The How, When and Why of Forest Farming: Building and Using New Internet Based Infrastructure to Advance Learning and Practice in the Northeast

Final Report for ENE04-085

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2004: $111,613.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $27,904.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Kenneth Mudge
Cornell University
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Project Information

Summary:

Forest farming is an agroforestry approach to forest and woodlot management that has a high potential in the Northeast for generating income and enhancing environmental values through the deliberate cultivation of specialty crops. Interest in forest farming by farmers and forest owners appears to be growing. The diversity of suitable crop types and the comparatively long lead time to maturity for many of them combined with the high variability of site conditions throughout the region, the novelty of the approach, and the uncertainty of success has resulted in limited investment in science-based knowledge generation and outreach. To help close this gap, the project created an online teaching and learning system to enable natural resources educators to facilitate the delivery of state-of-the-art information to forest owners, and the sharing of experience-based knowledge among them.

The online How, When and Why of Forest Farming (HWWFF) Resource Center (http://hosts.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/) which the project developed provides access to state-of-the-art information about forest farming including tools for forest owners for making good decisions about what crops to grow and where to grow them. The Resource Center also provides links to tools for designing and facilitating interactive, online courses on forest farming. A learning community approach was used to engage Extension and other natural resource educators from New York and Pennsylvania in contributing content to the Resource Center and in designing, pilot-testing, and conducting courses for landowners. Face-to-face workshops, video conferences, teleconferences, an online course management system, email, discussion boards, blogs, and wikis (interactive online knowledge pools) brought educators together with project leadership in various configurations to build curricula, gain experience with the various communication media, and learn to host forest farming courses online. The content of the HWWFF Resource Center also will be valuable to educators and landowners seeking information about forest farming independent of participation in organized courses.

An open source content management system known as MOODLE (http://MOODLE.org/)was tailored to the topical units of the HWWFF Resource Center (http://hosts.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/ )and used as the online platform for delivering content and facilitating discussion in the pilot courses which the project conducted. A HWWFF Instructors Guide (http://treadwell.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/InstructorsGuide/index.html), which the project developed, walks prospective instructors and facilitators through the steps of designing a course around the content in the HWWFF Resource Center and illustrates the key features of the MOODLE platform. In addition to the online resources described above, project experience has generated important lessons that are being applied in online educational programming through Cornell Cooperative Extension. Fundamental among these is that an online-tutorial approach appears not to provide sufficient guidance for all but the most highly motivated educators. A component of intensive face-to-face instruction appears necessary for most educators to become sufficiently confident and competent in using MOODLE to conduct forest farming courses on their own. In response to this need for face-to-face instruction Paul Treadwell, and active participant in this SARE project and coordinator of distance learning for Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), has developed a workshop on online teaching and learning that will be offered at the CCE System Conference on the Cornell campus on October 9 and 10, 2007.

As a result of the project, 32 natural resources educators and some 109 forest owners in New York and Pennsylvania have gained experience with forest farming through online learning. Participants evaluated the pilot courses which the project conducted, and findings were used to improve our understanding of the requirements of success in online learning about forest farming and, by inference, other subject matter as well. This insight was used to shape subsequent courses, to enhance the content and tools in the Resource Center and to prepare the Instructors Guide.

Performance Target:

Target:
“Of the 32 Extension and other farming and natural resource educators who participate in developing and testing the online forest farming course, 20 will also successfully facilitate internet-supported forest farming learning communities that will include 80 small farm operators and other private forest owners and 30 educators will incorporate the use of the web-based curriculum into their programs.”

Performance:
The target partially was exceeded and partially it fell short. Thirty-three Extension and other farming and natural resource educators participated in developing and testing the HWWFF course material and/or the online course delivery platform. A total of 109 forest owners participated in interactive, online courses. Eleven (11) of the 33 educators participated in an online course with project leadership that was designed to train them to facilitate internet-supported forest farming learning communities. Only one educator went on to organize and facilitate a successful prototype course during the life of the project. Reasons for the shortfall are discussed in the Results, Discussion and Milestones Section.

Target:
“Of the 80 land owners who participate in developing the on-line forest farming curriculum, 70 will initiate or expand trial forest farming practices, monitor them, and report on-line to their educator-facilitated learning communities on their progress and performance. Fifty (50) will cooperate with Extension and other educators to facilitate the training of many additional land owners using the distributed learning course.”

Performance:
This target partially was met in full, and partially fell short. Sixty five (65) landowners participated in developing the online learning system in forest farming through their enrollment in one of three, nine-week long pilot tests of the course content and online management system conducted in Fall, 2005. We estimate from a sample of follow-up survey respondents that about two-thirds (43) had initiated or expanded trial forest farming practices by Spring, 2007. Of the 44 landowners who participated in the 10-week prototype course, all indicated that they had during the course, or planned soon to initiate or expand trial forest farming practices. This brings the total number who engaged in forest farming through or as a result of the project to about 87. Only a handful, however, monitor progress and share information on performance as there is not a system in place for doing so. And we are aware of no teams of educators and farmers working together to facilitate the training of additional landowners in using online resources. Some reasons for the shortfall are contemplated in the section on Accomplishments/milestones.

Introduction:

The project engaged faculty, academic staff and instructional technology specialists from Cornell University and Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension educators from New York and Pennsylvania, natural resources educators from civic organizations, and forest owners from both states in developing an online system for teaching and learning about forest farming. A learning communities (also known as a community of practice) approach was applied to enhance the quantity, quality and organization of information in the online How, When and Why of Forest Farming (HWWFF) Resource Center, which originated via a prior grant from the USDA. Now hosted by CCE, the site is freely accessible to users everywhere.

The project customized an open-source content management platform called MOODLE that enables educators and landowners to engage in interactive teaching and learning about forest farming. An HWWFF Instructor’s Guide was developed to provide information and training on the basic online course development skills including MOODLE in combination with the HWWFF Resource Center. Experience with the platform to date suggests that face to face instruction, used in combination with online learning, is needed to prepare first-time users to conduct online courses confidently and competently.

Thirty-two educators from the two states interacted with project leadership during the life of the project to help build and pilot test the learning resources. A face-to-face workshop brought the leadership team together with 12 educators (six from each state) and two graduate students to initiate the project and create a plan for contributing information to the Resource Center. A video conference was held a year later. In the meantime and thereafter, a variety of online communication tools was used to develop course material and plan for pilot tests.
Three initial, simultaneously replicated online pilot courses were conducted to teach the concepts and practices of forest farming to Extension educators and forest owners. They included, altogether, 20 different educators (eight of the original 12, and 12 others) and 65 forest owners whom the educators recruited. The educators identified three to four landowners that they hoped to support as they pursued forest farming. The nine-week forest farming courses were facilitated by members of the project leadership team to test the concept.

Subsequently, a different course was developed, not to learn about forest farming per se, but rather how to use MOODLE and other resources to develop and teach a course in forest farming. It should be noted that this training in development and teaching could be applied not only to forest farming but also other topics of interest to Extension education. This eight-week pilot course engaged 25 Extension educators, seven who participated in an original pilot test and 18 new recruits.

A final course extended testing from the pilot to the prototype stage. Designed and conducted by an Extension educator who participated in both the forest farming content-oriented course and the subsequent how-to-develop/teach using MOODLE course, she recruited 44 landowners from 22 counties in three States who paid $60 each to participate for ten weeks. While she facilitated the course independently, the project leadership observed the process.

Baseline and exit surveys of participants in all courses, as well as online discussion forums that were archived, provided feedback from participants. This information was analyzed and used to improve the design of the online teaching and learning system and to create guidelines for prospective course designers and facilitators.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Louise Buck
  • Michael Jacobson
  • Paul Treadwell

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Project Approach: Four phases of HWWFF

In mid 2004 when the project began, 12 Extension and other natural resource educators from NY and PA joined the five-member project Leadership Team (LT) of university-based educators to form a curriculum advisory group (CAG), an instructional technology design group (ITDG), and a user evaluation group (UEG) to develop the online teaching and learning system called the How, When and Why of Forest Farming (HWWFF). The CAG included all 12 educators and 3 members of the project leadership team, as we learned that most everyone had something to contribute to the HWWFF curriculum. The ITDG was comprised of Instructional Technology specialists in Cornell Cooperative Extension. A web programmer from Pennsylvania State participated in the ITDG for a time, and withdrew as it became apparent that her skills did not match the requirements of the project. The User Evaluation Group included two members of the CAG, three members of the LT and the ITDG aided by the Cornell Statistical Analysis Unit. Following a face-to-face start-up workshop, the groups began working together online, and through a 4-way video conference, to develop course materials and a procedure for conducting an online course about forest farming. Members of the LT stayed in contact through frequent teleconferences. To support the initial pilot test of the learning system we developed a prototype User’s Guide (including text, images, and video) to facilitate participation.

The instructional package, consisting of several screencasts to support instructors and participants in the use of MOODLE, written documentation, and a blog for content evaluation and development was completed and used together with the Resource Center to conduct 3 concurrent “replicate” on-line pilot courses, late in 2005. We recruited 18 additional educators, 16 from NY and PA and 2 from WV to participate along with 8 of the original 12 EE’s. Our attempts to recruit participants from other states met with failure, as described in Section 5. We recruited 80 landowners to participate in one of three concurrent pilot courses, by asking each participating educator to nominate three clients or prospective clients with whom they hoped to pursue ongoing activity in forest farming. Sixty five of the 80 successfully logged on to the pilot course and participated. Baseline and exit surveys of educators and forest owners, respectively, provided the evaluation group with valuable information about the participants’ learning experience.

In early 2006 members of the curriculum group and leadership team, supported by a part-time project assistant, collaborated with the technology group to enhance the content, organization and presentation of the HWWFF Resource Center, based on feedback from the pilot test. Extensive sections of text were punctuated by additional diagrams and activities, sections were added, learning units were augmented with assignments and instructions for site assessment, mapping and design. Tools such as the Crop Matrix, Crop Filter Tool, Visual Site Analysis and photo libraries were added to help landowners identify plants already growing on their property, to choose appropriate crops, and to learn about prorogation methods, markets and other considerations for their combination of site conditions and desired crops. Simultaneously, the technology group worked to enhance the navigability of the site, and features of the MOODLE-based course management platform that was customized for conducting courses in forest farming. The technology group also expanded the number and scope of screencasts for instructorsr using the system.

With the enhanced resources, in mid-2006 the LT and educators who were especially active in the project recruited additional educators with whom to pilot test a course for instructors called the The How When & Why of Teaching Forest Farming Online (HWWTFFO). Of the 14 educators who were recruited, 11 participated throughout. The 11 week course generated important feedback about the challenges and the potential for teaching forest farming online, with implications also for teaching other subjects online.

A clear success of the HWWTFFO pilot course was the subsequent initiation by one of its participants of a prototype course for landowners using the HWWFF Resource Center and MOODLE components of the learning system. Forty-four registrants paid a course fee and received a CD compiled by the project’s Instructional Technology Design Team, which made videos and other digital resources more accessible to participants who did not have high speed (broad band width) internet connections. Participants in the 10-week course came from 22 counties in NY and two other states. The instructor used a variety of media to publicize the course and recruit participants. Based on participation and information generated from the exit survey of participants, she considers the course highly successful and plans to conduct it again.

Tools for Engagement: Introducing New Technologies to Extension Educators

During the development of HWWFF Resource Center the ITDG introduced a number of tools for educators to use. The goal of all of these tools was to facilitate communication and collaboration over distance, while developing content for the web site. Riding on the enthusiasm generated from the initial face-to-face meeting in 2004, we introduced MOODLE to our participants. Our decision to use MOODLE was based on the idea of developing familiarity with the tool which would be used later to deliver content to an external audience.

This initial foray into online collaboration proved less successful than we anticipated. Most of the educators had no previous experience with learning content management systems and participation in discussions was minimal. During this first attempt we provided written documentation on the usage of MOODLE. This level of introduction was based on previous experience and materials developed for distance learning courses for the general public. Given this initial failure and the need to find a suitable tool for collaboration we tested a number of solutions including: email, a standalone discussion board and screencasts to support learning about new tools and technologies

It is not surprising that, initially, the most successful tool was e-mail. Long familiarity with email has made it a standard practice among Extension educators. The discussion board was an attempt to move the conversation from email to a system that would make it easy for users to post and respond and track a discussion over time. Screencasts, which paired video of the website being used by a member of the ITDG with audio instruction on how to use the MOODLE site to post to a forum, make a quiz, etc. were a popular feature, probably because they combine verbal and visual information in a repeatable lesson.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

Results and discussion/milestones

The project developed as planned in some respects, and in others we made course corrections along the way. We have distilled from our analysis of the project’s strengths and weaknesses, key factors that appear to account for much of the difference between anticipated participation in the project, and the actual participation. We summarize the factors here to aid in understanding the trajectory and results of the project which are discussed below in terms of the project’s milestones.

Factors affecting participation

Two dimensions of participation affected the project outcomes: 1) Who did and did not participate and, 2) How those engaged in the project participated. With respect to who, the project was successful in recruiting Extension and other educators from New York and Pennsylvania, presumably on the strength of prior experience with forest farming/agroforestry programming as well as professional ties that educators had with project leadership. Recruiting educators from other states in the Northeast proved difficult, however. We had not anticipated the extent to which invitations to engage with the project would be met with responses that ‘we’re too busy, there’s no time’. It has become apparent that these arguments stem from perceived opportunity costs and risks that individuals calculate when deciding whether to take on something new. The nature of participation by those who did become involved lends insight into probable reasons for reluctance on the part of those who did not. Specifically, we expect that concern about inadequate performance in online teaching and learning was a greater inhibitor to participation than we had accounted for in planning the project. We had anticipated that asking educators to engage in new subject-matter for which they may not have had strong programmatic support in their various State Extension programs would limit some from participating, but that our encouragement would be successful in attracting at least several curious educators. The fact that ultimately we had no sustained participation from other states is partially a function, no doubt, of ‘full plates’ and scarcity of time. Another factor appears also to be at play however, that is a certain fear about engaging in online technology.

We recognized in many of those who did participate in the pilot a marked reluctance to venture past pre-existing comfort levels and familiar technologies. This reluctance negatively impacted the adoption of new online teaching and learning tools. In attempting to adapt to this factor and accommodate varied comfort levels and technical facility we developed new introductory support materials to bridge the gaps. Even with these foundational steps in digital literacy for online instructors we did not succeed in overcoming these barriers sufficiently to meet our targets. The targets seemed justified on the basis of enthusiasm both for forest farming and online Extension programming that we perceived in our spheres of programming when the project was designed, combined with the prospective benefits for clients and the ultimate impact on land use practice. None the less, our experience provokes us to hypothesize the following barriers to effective participation by educators may lay behind the argument, “I’m too busy…”:

a) Limited basic proficiency and intimidation by technology. We overestimated participant comfort levels with online tools such as a simple discussion board. Concern with appearing incompetent, or of failing, or simply of wasting time on activity that may not generate a payback, is justifiably intimidating.

b) Concern about landowner access to learning tools. Educators may perceive that the potential for landowners to engage in distance learning technology can be limited by the lack of penetration of broad band-width, high speed internet service to rural areas. They may recognize that committed technical support is needed to provide the tools landowners with only dial-up capability need to engage effectively in online learning (CD’s containing essential materials). Without a system-wide culture of online programming to provide the necessary tiers of support, they may consider the value to clients too limited to justify the investment in learning. Educators may have sensed that this was missing in their Extension systems and decided to stay clear.

c. Fear of success. It is possible that online Extension programming can be highly successful. The project’s prototype course with 44 paying landowners from 22 counties in three states suggests the potential -- the exit survey revealed high levels of client satisfaction and interest in pursuing forest farming activity. Some educators may be concerned that if the approach becomes too successful it could supersede needs for some conventional programming and thus threaten their roles and positions. Therefore they prefer not to enhance the credibility of the approach by participating. We know in practice that face to face interaction contributes substantially to online learning, and that the two approaches are complementary. But until one develops competencies in online instruction, this may not be evident.

Strategies to overcome constraints

The project leadership team has developed several measures to help overcome constraints to participation in online learning. Based on the key lesson we learned, that very fundamental levels of capacity development and support are needed by those who are not exceptionally adept and committed, we have invested in a multi-prong approach to make interactive, online teaching and learning more viable. The approach includes the following elements:

a) Face to face certification training and instructor certification. A newly formed Distance Learning Unit at CCE will be coordinated by the leader of this project’s instructional technology group. He has instituted a certification program that will engage educators in online teaching-related skill development that includes a face-to-face component. The program will be launched at the system-wide in-service training for all CCE educators, in October 2007. Certification training will be accompanied by ongoing support from the Coordinator until educators feel confident and demonstrate competence with the technology and approach.

b)Enhancement of instructional tools. We have created screen casts that are more basic and carefully illustrated.

c)Provision of ‘live’ course material on CDs. To overcome issues related to lack of access to broad band width, the certification course will provide educators with CDs that contain video and other material that is difficult to access through dial-up systems.

d)Online instruction guide. For those who have basic competencies in online learning and/or enthusiasm for the approach that will motivate them to self-teach, we have constructed a detailed user’s guide for creating online courses. This can be accessed at: http://treadwell.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/InstructorsGuide/index.html.

Over time, as young people assume positions in Extension education, we can anticipate that computer based programming will become easier and more prominent by virtue of `lifetimes’ of exposure.

Milestones

1. Twelve (12) educators linked with the Northeast Agroforestry Learning Community (NALC) 6 from NY State and 6 from Pennsylvania, will become familiar with the potential for transforming the NALC workshop training package into a comprehensive FF curriculum and DL platform for facilitating learning communities through their engagement in the prototype course design process.

This milestone was reached. Extension educators from NY and PA, several of whom had participated in the SARE-funded NALC between 2000-2002, were enthusiastic about participating in the initial project workshop where the purpose of the project was discussed and an implementation plan developed. The workshop involved 2 and one half days of face to face interaction at the Agroforestry Resource Center in Greene County, NY. Each Educator nominated for this activity accepted, thus there was a waiting list of people who would have attended if resources had allowed. Participants shared their experience and knowledge of forest farming and were curious about online teaching and learning.

After the workshop participants actively contributed content for HWWFF Resource Center. This online Resource Center now contains state of the art information in text, image and video format as well as learning and planning tools to enable educators and landowners to develop competency in forest farming site assessment and marketing, as well as the cultivation of medicinal, mushroom, maple, and fruit and nut crops. The Resource Center can be accessed at: http://hosts.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/

2. Twenty additional educators, 6 from NY State, 6 from PA and 8 from other Northeast states, will become familiar with the content and design of the course, and learn how to use it to instruct and facilitate groups of land owners in learning about forest farming. These educators and the 80 land owners engaged in the course will also learn how to provide meaningful feedback to the course designers through curriculum evaluation protocols that project leadership will develop with users.

Eleven (11) additional educators met this target, all from NY and PA. For reasons given above, we were unsuccessful in recruiting educators from other states. Sixty-seven land owners were engaged in the courses. Many, although not all, of the educators and landowners learned how to provide useful feedback through online discussion forums that were established and stimulated for the purpose. Our experience with online discussion boards bore out experience we have had in other contexts; that regular seeding of questions by a designated facilitator seems essential for maintaining discussion. Following the course, information from the discussion boards was harvested and posted on a wiki that course participants who were interested could access by gaining a password to the site from project leadership. Participants also provided useful information to the Leadership team through pre-and post-course surveys of their experience with forest farming and online learning. Educators and landowners who participated in the pilot test generally were enthusiastic about the course. Between 75-85% of each agreed entirely or agreed strongly that the course was useful, the instructors were helpful, the videos were instructional and the online discussion was worthwhile.

The eleven educators who enrolled in the How When and Why of Teaching Forest Farming Online course were provided instruction in how to construct online learning modules, quizzes, and surveys and to facilitate discussion among course participants using Moodle software. Upon completion of the training 44% completely agreed with the statement: “I think online courses could expand my outreach opportunities”. An additional 11% agreed that online courses could expand their outreach opportunities, for an aggregate of 55% in agreement. The other 44% neither agreed nor disagreed. The same percentage was uncertain about whether their program participants (landowners) would be able to use MOODLE effectively. Seventy percent of the educators predicted that the largest barrier to program participants would be lack of a high speed internet connection. We determined that this challenge could be met, in part, by providing instructional dvds of the videos and screencasts.

4. At least 90 CE Associations and other agriculture and natural resource education organizations in the Northeast who are linked with organizations participating in the project will be aware of the strengths and limitations of the on-line course, and support its use by educators and land owners who may benefit.

This milestone was not reached. Owing to the very limited participation we were able to gain by Educators in other states, we did not make an effort to monitor how CE organizations in other states perceived the utility of the learning system. We anticipate however, that word will spread about the success of the prototype course that one of the educators conducted (44 participants in 22 counties in 3 States). Educators will take the certification course that CCE’s distance learning program will begin offering in Fall 2007. Popular and Extension articles about project experience will be published and circulated. Distance learning will continue to gain cache in Extension programming and hence the learning system will attract increasing attention by CE systems in the region. The accessibility of the online resources which the project developed should make it easy for users to learn about when they are ready.

5. Of the 32 Extension and other agriculture and natural resource educators who participate in developing and testing the on-line forest farming course, 20 will also facilitate internet-supported forest farming learning communities that collectively will include 80 small farm operators and other private forest owners, and 30 educators will incorporate the use of the web-based course into their on-going programs.

To date, only one educator has conducted an online course. She attracted 44 forest owners, and decided to group them into two courses to enhance the potential for participant interaction that comes with smaller groups. She facilitated the two courses simultaneously. Our target had been based on the premise that each educator would develop a course for 4-5 landowners which was viewed as a way to generate extensive interaction and shared learning. In practice however, the prototype course demonstrated a way for one educator to reach many clients efficiently, and on a cost-recovery basis. Thus, rather than the knowledge generation tool for which the approach was envisioned, it has emerged as a tool for improving efficiency in reaching clients who would not be impossible to work with using conventional programming methods. Her experience was successful and appears to provide a viable model for other educators to adopt or adapt. She will serve as a resource person in the October, 2007 in-service training that the CCE Distance Learning Coordinator will offer to provide others the opportunity to gain first-hand from her experience.

Regarding the opinions of landowners who participated in the prototype course and took the exit survey, 33% liked it a lot and 33% liked it a little, while 17% did not like it and the remainder were neutral. Eighty-three percent found the content of the HWWFF Resource Center to be very useful, and felt that it was very easy or somewhat easy to navigate. All of the respondents however (100%), reported the course to be very useful, overall, in helping them learn more about forest farming. In written comments, respondents reported that one of the most useful and enjoyable parts of the course was a face-to-face field day they spent with the instructor in a setting where forest farming was practiced. This finding reinforces insight we have gained throughout the project, that face-to-face interaction complements online learning and appears to be an important component of an effective program.

6. Of the 80 land owners who participate in the on-line forest farming curriculum, 70 will initiate or expand trial forest farming practices, monitor them and report on-line to their educator-facilitated learning communities on the progress and performance. Fifty (50) will cooperate with Extension and other educators to facilitate the training of many additional land owners using the DL course.

Of the initial 65 who participated in the initial pilot courses, we estimate that about two-thirds initiated or expanded an enterprise following the course. Of the 44 who participated in the prototype, virtually all have or expect to undertake forest farming activity as a result of the course. Thus, we estimate that about 65 landowners initiated trials. At this time however, we do not anticipate that any of them will monitor and report their experience with forest crops online in an organized way through facilitated interaction. Expectations for this component of the project were set aside when the barriers to effective participation in online instruction (by Extension educators) became evident. Eventually we expect this `learning community’ characteristic to emerge from applications of the interactive, online learning system that the project has initiated. It turned out to be premature, however, to anticipate that it would be a direct and immediate outcome of the project.

As the culture of forest farming expands in New York, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states, where forest is the predominant land cover and land use, we can anticipate that more forest owners will have expanded economic (profit-oriented) incentives to deliberately and effectively manage their forest resources. Farmers in the region who own woodlots stand to diversify their enterprises through growing specialty forest crops.

Experience suggests that the type of management that forest owners will undertake to create conditions that are suitable for forest farming also will stimulate healthy regeneration, including invasive species control. Presumably, a healthy, income-generating forest is more likely to withstand economic pressures to covert it to land uses that are less socially and environmentally beneficial, than one that is degraded and not enjoyable to use.
The project developed as planned in some respects, and in others we made course corrections along the way. We have distilled from our analysis of the project’s strengths and weaknesses, key factors that appear to account for much of the difference between anticipated participation in the project, and the actual participation. We summarize the factors here to aid in understanding the trajectory and results of the project which are discussed below in terms of the project’s milestones.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

The project reached some 109 forest land owners. We anticipate that all of them are sensitized, at least, to the potential for forest farming as a management option for their woodlots or forested properties, and are able to make more informed choices about whether and how to practice forest farming. They also are familiar with human and online resources that they can turn to for assistance with forest farming if they desire to. As indicated in the Results and Discussion/Milestones Section, it is probable that all 44 landowners who paid to take the prototype course will initiate or enhance their forest farming practice in the short term. We anticipated that about two-thirds of the 65 forest owners who participated in the pilot are likely to initiate or expand their practice in the short term. Many of the others however, will choose not to because they have learned that it is unlikely to pay off for them under their particular constraints; thus their experience with the project will have helped them avoid some poor investments of resources.

The 32 Extension and other natural resource educators in New York and Pennsylvania who participated in the project are likely all to have a deeper understanding of the potentials and the limits of forest farming. The project did not attempt to measure this change, however. The project was unable to measure the change in Educator’s capacity to facilitate interactive, online teaching and learning. For reasons discussed in the Results and Discussion/ Milestones Section, participation in instructional activity on this body of knowledge was limited, and few participants completed the exit survey of the pilot course on teaching forest farming online.

The prototype online course in forest farming that one Extension educator designed and conducted with forest owners, however, after participating in the project’s two pilot courses, is testimony to the impact that the approach can have under the guidance of an educator who becomes comfortable with it. As discussed in the Results and Section, the 10-week course enabled the instructor efficiently to deliver content and interact with 44 paying landowners who paid for the experience. All of those who took the exit survey claimed that their knowledge of forest farming improved by taking the course.

Two key outputs from the project are likely to stimulate and support changes in practice over time, so that additional, longer term outcomes can be anticipated. The web-based resources that the project developed; The How When and Why of Forest Farming Resource Center, and the User’s Guide to the MOODLE-based course management system for the How When and Why of Teaching Forest Farming Online, will continue to be maintained by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Distance Learning program. These resources are publicly available to anyone at anytime. The HWWFF Resource Center can serve as stand alone course material to be used as a resource for educators and landowners. Several Extension educators who were not involved in the project have approached us about using the Resource Center for classes they are organizing in forest farming, which we have encouraged them to use it freely without permission.

A notable impact at the institutional level is that Paul Treadwell, leader of the project’s instructional technology group, has been given responsibility as a Distance Learning Coordinator for CCE and mandated to build on the approach piloted through this project to extend it to other domains of Extension. This shift in staffing responsibilites within CCE indicates a new perception of the value of distance learning as an outreach tool suited to the core mission of Extension. Given the rapid changes in technology, fostering the development of competency with distance learning technologies for Extension educators will play a critical role in capturing new audiences, enhancing program delivery in an increasingly competitive market space and maintaining the educational leadership of Extension. Lessons learned from this project will directly benefit the increased scope of distance learning-based outreach at CCE.

In October, 2007 Mr. Treadwell, with support from other members of the project leadership team, will conduct a face-to-face workshop in Teaching Forest Farming Online to Extension educators throughout New York State at a system-wide Extension conference. Participants will be recruited and the workshop organized around a train-the-trainers model. Educators from each region of the State will be guided in how to conduct echo-workshops with other educators. This will create a multiplier effect in expanding capacity to use interactive online learning in natural resources Extension programming.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Results and discussion/milestones

The project developed as planned in some respects, and in others we made course corrections along the way. We have distilled from our analysis of the project’s strengths and weaknesses, key factors that appear to account for much of the difference between anticipated participation in the project, and the actual participation. We summarize the factors here to aid in understanding the trajectory and results of the project which are discussed below in terms of the project’s milestones.

Factors affecting participation

Two dimensions of participation affected the project outcomes: 1) Who did and did not participate and, 2) How those engaged in the project participated. With respect to who, the project was successful in recruiting Extension and other educators from New York and Pennsylvania, presumably on the strength of prior experience with forest farming/agroforestry programming as well as professional ties that educators had with project leadership. Recruiting educators from other states in the Northeast proved difficult, however. We had not anticipated the extent to which invitations to engage with the project would be met with responses that ‘we’re too busy, there’s no time’. It has become apparent that these arguments stem from perceived opportunity costs and risks that individuals calculate when deciding whether to take on something new. The nature of participation by those who did become involved lends insight into probable reasons for reluctance on the part of those who did not. Specifically, we expect that concern about inadequate performance in online teaching and learning was a greater inhibitor to participation than we had accounted for in planning the project. We had anticipated that asking educators to engage in new subject-matter for which they may not have had strong programmatic support in their various State Extension programs would limit some from participating, but that our encouragement would be successful in attracting at least several curious educators. The fact that ultimately we had no sustained participation from other states is partially a function, no doubt, of ‘full plates’ and scarcity of time. Another factor appears also to be at play however, that is a certain fear about engaging in online technology.

We recognized in many of those who did participate in the pilot a marked reluctance to venture past pre-existing comfort levels and familiar technologies. This reluctance negatively impacted the adoption of new online teaching and learning tools. In attempting to adapt to this factor and accommodate varied comfort levels and technical facility we developed new introductory support materials to bridge the gaps. Even with these foundational steps in digital literacy for online instructors we did not succeed in overcoming these barriers sufficiently to meet our targets. The targets seemed justified on the basis of enthusiasm both for forest farming and online Extension programming that we perceived in our spheres of programming when the project was designed, combined with the prospective benefits for clients and the ultimate impact on land use practice. None the less, our experience provokes us to hypothesize the following barriers to effective participation by educators may lay behind the argument, “I’m too busy…”:

a) Limited basic proficiency and intimidation by technology. We overestimated participant comfort levels with online tools such as a simple discussion board. Concern with appearing incompetent, or of failing, or simply of wasting time on activity that may not generate a payback, is justifiably intimidating.

b) Concern about landowner access to learning tools. Educators may perceive that the potential for landowners to engage in distance learning technology can be limited by the lack of penetration of broad band-width, high speed internet service to rural areas. They may recognize that committed technical support is needed to provide the tools landowners with only dial-up capability need to engage effectively in online learning (CD’s containing essential materials). Without a system-wide culture of online programming to provide the necessary tiers of support, they may consider the value to clients too limited to justify the investment in learning. Educators may have sensed that this was missing in their Extension systems and decided to stay clear.

c. Fear of success. It is possible that online Extension programming can be highly successful. The project’s prototype course with 44 paying landowners from 22 counties in three states suggests the potential -- the exit survey revealed high levels of client satisfaction and interest in pursuing forest farming activity. Some educators may be concerned that if the approach becomes too successful it could supersede needs for some conventional programming and thus threaten their roles and positions. Therefore they prefer not to enhance the credibility of the approach by participating. We know in practice that face to face interaction contributes substantially to online learning, and that the two approaches are complementary. But until one develops competencies in online instruction, this may not be evident.

Strategies to overcome constraints

The project leadership team has developed several measures to help overcome constraints to participation in online learning. Based on the key lesson we learned, that very fundamental levels of capacity development and support are needed by those who are not exceptionally adept and committed, we have invested in a multi-prong approach to make interactive, online teaching and learning more viable. The approach includes the following elements:

a) Face to face certification training and instructor certification. A newly formed Distance Learning Unit at CCE will be coordinated by the leader of this project’s instructional technology group. He has instituted a certification program that will engage educators in online teaching-related skill development that includes a face-to-face component. The program will be launched at the system-wide in-service training for all CCE educators, in October 2007. Certification training will be accompanied by ongoing support from the Coordinator until educators feel confident and demonstrate competence with the technology and approach.

b)Enhancement of instructional tools. We have created screen casts that are more basic and carefully illustrated.

c)Provision of ‘live’ course material on CDs. To overcome issues related to lack of access to broad band width, the certification course will provide educators with CDs that contain video and other material that is difficult to access through dial-up systems.

d)Online instruction guide. For those who have basic competencies in online learning and/or enthusiasm for the approach that will motivate them to self-teach, we have constructed a detailed user’s guide for creating online courses. This can be accessed at: http://treadwell.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/InstructorsGuide/index.html.

Over time, as young people assume positions in Extension education, we can anticipate that computer based programming will become easier and more prominent by virtue of `lifetimes’ of exposure.

Milestones

1. Twelve (12) educators linked with the Northeast Agroforestry Learning Community (NALC) 6 from NY State and 6 from Pennsylvania, will become familiar with the potential for transforming the NALC workshop training package into a comprehensive FF curriculum and DL platform for facilitating learning communities through their engagement in the prototype course design process.

This milestone was reached. Extension educators from NY and PA, several of whom had participated in the SARE-funded NALC between 2000-2002, were enthusiastic about participating in the initial project workshop where the purpose of the project was discussed and an implementation plan developed. The workshop involved 2 and one half days of face to face interaction at the Agroforestry Resource Center in Greene County, NY. Each Educator nominated for this activity accepted, thus there was a waiting list of people who would have attended if resources had allowed. Participants shared their experience and knowledge of forest farming and were curious about online teaching and learning.

After the workshop participants actively contributed content for HWWFF Resource Center. This online Resource Center now contains state of the art information in text, image and video format as well as learning and planning tools to enable educators and landowners to develop competency in forest farming site assessment and marketing, as well as the cultivation of medicinal, mushroom, maple, and fruit and nut crops. The Resource Center can be accessed at: http://hosts.cce.cornell.edu/hwwff/

2. Twenty additional educators, 6 from NY State, 6 from PA and 8 from other Northeast states, will become familiar with the content and design of the course, and learn how to use it to instruct and facilitate groups of land owners in learning about forest farming. These educators and the 80 land owners engaged in the course will also learn how to provide meaningful feedback to the course designers through curriculum evaluation protocols that project leadership will develop with users.

Eleven (11) additional educators met this target, all from NY and PA. For reasons given above, we were unsuccessful in recruiting educators from other states. Sixty-seven land owners were engaged in the courses. Many, although not all, of the educators and landowners learned how to provide useful feedback through online discussion forums that were established and stimulated for the purpose. Our experience with online discussion boards bore out experience we have had in other contexts; that regular seeding of questions by a designated facilitator seems essential for maintaining discussion. Following the course, information from the discussion boards was harvested and posted on a wiki that course participants who were interested could access by gaining a password to the site from project leadership. Participants also provided useful information to the Leadership team through pre-and post-course surveys of their experience with forest farming and online learning. Educators and landowners who participated in the pilot test generally were enthusiastic about the course. Between 75-85% of each agreed entirely or agreed strongly that the course was useful, the instructors were helpful, the videos were instructional and the online discussion was worthwhile.

The eleven educators who enrolled in the How When and Why of Teaching Forest Farming Online course were provided instruction in how to construct online learning modules, quizzes, and surveys and to facilitate discussion among course participants using Moodle software. Upon completion of the training 44% completely agreed with the statement: “I think online courses could expand my outreach opportunities”. An additional 11% agreed that online courses could expand their outreach opportunities, for an aggregate of 55% in agreement. The other 44% neither agreed nor disagreed. The same percentage was uncertain about whether their program participants (landowners) would be able to use MOODLE effectively. Seventy percent of the educators predicted that the largest barrier to program participants would be lack of a high speed internet connection. We determined that this challenge could be met, in part, by providing instructional dvds of the videos and screencasts.

4. At least 90 CE Associations and other agriculture and natural resource education organizations in the Northeast who are linked with organizations participating in the project will be aware of the strengths and limitations of the on-line course, and support its use by educators and land owners who may benefit.

This milestone was not reached. Owing to the very limited participation we were able to gain by Educators in other states, we did not make an effort to monitor how CE organizations in other states perceived the utility of the learning system. We anticipate however, that word will spread about the success of the prototype course that one of the educators conducted (44 participants in 22 counties in 3 States). Educators will take the certification course that CCE’s distance learning program will begin offering in Fall 2007. Popular and Extension articles about project experience will be published and circulated. Distance learning will continue to gain cache in Extension programming and hence the learning system will attract increasing attention by CE systems in the region. The accessibility of the online resources which the project developed should make it easy for users to learn about when they are ready.

5. Of the 32 Extension and other agriculture and natural resource educators who participate in developing and testing the on-line forest farming course, 20 will also facilitate internet-supported forest farming learning communities that collectively will include 80 small farm operators and other private forest owners, and 30 educators will incorporate the use of the web-based course into their on-going programs.

To date, only one educator has conducted an online course. She attracted 44 forest owners, and decided to group them into two courses to enhance the potential for participant interaction that comes with smaller groups. She facilitated the two courses simultaneously. Our target had been based on the premise that each educator would develop a course for 4-5 landowners which was viewed as a way to generate extensive interaction and shared learning. In practice however, the prototype course demonstrated a way for one educator to reach many clients efficiently, and on a cost-recovery basis. Thus, rather than the knowledge generation tool for which the approach was envisioned, it has emerged as a tool for improving efficiency in reaching clients who would not be impossible to work with using conventional programming methods. Her experience was successful and appears to provide a viable model for other educators to adopt or adapt. She will serve as a resource person in the October, 2007 in-service training that the CCE Distance Learning Coordinator will offer to provide others the opportunity to gain first-hand from her experience.

Regarding the opinions of landowners who participated in the prototype course and took the exit survey, 33% liked it a lot and 33% liked it a little, while 17% did not like it and the remainder were neutral. Eighty-three percent found the content of the HWWFF Resource Center to be very useful, and felt that it was very easy or somewhat easy to navigate. All of the respondents however (100%), reported the course to be very useful, overall, in helping them learn more about forest farming. In written comments, respondents reported that one of the most useful and enjoyable parts of the course was a face-to-face field day they spent with the instructor in a setting where forest farming was practiced. This finding reinforces insight we have gained throughout the project, that face-to-face interaction complements online learning and appears to be an important component of an effective program.

6. Of the 80 land owners who participate in the on-line forest farming curriculum, 70 will initiate or expand trial forest farming practices, monitor them and report on-line to their educator-facilitated learning communities on the progress and performance. Fifty (50) will cooperate with Extension and other educators to facilitate the training of many additional land owners using the DL course.

Of the initial 65 who participated in the initial pilot courses, we estimate that about two-thirds initiated or expanded an enterprise following the course. Of the 44 who participated in the prototype, virtually all have or expect to undertake forest farming activity as a result of the course. Thus, we estimate that about 65 landowners initiated trials. At this time however, we do not anticipate that any of them will monitor and report their experience with forest crops online in an organized way through facilitated interaction. Expectations for this component of the project were set aside when the barriers to effective participation in online instruction (by Extension educators) became evident. Eventually we expect this `learning community’ characteristic to emerge from applications of the interactive, online learning system that the project has initiated. It turned out to be premature, however, to anticipate that it would be a direct and immediate outcome of the project.

As the culture of forest farming expands in New York, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states, where forest is the predominant land cover and land use, we can anticipate that more forest owners will have expanded economic (profit-oriented) incentives to deliberately and effectively manage their forest resources. Farmers in the region who own woodlots stand to diversify their enterprises through growing specialty forest crops.

Experience suggests that the type of management that forest owners will undertake to create conditions that are suitable for forest farming also will stimulate healthy regeneration, including invasive species control. Presumably, a healthy, income-generating forest is more likely to withstand economic pressures to covert it to land uses that are less socially and environmentally beneficial, than one that is degraded and not enjoyable to use.
The project developed as planned in some respects, and in others we made course corrections along the way. We have distilled from our analysis of the project’s strengths and weaknesses, key factors that appear to account for much of the difference between anticipated participation in the project, and the actual participation. We summarize the factors here to aid in understanding the trajectory and results of the project which are discussed below in terms of the project’s milestones.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

See Outcomes and Impacts & Outreach and Publications

Future Recommendations

Areas Needing Additional Study

The project pointed up a very fundamental issue in need of study. That is, how to motivate participants (educators and client-beneficiaries) to learn online? What types of organization, facilitation and incentives are required to create the conditions for effective online learning?

Experience with other interactive, distance learning courses that members of the project leadership team have been engaged in suggest for
example, that the frequency and quality of discussion increases when students pay a significant fee. If this is true, what conditions then, motivate a user to pay a significant fee? Another inducement to participate may be offering students a certificate of completion which
serves in a modest way as a positive reinforcement to learning. And what other factors need to be present to ensure a successful online course and
experience for the user? These are complex questions to answer that we believe are in need of deliberate and careful study.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.