Field Stories

Distance Learning for Agriculture

By Marty Spittle,
IBERS Distance Learning Manager, Aberystwyth University 

“Studying via distance learning has given me the opportunity of learning while working and taking care of my family.”
Happymark Pangani, Agricultural Officer, Tanzania

IBERS Distance Learning at Aberystwyth University, is a multidisciplinary team creating online masters-level content. Our aim is to provide agriculturalists with easy access to high-level research findings, as well as a route towards postgraduate qualifications. The team is embedded in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), an internationally-recognised research and teaching centre providing a unique base for research and teaching in response to global challenges. IBERS DL has been delivering distance learning for the past 8 years and have won a number of accolades for doing so. We have been using student feedback to refine our delivery and overcome some of the challenges in delivering online learning, some of our findings are shared here.

We currently host 90 active students from around the world. A typical student is over 35 years old, with an established career within the agricultural sector. To give local context to their learning and we allow students to tailor assignments to their own agricultural systems.

“I will be able to set up a client orientated plant breeding programme involving local researchers and farmers.”
Molly Allen, Plant Breeder, Uganda

These are busy people: due to their roles, many undertake a fair bit of travelling as they engage with farmers, agricultural suppliers or in field trails; many are juggling young families too. We have worked hard to make our courses accessible to this demographic. We explored several iterations with our first few cohorts. These ranged from:

  • Open 6-month courses with all material available at the outset, no internal deadlines and only a social forum. Students found motivation difficult in this setting, were unable to work as a cohort and around 30% did not complete; to
  • A structured 12-week format with weekly learning material releases and compulsory forums. This worked well for students with sufficient study time but became impossible as soon as work or family pressures increased.

We settled upon a structured-but-flexible 14-week delivery method, with material released in 3-week blocks and internal deadlines; and our student feedback validates this approach:

“The learning material was excellent. The best that I have experienced online. The course was well structured and simplicity of navigating the online resources was great. The support from tutors and staff was excellent – always available to assist with any queries.”
Sian Davies, Agri consultant, UK

A high standard of student support is also vital in distance learning. Flexibility for the student does by its very nature, bring administrative challenges and we soon found that to effectively track students’ progress we needed robust data recording systems in addition to the standard university systems.

Some students have experienced problems in terms of variable broadband quality and power outages. In most cases we have been able to solve this by making material available as downloadable files via freely available file-sharing services, so that students can download study material at work or a public institution for use in their own time.

 “I was surprised by the ease of studying at a distance in a foreign university.”
Javier Sierra Castello, Researcher, Colombia

One of our current IBERS International Distance Learning Scholarship students talks about how he intends to use the knowledge he has gained.

I am an agriculture officer, working at Makungu ward, Mufindi Iringa, Tanzania, where I play a crucial role in promoting agricultural productivity, increasing food security, improving rural livelihoods, and promoting agriculture as an engine of pro-poor economic growth in Mufindi district council. I have a fulltime job and family responsibilities.

Smallholder farmers in my country form the majority of the farmer population and more than half are women. These farmers feed the nation with the little harvest they get and there is a need for them to be assisted in implementing the best practices to improve yields. My country needs 186,000 tons of certified seeds, but we produce only 71,000 tons. I anticipate that the knowledge gained from one of my first modules, Plant Breeding will aid me to work with Agricultural Seed Agency (ASA) to increase seeds production.

Many of our youth are losing interest in the farming profession and encouraging young people into agriculture, both to replace our aging farmers and to get more innovative thinkers in the sector is becoming really important. Therefore, as well as advising farmers directly, I will use what I have learned to train youth farmers in agriculture and food security. I intend to use what I have learned to develop various production focussed training modules for them.

I am very happy that I have chosen Aberystwyth University for my education. It’s a very effective training programme and the support is excellent!

Happymark Josephat Pangani

Happymark Josephat Pangani

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