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Learning and the Internet: the Role of Online Training in Rural Extension

Warwick Easdown

Rural Extension Centre, PO Box 1000, University of Queensland, Gatton, Qld 4345
Email:
easdoww@dpi.qld.gov.au

The Internet is having a major impact on training and education, but the most significant effects for farmers are likely to be those which are the most inconspicuous. There are well-publicised impacts of the internet in changing the way that university courses are being delivered, but much less publicised are the ways that it is changing how individual farm businesses learn about market signals, new technologies or the ideas of other people. One is the impact on the delivery systems of large public institutions; the other is the impact in altering the daily educational processes of private individuals. It may be far easier for public extension institutions to support the idea of formal delivery of training via the Internet than the more difficult notion of supporting informal farmer training.

The formal education sector has seized on the potential of the Internet to expand their markets. The main focus is on learning as represented by a piece of paper called a certificate rather than the learning represented by the piece of paper called the daily newspaper. Formal training represents only one form of education, and one that is increasingly attractive to commercial organisations who see a large and expanding market in the area of reskilling. Informal education on the other hand is something that all of us are involved in most of the time, and is the main form of farmer learning. Effectively using the Internet to support this is a seriously under-developed area of extension expertise and activity.

The Internet is changing formal education delivery and the players involved

IT is having a big impact on the formal education sector, and it is primarily through use of the Internet to deliver courses at a distance from campus, at a time that suits the student, rather than the institution. All 39 Australian universities, the TAFE sector and other educational institutions are trying to attract extra students by offering courses in ‘flexible’ modes of delivery using the Internet. "Flexible delivery" will help a wider audience access courses and will supposedly be a cheaper form of delivering training. However convenience is a greater motivator for the uptake of such courses than the potential they have for overcoming the tyranny of distance. In Australia, the greatest growth in student enrolments is occurring in Brisbane, Sydney and the Gold coast, and the proportion of rural participants is actually declining (Chipman 1999).

A major impact of IT has been to attract many more international and commercial players into educational delivery. It is now possible to obtain Harvard degrees from rural Queensland, and institutions such as the Open University of the USA are offering accredited courses around the world at prices less than Australian HECS. There is a lot of commercial interest in providing courses to mass markets via the Internet, using contract educators to write the material. A large number of international courses are now being offered at very low prices or even free (Peirano 2000). We are moving to an assumption that only a small proportion of the population can’t do some form of formal post-secondary training . The issue will be the availability of courses that are highly relevant to the needs of particular rural businesses, not a lack of online courses per se.

Despite the enthusiasm amongst educational institutions for using the internet to deliver training, recent research suggests a 30-50% increase in technical support is required to put courses online, and there is often an increase in the workload for trainers in comparison to delivering training face to face (Chipman 1999). No matter what the form of delivery of distance education, participants still have to find the time away from family and work commitments to complete their study. There is also increasing concern that the full potential of the internet is yet to be realised. There is a need to train educators in the effective use of this medium, as well as those doing the courses, and by far the majority of online courses are basically lecture-notes loaded onto the Web (Boshier et al. 1997).

The limited value of formal courses to rural businesses

A recent RIRDC review of the training needs and preferences of Australian farm businesses found that by far the most important factors discouraging attendance at training activities were the cost (51%), the distance that had to be traveled (42%) and the timing in relation to work commitments (41%) (Kilpatrick and Johns 1999). This might seem to indicate a significant opportunity for reasonably priced training courses offered over the Internet.

The attraction of internet-based courses provided for rural businesses depends on several factors:

  1. Their current use of other forms of training
  2. The patterns of computer use and training preferences in the business
  3. Access to appropriate forms of information technology, and the ability to use it
  4. The ability to provide suitable training over the internet

Farm business managers access a wide variety of training services at present, but less than half those surveyed in the RIRDC study indicated an interest in any form of formal training to meet their future learning needs. Although farm business managers cited non-accredited courses as their most commonly preferred form of future training, such courses were also their least-used option in the past. These courses tend to be few and far between, but their impact can be quite long lasting. There is a wide discrepancy between espoused preferences for future training and actual past usage.

Education level and gender have significant effects on the pattern of computer use in rural businesses and training preferences. In the RIRDC study, those with most post-school qualifications were more likely to use formal training courses, while those with least qualifications were more likely to use short-term and less formal training opportunities such as field days. A 1999 study of computer and internet use in the Queensland dairy industry also found that women were the main users of computers and the Internet in over 70% of farms (Suzuki 1999). While women may be more active information seekers and users of the Internet in many farm partnerships, this does not necessarily impact heavily on day-to-day decision-making because of the way that gender roles work out in many farm businesses (Daniels and Woods 1997).

There has been a rapid increase in computer and Internet use in rural businesses over the last four years. A national survey of IT use in small and medium businesses in June 2000 found that approximately 60% of small businesses and 89% of medium sized businesses had access to the internet (National office of the Information Economy 2000). The number of connections has been increasing by over 10% p.a. for the past four years, but the speed of the Internet connection and the costs are significant issues for many farm businesses. Despite having communication capabilities, computers are still seen primarily as word and record processing devices on most farms, and there is a very high demand for basic training. Over half the Queensland dairy farmers surveyed wanted more basic computer training and 60% were unfamiliar with what the internet could offer them (Suzuki 1999).

The provision of timely, targeted training for rural businesses across the Internet will depend on both the capabilities of public or private institutions to offer them, the willingness of rural businesses to access any such training and their technical abilities to use the IT required. There is a need for better integration of different forms of communication to achieve the one training outcome. One example of this is the rural E-commerce courses provided by the Queensland Department of State Development which incorporates face to face training with back-up internet support provided by government officers and local support people. For more customised local training, the markets may be too small to offer formal Internet-based training. In these cases, the role of the Internet in supporting informal training of rural business managers may be more important.

The role of the Internet in supporting informal learning

Our experience in training and that from overseas suggests that there is a hierarchy of needs likely to be filled by online learning. These are in order:

  1. Using the internet to find information to meet an immediate felt need,
  2. Communicating with others who can help with specific problems,
  3. Learning to earn: doing formal online courses or developing e-commerce applications, and
  4. Using the Internet for community development.

By focusing on formal online training we are missing the most important educational impact of the Internet for most people: using it to find useful information, and to learn to communicate with others

A farmer in the Lockyer Valley was recently able to negotiate a better price for his produce because he used the Internet for targeted informal learning. He’d found the latest prices in Sydney and Melbourne, and used Internet weather information to pinpoint the likely impact on other major growing areas. It gave him a bargaining edge when a buyer tried to offer him a low price.

A farming couple recently bought a wool property near St George in south-western Queensland and, not knowing much about marketing, used the Internet to find contacts for innovative wool products. They were able to learn about the industry and create new markets for themselves.

A Darling Downs cotton grower was concerned about reducing spray drift on his property. He used the Internet to find spray patterns for different nozzles so that he could buy those that would reduce his problems.

In each case, the Internet provided these people with more information and more contacts than they would otherwise have been able to access. The Internet enhanced their learning processes. It was ideal for unstructured learning such as that which was necessary when exploring options for new enterprises.

It is only by gaining confidence in the medium through its ability to support such practical problem solving that small businesses are likely to look to the internet for more formal training - once it becomes available. So although the advent of more formal distance education courses may be getting much publicity, the most important educational impact of the internet is likely to be in the way that it can enhance the informal educational processes of rural businesses on a day to day basis.

Extension is absent in cyberspace

As farmers make more use of the Internet, they are finding that they are on their own, and the information services they take for granted in face-to-face communications do not exist. Extension has not appreciated the potential of the Internet to enhance existing activities or to empower farmers in a way not possible with traditional information and training. This may be due to both a lack of training and cultural constraints within public extension agencies.

Some of the problems in using the Internet are captured in the following quotes from farmers in southern Queensland who are part of an on-going Internet research project (Starasts 2000).

Dennis, a beef, grain and cotton farmer:

" I have a good network of contacts, but outside of everyday conventional farming systems, I do not have a support network and I find it a complicated business and I do not feel very comfortable. I used the web to search for information about the activities of other farmer groups in the state, but there was nothing there."

Robert, cotton grower:

" I was into a chat group for a while. It was good, you did not have to drive to talk to other farmers. I can sit for hours and try to chat to someone. It was basically technical, but not of particular importance to my farm. We talked largely about what people were doing, but I do not use chat anymore, there’ is nothing pertaining to my industry and silly people butt in.

Terry, cotton and grain producer.

" I have not really chased agronomic information on the internet, I would not even know if it was there….I think there is a need for education on how to use it, someone to organise some sites that are relevant for your area….so much time is wasted looking for things and there is some real good stuff out there that you just stumble over."

They indicate a lack of useful factual information in key areas, problems in using existing communication facilities and the need for ‘virtual extension’ to help in organising information and facilitating communication between information seekers. For these farmers, extension is all but absent when they enter cyberspace.

A recent study of commercial and government extension staff in the Queensland dairy industry showed the major needs for training, even with staff who have used the Internet as a part of their work for many years (Martin 1998). It is one thing to be able to send e-mail. It is another to feel comfortable in integrating the Internet along with other media in extension activities, and to be able to facilitate productive interaction between farmers within cyberspace.

A further issue is the ability of public extension agencies to support such informal learning by farmers. All Australian state extension agencies have large repositories of technical information made available to the public through internet databases. The development and maintenance of such centralised information services falls within the preserve of librarians and computer scientists, not extension. The information is being delivered as products: ‘factual’ information sheets rather than contacts with others through which a shared understanding of a problem or approach can be developed. Only one agency provides links to discussion groups, but many of these groups are not active, and they are not integrated into other information services.

More farmers are using the Internet for information seeking and informal learning, but extension is not an active part of this process. It is not enough to just connect farmers to the Internet. They need to be integrated into a supportive community which will help them make the best of this medium to further their goals. The skills of extension need to be expanded to encompass the ability to use the Internet as an integral part of their work, and to assist farmers in their use of it.

References

  1. Boshier R et al (1997) Best and worst dressed web courses: Strutting into the 21st century in comfort and style. Distance education 18: 327-340.
  2. Chipman L (1999) Distance education. Talk presented at the conference on electronic service delivery to rural and remote areas in the 21st century, 22-23 March.
  3. Daniels J, Woods E (1997) 'Evaluation of training activities to improve farm families’ skills.' RIRDC report 97/43, Canberra.
  4. Kilpatrick S, Johns, S (1999) 'Managing farming. How farmers learn.' RIRDC report. 99/31, Canberra.
  5. Martin MD (1998) The significance of computer technology in the Queensland dairy industry. A survey approach. Masters thesis, Rural Extension Centre, University of Queensland.
  6. NOIE (2000) 'Survey of technology and e-commerce in Australian small and medium business.' June 2000, Yellow Pages Small Business Index. http://www.noie.gov.au/publications/NOIE/SME/yellowpages_index.htm
  7. Peirano E (2000) 'Online courses free newsletter' http://www.paisvirtual.com/educacion/comercial/edu26/online.html
  8. Starasts A (2000) Internet technology for on-farm self-directed learning in South Queensland. Agronomy Conference (forthcoming)
  9. Suzuki A (1999) A study of computer use in the Queensland dairy industry – farmers’ perceptions. Masters thesis, School of Natural and Rural Systems Management University of Queensland.

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