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

2007 Annual 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

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


The development of ecologically sound agriculture is a complex learning process that requires new attitudes for extension. Although previous research has evaluated factors that influence the likelihood that agricultural professionals will enroll in on-line undergraduate and graduate programs in agriculture, little information exists about on-line extension/outreach programs that specifically target sustainable agriculture.
With funds provided by WSARE, we first evaluated the needs, knowledge, and concerns of agricultural professionals who were likely to enroll in distance education programs in sustainable agriculture. In fall 2006 and 2007, we utilized the results of this survey to develop and deliver two WebCT-based distance learning workshops on sustainable agriculture. Each one of these eight weeks workshops encompassed several topics related to sustainable agriculture including weed ecology and management, water use efficiency and cropping systems, nutrient management, and relevant economy and policy for sustainable agriculture. Based on the success obtained in these workshops, we are planning to offer future workshops on sustainable agriculture as part of our regular extension/outreach activities.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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


All objectives proposed were successfully achieved. Specifically, objective one was accomplished by 1) assessing the demographic characteristics of the audience 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 (Table 1).

The surveyed population included 119 agriculture professionals, with 95 respondents from across Montana, while the rest were mainly distributed in the western portion of the USA. Because not all respondents completed the questionnaire, the total number of cases considered for the analysis differed by question and ranged from 60 to 119. 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.

Results indicated that interests and knowledge in sustainable agriculture are widespread across professions. The audience identified the major biological, management, and environmental constraints threatening the sustainability of farming enterprises in dryland ecosystems. The audience further proposed solutions, many of which are supported by current agroecological research. Results of this study were used in the development and deliver of two on-line workshops in sustainable agriculture with special emphasis on the semiarid agroecosystems of the Northern Great Plains.

The Principal Investigator and two cooperators summarized the results of this survey in the following manuscript, currently under review: Menalled, F., B. Grimberg, and C. Jones. Evaluation of agricultural professionals’ perceptions and knowledge on sustainable agriculture as a step in the development of distance learning programs. Submitted to Journal of Agricultural Education.

Table 1. Examples of short-answer, multiple choices, and open-ended questions asked to evaluate the characteristics of the audience likely to enroll in a distance education program in sustainable agriculture.

Type of Question Example

• The primary location of my work (office, farm) is in…
• I have the following number of years experience working with agriculture

Multiple choices • Which statement do you most agree with? (Choose one option)
• Long-term environmental sustainability is my highest priority
• Long-term economic sustainability is my highest priority
• Long-term optimization of environmental and economic sustainability is my primary goal

• Which of the following weed management topics are more important in your opinions (you can choose more than one option)
• Weed biological control
• Crop-weed competition
• Cover crops and weed suppression
• Crop rotation and weed management
• Herbicide resistance
• Other (specify)
Open-ended • For sustainable soil management, it is important to have plants growing on the soil at least part of every growing season. What specific agronomic practices would you implement that would be economically reasonable and ensure that the soil has some plant growth on it annually?

• Most researchers believe that tillage is one major obstacle in achieving sustainability. Based on your experience, what are specific ways that one could reduce tillage?

We utilized the knowledge gained in this survey to develop two eight-week long WebCT distance learning workshops on sustainable agriculture (Objective 2). The WebCT 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 (Fig. 1)

Figure 1. Front page of the WebCT Sustainable Agriculture Crop Management Workshop.

The first of these two workshops was delivered in fall 2006. Specific contents of this first workshop were summarized in our previous report. The second workshop was delivered in fall 2007 and included the following topics:

Introduction. Welcome and introduction to WebCT. Instructor: Christine Sommers-Austin

Module 1. Introduction to sustainable agriculture. Instructor: Fabian Menalled

What is sustainable agriculture?
The field crop as an ecosystem
Indicators of sustainability

Module 2. Soil fertility, N cycling and P cycling. Instructor: Clain Jones

Soil fertility
Plant nutrition
Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycling

Module 3. Applications in sustainable nutrient management. Instructor: Clain Jones

Nutrient management in reduced tillage, organic systems, and diversified crop rotations

Module 4. Plant disease management. Instructor: Mary Burrows

Discover informational resources on diseases and their control.
Understanding of how diseases develop, which will help you to choose management tactics for disease control.
How our environment, and the environment we create through our management practices, influences disease.

Module 5. Water conservation in dryland cropping systems. Instructor: Perry Miller

Crop water use and water use efficiency
Soil water storage efficiency
Water dynamics of the summer fallow period with special emphasis on no-till and organic farming systems

Module 6. Crop Diversity. Instructor: Perry Miller

The Power of crop diversity
Scientific basis for classification of crops into six diversity categories
Effects of crop diversification on disruption of pest cycles
Nitrogen contribution to subsequent crops
Water use efficiency in diversified cropping systems , with special emphasis on no-till and organic farming systems

Modules 7 and 8. The economics of sustainable agriculture. Instructor: Dave Buschena

Economic sustainability of production systems, including both short- and long-term sustainability
Can "sustainable" systems be economically sustainable?
Effects of government programs, crop insurance, and prices on the economic sustainability of “sustainable” cropping systems.
Example budgets for sustainable farming practices

Module 9. Summary: Putting everything together. Instructor: Fabian Menalled

Assessing the sustainability of no-till, organic, and bio-tech cropping systems.

Prior to the initiation of these workshops, precipitants were provided with a booklet containing all the readings for each module and a CD with information about the workshop and all the modules. A copy of the booklet and CD 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). For example, between these two workshops a total of 737 messages were posted in the discussion rooms and 527 e-mails were shared among the participants of the workshops.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

To assess the impact of these workshops, we requested participants’ feedback twice during each workshop to evaluate audience acceptance of this alternative extension program (Objective 4). 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.”

To encourage the participation of County Extension Agents, the Montana State University Extension Service provided scholarships for Agricultural Specialist interested in participating at any one of these workshops. Finally, 25 Continuing Education Units (CEU) for Certified Crop Advisors were recognized for successful completion of the each workshop.