Developing Distance Learning Based on Perceptions and Knowledge of Producers and Agricultural Professionals

Final Report for SW05-038

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $98,819.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Fabian Menalled
Dept. of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences
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Project Information

Abstract:

With funds provided by Western SARE, we evaluated the needs, knowledge, and concerns of agricultural professionals who were likely to enroll in distance education programs in sustainable agriculture. We utilized the results of this survey to develop and deliver three WEB-CT based distance learning workshops on sustainable agriculture. Each one of eight-week workshops on sustainable agriculture included topics on pest management, water use efficiency and cropping systems, nutrient management, and relevant economy and policy. We have further utilized the information gathered in this survey to write a manuscript entitled currently under review at the Journal of Agricultural Education.

Project Objectives:

1. Assess producers, NRCS personnel, certified crop advisers, and extension agents’ perceptions and knowledge on sustainable agriculture

2. Develop and deliver distance learning courses and field days on sustainable agriculture issues tailored to audience needs

3. Facilitate audience interaction through the electronic framework provided by the WebCT platform

4. Evaluate audience acceptance of this alternative extension program including the effects on audience interaction, audience learning, and the usefulness of the conveyed information

Introduction:

Traditionally, universities and the industry sector disseminate agricultural information through printed materials, conferences, and field days based on a limited number of problems identified by researchers and administrators as important (Menalled, Landis, & Dyer, 2004). This approach to agricultural extension follows a top-down Transfer of Technology (ToT) model where farmers first become aware of an innovation, then gain additional knowledge, and finally adopt the proposed innovation (Röling & Jiggins, 2000). Three major limitations emerge when this approach to agricultural extension is used to teach sustainable farming practices. First, the ToT model does not take into account the participant’s diverse practices and prior knowledge. Second, it does not monitor the usefulness of the conveyed information. Finally, it fails to consider the many interdependent components that form agricultural ecosystems.

The lack of an educational system in which agricultural professionals exchange information and experiences has been cited as a barrier hindering the adoption of ecologically based farming practices (National Research Council, 1989). Replacing the ToT model with an approach to agricultural extension that considers the agricultural professionals’ needs and prior knowledge represents a viable alternative to help agricultural professionals develop ecologically sound practices that enhance the sustainability of their agricultural systems. In this context, the active participation of local leaders is a key component determining the speed and success at which innovative practices disseminate from a small number of early adopters to a relatively larger number of late adopters (Rogers, 1992; Rogers, 2003). This concept is rooted on the following premises. First, sustainable agriculture education programs should address the specific needs of the targeted group of agricultural professionals. Second, learners’ prior appreciation of sustainable agriculture must be considered as it provides invaluable information. Third, because ecologically sound agriculture benefits from collective learning and discussions, peer learning should be at the core of sustainable agriculture dissemination. Fourth, as many ecological processes occur at scales larger than the field, it is necessary to adopt a whole-system approach to problem solving. Finally, moving to ecologically sound agriculture requires participation of not just farmers but entails the inclusion of crop advisers, agency personnel, and consumers (Röling & Jiggins, 2000).

Internet resources provide a unique opportunity to enhance the diffusion efficiency of sustainable agriculture concepts (Phillips, 1999). In recent years, Universities across the United States have developed undergraduate and graduate curricula to deliver distance education programs in sustainable agriculture (Wilson & Moore, 2004). Despite previous studies that assessed factors related to the intent of agricultural professionals to enroll in on-line graduate programs in agriculture (Wilson & Moore, 2004) and the distance-education facilities available at different universities (Roberts & Dyer, 2005), a void exists in the literature on how to develop and deliver on-line extension/outreach programs on sustainable agriculture. Moreover, a large challenge that remains is to adapt this form of extension to new ideas about distance learning, including participants’ prior knowledge of cropping systems, peer-assisted learning, and learners’ ability to transfer and adapt their knowledge to their particular farms

References Cited

Menalled, F. D., Landis, D. A., & Dyer, L. (2004). Research and extension supporting ecologically based IPM systems. Journal of Crop Improvement, 11(1/2), 153-174.
National Research Council. (1989). Alternative agriculture. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Phillips, C. (1999). The role of the universities in agriculture teaching and research in the twenty-first century. Outlook on Agriculture, 28(44), 253-256.
Roberts, T. G., & Dyer, J. E. (2005). A summary of distance education in university agricultural education departments. Journal of Agricultural Education, 46(2), 70-82.
Rogers, E. M. (1992). Prospectus for cooperative extension system in education. Science Communication, 13(3), 248-255.
Röling, N. G., & Jiggins, J. (2000). The ecological knowledge system. In Röling, N. G. & M. A. E. Wagemakers (Eds.), Facilitating sustainable agriculture (pp. 283-311). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, E., & Moore, G. (2004). Factors related to the intent of professionals in agricultural and extension education to enroll in an on-line master’s degree program. Journal of Agricultural Education, 45(4), 96-105.

Research

Materials and methods:

Objective 1 was accomplished by 1) assessing the demographic characteristics of the audience who were likely to enroll in distance education programs in sustainable agriculture, 2) identifying the audience concerns and interests related to sustainable farming, and 3) evaluating the audience current knowledge and relative adoption of sustainable farming practices. These three tasks were achieved through a survey questionnaire developed by six Montana State University specialists and revised by a core group of farmers. The questionnaire contained 3 short-answer questions, 7 multiple choice questions, and 10 open-ended questions. The survey was analyzed qualitatively using a text analysis of the responses and quantitatively with parametric and non-parametric statistical analysis. Text analysis was conducted to identify emerging topics in the open-ended questions of the survey.

We utilized the knowledge gained in this survey to develop three eight-week long Web-CT distance learning workshops on sustainable agriculture (Objective 2). The Web-CT platform was selected because of its availability through the Montana State University Burns Telecommunications Center and because of its user friendly interface. The Sustainable Crop Management Workshop included a “lecture” space with the workshop modules, chat rooms, discussion rooms, and e-mail service.

These three on-line workshops were offered in fall 2006, fall 2007, and fall 2008. Each one of these workshops included topics related to copping systems, pest management, soil fertility, plant nutrition and economics. Prior to the initiation of these workshops, precipitants were provided with a booklet containing al the readings for each module and a CD with information about the workshop and all the Modules. A copy of the Booklet and CD in the fall 2008 workshop is provided with the printed version of this report. These workshops facilitated audience interaction through the electronic framework provided by the WebCT platform (Objective 3). Periodic evaluations were conducted to assess audience acceptance of this alternative extension program (Objective 4).

Research results and discussion:

Objective 1. Assess producers, NRCS personnel, certified crop advisers, and extension agents’ perceptions and knowledge on sustainable agriculture. The study participants had diverse professions. Of the 119 respondents, 24% identified themselves as dryland producers, 23% as crop advisers and/or chemical dealers, 16% as extension agents, 11% as agency employees, 9% as irrigation producers, and 19% as either farmer educators/facilitators, prospective organic farmers, or vegetable organic farmers. Also, respondents were active in a wide range of agricultural systems that involved, in many cases, several systems at a time. From a total of 104 responses, the most commonly represented agricultural systems were conventional-tillage wheat fallow and diversified cropping systems (72% of participants), no-tillage practices (64%), reduced inputs farming (38%), and organic farming (30%).

Despite the wide distribution in areas of expertise and systems, the respondents were mainly long-time agricultural practitioners. Overall, from a total of 109 respondents, 67% had 16 or more years of professional experience, 20% had between 6 and 15 years of experience, and 13% had less than 5 years of experience in agriculture. A Chi-square test indicated that expertise distribution was unequally distributed across areas of expertise with most of those with less than 5 years of experience being either irrigation producers or other professions including current and prospective organic farmers and journalists (p < 0.001). Achieving long-term economic and environmental sustainability was a main priority of the respondents. From a total of 65 respondents, 15% of them considered achieving long-term environmental sustainability their highest priority, 5% considered long-term economic sustainability as their primary goal, and 80% were interested in the joint achievement of economic and environmental sustainability. Those who considered long-term optimization of environmental sustainability as their highest goal were all agency employees.
On the other hand, five crop advisers/chemical dealers, two dryland producers, and three extension agents considered achieving economic sustainability as their main priority. The percentage of agricultural professionals whose goal was achieving either economic, environmental, or economic and environmental sustainability was not equally distributed across groups with different years of professional experience. More respondents with more that 16 years of experience were interested in achieving environmental sustainability than what could be expected from a random distribution of goals across years of experience (Chi-square test, p < 0.001) From a total of 62 respondents, the most relevant economic concerns related to the increased cost of farming inputs (82%). Other economic concerns included the loss of small family farms to corporate and investment farms (16%), the amount of government regulations (16%), the lack of market diversity (16%), and the economic impact of dealing with environmental issues (11%). Only 5% of the organic producers expressed concerns regarding the economic challenges and expenses associated with this approach to farming. Regarding concerns and interests of the study participants on issues related to the management of cropping systems, from a total of 65 respondents, 34% were concerned about environmental issues such as soil health, nutrients, and water management, 34% were concerned about crop market prices, 32% expressed concern about weeds, diseases and insect pest management, and 25% were concerned about the extensive use of monoculture. Less common concerns included the access to information and proper technology (15%) and problems associated with the transition to organic or no-till farming practices (4%). Nearly 95% of 82 respondents were interested in the use ecologically based practices such as crop rotation in the management of agricultural weeds. For this group, reduction of crop yield and quality due to crop-weed competition and the selection of herbicide resistance biotypes were cited as relevant topics associated with the adoption of sustainable farming practices (58% and 56%, respectively). Despite the high interest in the use of ecologically based practices, only 38% and 25% of the respondents were interested in the use of cover-crops and biological control agents, respectively. When asked to identify the five most troublesome weeds affecting their production systems, the study participants identified species with a wide range of biological characteristics. From a total of 62 responses, the top weed perceived as problematic was kochia (Kochia scoparia), an annual dicot species. Wild oat (Avena fatua) and downy brome (Bromus tectorum) were cited as the most problematic annual monocot weed species. Finally, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), two perennial species that reproduce through seeds and extensive root systems, were cited as problematic dicot species. Three of these weed species (kochia, Russian thistle, and wild oat) have developed resistance to different herbicides across the Northern Great Plains (International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, 2007). Participants demonstrated a vast knowledge base regarding sustainable farming practices. For example, only 14% of 71 respondents indicated that weed management strategies should not tolerate the presence of some weeds in their fields. A significant proportion of participants had a neutral or positive perception towards the presence of weeds in croplands. Thirty-four percent of the respondents perceived weeds as valuable components of their farms as they could harbor beneficial organisms and reduce soil erosion and 16% expressed that tolerating the presence of weeds could save money. This approach to weed management is supported by theoretical and experimental evidence. The number of years of professional experience was not a significant factor determining the acceptance level of weeds (Chi-square test, p = 0.66). Objective 2. Develop and deliver distance learning courses and field days on sustainable agriculture issues tailored to audience needs. The Sustainable Crop Management Workshop has been offered three times, in fall 2006, fall 2007, and fall 2008. Topics discussed focused on sustainability, nutrient management, diverse cropping systems, weed and disease management, and farm economics. Each year, a total of 25 participants were expected to spend an average of 6 hours per week on this workshop. Certified crop advisers were eligible to receive 25 continuing education units if they successfully completed the workshop. To facilitate the involvement of those with slow Internet connections, participants were provided with a booklet containing the readings for each module and a CD with information about the course and the modules. Because of the diverse professions and other commitments of the participants, the asynchronous discussion forums and electronic mail was preferred during the workshops. Objective 3. Facilitate audience interaction through the electronic framework provided by the WebCT platform. The discussion forums and electronic mails provided by the WebCT p[platform facilitated audience interaction. For example, between these two workshops a total of 1163 messages were posted in the discussion rooms and 814 e-mails were shared among the participants of the workshops. Objective 4. Evaluate audience acceptance of this alternative extension program including the effects on audience interaction, audience learning, and the usefulness of the conveyed information. To assess the impact of these workshops, we requested participants’ feedback twice during each workshop to evaluate audience acceptance of this alternative extension program. The general trend from the audience feedback was a general satisfaction in both the contents of these workshops and the method utilized to deliver them. Examples of the participants’ feedback are as follow: “I found the readings inspiring and I think at least in this part of the country the movement towards sustainability is alive…An eye opener to me and inspiring what these operations have achieved.” “This is my first experience with on line discussions and it is fascinating to watch how a thread grows. This is a great start to what should be an interesting an educational experience – Thanks to all the participants.” “I have found most of it educational even though some of the material doesn’t apply to my area. I do find that there are usually ideas I can integrate into our systems even if intended for a different cropping system.” “I really enjoyed the discussions. I work in an environment where we don't get to "talk" about these really interesting philosophical things like can sustainable ag really work, and what might be a better way a whole lot, but really need the information to do our jobs right.” “The fertility section was especially interesting to me. I also like the format, once everyone caught on to how to use the discussion tool (threads). All teachers have been really good about responding to discussions and emails.” “It is nice to be able to talk to a wide variety of people about farming issues in Montana. Also nice to hear practical advice from people who know.” “I have found most of it educational even though some of the material doesn’t apply to my area. I do find that there are usually ideas I can integrate into our systems even if intended for a different cropping system.” To encourage the participation of County Extension Agents, the Montana State University Extension Service provided scholarships for Agricultural Specialist interested in participating at anyone of these workshops. Finally, 25 Continuing Education Units (CEU) for Certified Crop Advisors were recognized for successful completion of the each workshop.

Research conclusions:

Developing sustainable agriculture outreach curriculum requires an explicit acknowledgement of the participants’ previous knowledge, needs, and concerns. This research demonstrated that agricultural professionals who are likely to enroll in a distance education program on sustainable agriculture had a strong understanding of the ecological basis supporting farming. We further identified similarities among potential participants of an on-line extension program in sustainable agriculture. For example, the study’s participants were mainly composed of professionals that had been associated with agricultural production for a relatively long period of time for whom securing the environmental and economic sustainability of their farming enterprise is a priority. Soil health, nutrient management, and soil moisture conservation are major concerns expressed by the study’s participants. Other major concerns included input costs, pest management, and the use of crop rotations, cover crops, and intercropping. Based on the results and findings of this research, we propose the following recommendations:

1. Understanding the demographic characteristics, levels of knowledge, concerns, and interests of the targeted audience provides valuable information for the design and delivery of on-line extension instruction on sustainable agriculture.
2. The knowledge base of agricultural professionals who are likely to enroll in a distance education program on sustainable agriculture is strong. Incorporating this understanding of the ecological basis supporting sustainable farming into an extension program through peer to peer collaboration in discussion forums and electronic mail facilitates the dissemination of innovate practices.
3. Constructivism provides a suitable framework for on-line extension instruction on sustainable agriculture by enhancing participants’ problem solving ability within the diverse environmental, economic, and social situations where farming takes place.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Buschena D., C. Jones, B. Maxwell, F. Menalled, P. Miller, and C. Sommers Austin. 2006. Readings for the Online Sustainable Crop Management Workshop. Montana State University and Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Menalled, F., B. Grimberg, and C. Jones. Evaluation of agricultural professionals’ perceptions and knowledge on sustainable agriculture: A useful step in the development of an on-line extension program. Submitted to J. Agr. Education.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Due to the characteristics of our educational project, no economic analysis was performed.

Farmer Adoption

Based on the positive assessment of audience learning and usefulness of the conveyed information (see Objective 4, results) we believe that students who participated at the three on-line workshops have significantly increased their comprehension on the concepts and practices on sustainable agriculture.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

This study represents a first attempt to characterize the needs, knowledge, and concerns on farming issues of a community of agricultural professionals interested in participating in an on-line extension course in sustainable agriculture. In doing so, we identified areas of interest and approaches to enhance the sustainability of the farming enterprise. Many of the solutions to enhance farm sustainability possessed by the participants of this study are supported by current agroecological research. We used this information to develop and deliver an eight-week Sustainable Crop Management Workshop utilizing the WebCT platform, which proved to be a useful resource to facilitate students’ participation in discussion forums and exchange of information. Future studies could formally assess the applicability of the WebCT platform in extension activities related to sustainable agriculture in comparison with more traditional approaches to extension.

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.