who also have
case_echoupal.htm) provides convincing evidence of this. to deal with more serious cost, computer literacy, and connec-
The best eLearning courses are characterized by incor- tivity limitations, in addition to language and literacy con-
porating substantial interaction, are student-centered and straints.
constructivist, provide learner support, and use an integrated
technology environment. Several studies have shown that learn- The most appropriate targets for eLearning
ing outcomes associated with formal and nonformal eLearning in support of agriculture
are equal to the outcomes of traditional training courses given While no one questions that the priority target for knowledge
similar content and good instructional design. development efforts must ultimately be agricultural produc-
Experience also shows that, even in developing coun- ers, reaching this group remains problematic because of a range
tries, properly designed and delivered online courses are ef- of cultural and technological constraints. It appears, however,
fective and in demand. For example, over a period of three that these constraints are much less serious among rural knowl-
years, the agLe@rn program of the Asia Pacific Regional Tech- edge intermediaries, the many individuals employed by gov-
nology Centre (APRTC) provided some 900 learning oppor- ernment extension systems, nongovernment organizations,
tunities for agricultural professionals in 20 Asian and 17 Afri- academia, and the private sector, who have the responsibility
can countries. A survey showed that alumni appreciated the to provide information and educational opportunities for farm-
knowledge they gained, were excited about their new abilities ers. It is also apparent that these individuals are effective in
to network with peers around the world, and were better pre- knowledge transfer and are at least as much in need of new
pared to take advantage of digital learning resources. Perhaps knowledge and information as the clients they serve.
most importantly, they were actively sharing their newly gained
knowledge with students, colleagues, and farmers (Raab and Sustainability of eLearning efforts
Abdon 2003). is a major problem
Experience is showing that only a limited number of eLearning-
Rate of application and adoption related initiatives are economically sustainable, with the ex-
of eLearning approaches ception of some informal learning resources. Farmers, in de-
The majority of eLearning-related initiatives to date in both veloped and developing countries, with sufficient financial
developed and developing countries have been in the area of resources are willing to pay for various kinds of market infor-
online publishing of information as resources for informal learn- mation if they feel it can be used to improve profits. Students
ing. Almost all research and development organizations now (or their parents) will pay for online learning leading to a for-
routinely publish their findings and studies in electronic form mal degree or certification if convinced it will result in better
and make these documents available through the Internet. employment opportunities or a bigger paycheck. It is much
Although aggregated data are not available on formal ag- more difficult to convince a learner to pay for a nonformal
riculture-related courses, it is clear that more and more univer- course for which the personal financial benefits are not clear
sities and schools in developed countries are offering online or for which the major beneficiaries may well be others.
learning opportunities. For example, the number of students
taking online courses in the United States grew at more than Progress will depend on long-term, public-sector,
25% from 1999 to 2002 and some sectors of higher education and/or donor support
expect an annual growth rate exceeding 25% in online learners The majority of eLearning initiatives, in both developed and
over the next few years (Allen and Seaman 2003). Developing developing countries, are now supported through government
countries lag seriously behind in this area as a result of high grants or research and development money and are generally
initial costs and lack of access to information, training, infra- not independently sustainable once the funding runs out. Given
structure, and resources (UNDP 2001). the current situation and the newness of this approach, it is
Nonformal educational opportunities for agriculturalists probably not realistic to expect most initiatives to survive with-
are virtually nonexistent in developing countries and, although out continued public funding except in a very few informal
some are available, they are not widely taken advantage of in learning niche markets.
developed countries. In developed countries, the main factors

Session 20: Improving rice productivity through IT 575

However, the continued involvement of the public sec- McCalla AF. 2001. Challenges to world agriculture in the 21st cen-
tor may well be in society’s best interest. If learning is avail- tury. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update. Univer-
able only to the elite few who can afford it, there is consider- sity of California, Davis. www.agecon.ucdavis.edu/outreach/
able danger that the divide between the rich and poor will not areupdatepdfs/UpdateV4N3/spring2001.pdf.
Raab R, Abdon BR. 2003. Assessment and use of agLe@rn Knowl-
only remain but grow. Winrock (2003) cautions that while, in
edge and course materials. Bangkok (Thailand): APRTC.
general, reliance on the private sector is good, “information
and access to it closely resemble a public good threatened with UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 2001. Human
undersupply by market failures.” In cash-strapped developing development report 2001: making new technologies work for
countries, donor support as well will be critical. human development. Published by Oxford University Press,
Inc., New York City. Retrieved 1 October 2001 from
References Winrock. 2003. Future directions in agriculture and information and
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2003. An overview of e-Learn- communication technologies (ICTs) at USAID. Prepared for
ing in Canadian agriculture and Agri-business. www.agr.gc.ca/ USAID/Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade/Agricul-
ren/serv/elearn_e.cfm. ture and Food Security. Retrieved 30 August 2003 from
Alex G, Zijp W, Byerlee D, et al. 2002. Rural extension and advisory www.dot-com-alliance.org/documents/AG_ICT_USAID.pdf.
services: new directions. Rural Development Strategy Back-
ground Paper #9. Washington, D.C. (USA): Agriculture and
Rural Development Department, World Bank. Notes
www.worldbank.org/wbi/sdruralpoverty/ag_extension1/Mate- Authors’ address: Sustainable Development eLearning Network, e-
rials/additional/Rural_extension.pdf. mail: rraab@sdlearn.net.
Allen IE, Seaman J. 2003. Sizing the opportunity: the quality and
extent of online education in the United States, 2002 and 2003.
Sloan-C, The Sloan Consortium. www.sloan-c.org/resources/

The Rice Knowledge Bank

Mark Bell and David Shires

The fast and effective transfer of research findings to farmers graphic slide–audio tape modules, instructional video, early
has always been one of the biggest challenges facing those in attempts at computer-aided instruction, video-conferencing,
agricultural development. All too often, new knowledge is suc- and information presented on CD-ROM have all supported
cessfully developed and validated, only to fail in reaching those face-to-face classroom instruction both at IRRI headquarters
who need it most—the farmers. Into this gap between research and in country training programs. Now, IRRI is developing
and impact has stepped the International Rice Research and adding another set of tools to better serve its education
Institute’s (IRRI) Rice Knowledge Bank (RKB). Not only is it mandate: those that are collectively known as information and
one of the world’s first digital extension services for those who communication technologies (ICT), which include distance-
provide information and support for farmers, it is also the first learning methodologies and use of the Internet.
comprehensive, digital rice-production library containing a IRRI has moved to harness the power of ICT by care-
wealth of information for rice-related training and extension. fully matching the new media’s capabilities to the needs of
More importantly, it provides this service using a format that rice-related training to bring relevant knowledge, in the most
sets a new standard for knowledge access within the agricul- useful form, to field officers when and where they need that
tural development community. Containing the most up-to-date knowledge. The RKB has received critical acclaim (for ex-
and validated knowledge, the RKB is providing government ample, BBC Earth Report, September 2004—the “Further read-
extension services, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and ings” section provides more reviews of the RKB) as a tool to
universities with unprecedented access to training and support distill, store, and provide access to the vast array of IRRI’s
knowledge. training and support knowledge for rice science and exten-
First and foremost, IRRI is a rice science research insti- sion.
tute. However, IRRI’s founders knew that, to get research find-
ings out of the laboratory and into farmers’ fields, there had to
Rationale for the RKB
be an education component. Over the past 40 years, IRRI has
used a variety of instructional methodologies and technolo- Ask any farmers what they perceive as their major needs and
gies to satisfy its education mandate. Printed materials, photo- you will probably be told three things: access to credit, a good

576 Rice is life: scientific perspectives for the 21st century