The How, When and Why of Forest Farming: Building and Using New Internet Based Infrastructure to Advance Learning and Practice in the Northeast
The project is building an on-line community of educators and landowners who are learning about principles and practices of the agroforestry practice known as forest farming. Part of the process of participating in this on-line community includes learning how to use distributed instructional technology to establish learning communities. The project’s leadership team has engaged educators in the Cooperative Extension systems of New York and Pennsylvania, and other non-profit organizations, to develop instructional resources about forest farming, and to become familiar with internet-based learning environments. The project used MOODLE, an open source learning content management system (LCMS), to bring educators together with the leadership team to build an instructional resource site called the How, When and Why of Forest Farming (HWWFF). The leadership team has guided this collaborative process by shaping the material into eight units that cover site evaluation, crop management, and marketing aspects of forest farming.
The LCMS was used, then, to create a prototype course for forest owners. This course was used to pilot test the effectiveness of the HWWFF, and the suitability of on-line learning, with three separate groups of forest land owners and natural resource extension educators. These three pilot courses were conducted concurrently over a 7-week period. The three facilitators (PIs Mudge and Buck and extension educator Hargrave) coordinated with one another and with the project’s instructional technology team leader (Treadwell) to ensure consistency, yet variety in approach. A baseline survey and an exit survey of participants in the course were conducted to enable project leadership to evaluate the users’ view of the content as well as the online delivery system. Further information from the pilot tests is being generated by examining the records of discussions that took place during the courses. The data gathered by these processes will be used to refine and improve the content and usability of the HWWFF.
For the pilot test we developed a prototype User’s Guide (including text, images, and video) to facilitate participation in the on-line learning process. Feedback will enable us to edit the Guide for first-time users of the MOODLE-based system. We also are preparing a MOODLE Course Development Guide to enable Extension and other natural resource educators to design and conduct agroforestry–related online courses that suit the needs of their clientele, using the resources that the project is generating.
Of the 32 Extension and other farming and natural resource educators who participate in developing and testing the on-line 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.
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.
1. In 2004, as planned, 12 Extension educators were engaged in the project, 6 each from NY State and Pennsylvania, to participate with project leadership in designing a curriculum in forest farming, as well as platforms and protocols for facilitating online learning with landowners. Following a face-to-face, start-up workshop, we began working together online to develop these materials and procedures. After evaluating a number of frameworks for hosting on-line learning we adopted MOODLE as the most appropriate to our goals. You may refer to Annual Report 2004 for more detail.
2. In 2005 the first-generation `instructional resource package’ that we refer to as the How, When and Why of Forest Farming unit was completed, and used to conduct 3 concurrent “replicate” on-line pilot courses, as planned. We recruited 18 additional educators, 16 from NY and PA, and 2 from West Virginia, to participate. Based on this experience we have come to the conclusion that lead time of about a year is necessary to obtain commitments from Cooperative Extension educators in states where project leadership does not have a presence. One reason for this lead time is that educators find it difficult to fit new activity into their burgeoning programs. The 18 new recruits joined 8 of the original 12 Extension Educators for a total of 26 educators who learned how to use the course materials and online platform (MOODLE) to instruct and facilitate groups of land owners in learning about forest farming. We recruited an initial 80 landowners to participate in pilot testing the courses, as planned. Seventy-two of these were actually able to log on and participate in one of the three concurrent courses.
3. As planned, both the educators and landowners who participated in the pilot tests provided meaningful feedback to the course designers through curriculum evaluation protocols that project leadership developed with participation by some of the users. Presently, we are in the process of evaluating this feedback, which was obtained through pre- and post-course surveys, and discussion forums that were part of the pilot courses. The rich and informative feedback is enabling us, over the next several months, to fine-tune the content, and improve the all-important user-technology interface features of the MOODLE online learning platform.
4 – 6. The project is on track to meet and exceed its remaining three targets in 2006. We are preparing the MOODLE Course Development Guide for Instructors that will enable Extension and other educators to design online courses that suit the needs of their clientele. The leadership team will interact online, by telephone, and face-to-face with the 26 educators who are active in the project to: a) ensure that the guide is useful and meets their needs, b) help them plan activities that incorporate the use of the web-based resources into their on-going programs, c) help them follow up with the 72 landowners who pilot tested the course to initiate and monitor forest farming practices, and d) encourage at least 50 other landowners to participate in online courses that they offer. Finally, we will package the HWWFF resource unit, User’s Guide to online platform protocols, and Course Development Guide into a resource kit and promote its use by at least 90 county Cooperative Extension Associations and other agriculture and natural resource education organizations in the Northeast through our professional networks.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Three significant outcomes from the project are visible to date. First, working relationships among the campus-based faculty and county/ regional educators are sparking innovative ideas about how to improve instructional resources for on-line learning. The first hand knowledge we are gaining about possibilities and limitations of distributed internet technology for the types of audiences we are attempting to reach is invaluable. The iterative approach, with immediate feedback, has led to the adaptation of an on-line learning platform that seems ideally suited for our purposes. The high quality of instructional resources that the project is producing has benefited from the quantitative and qualitative data received from landowners and extension educators who have participated in the pilot test.
Our understanding of the process of growing on-line learning communities has deepened. Using data we have gathered during the pilot test phase we are refining both the support mechanisms developed for online learners, and the tools and resources used by instructors. The inclusion of landowners and county educators with varying degrees of technical knowledge has benefited this process by exposing some previous assumptions we held regarding ease of use and adoption of internet based technologies. The process of re-thinking these assumptions has informed our development of learner and instructor resources and lead to the consideration of the secondary support mechanisms which may be necessary in constructing an inclusive and accessible on-line learning community .
Third, landowners in NY and PA are enthusiastic about participating in the pilot courses. We had more applicants that we were able to accept, and are aware of networks of landowners who have not been tapped. There is evidence that there is a genuine interest and demand for the product and processes that the project is creating.
Co-Coordinator, content and evaluation
Department of Natural Resources
Ithaca, NY, NY 14850
Office Phone: 6072555994
Co-coordinator, course content
School of Forest Resources
7 Ferguson Building
Penn State University
University Park, PS 16802
Office Phone: 8148630401
Co-Coordinator, web technology
Information Technology Unit
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Roberts Hall, Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853