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Electronic opportunities for forestry education networking

This article is basis on a paper presented at the 18th Session of the FAO Advisory Committee on Forestry Education, held in Santiago, Chile, 11 to 14 November 1996. It discusses how the electronic services that are being developed in connection with the Internet could be applied to forestry education networking.

J. A. Berdegué and R. D. Hart

Julio A. Berdegué is with RIMISP, Casilla 228 - Correo 22, Santiago, Chile. Fax +56-2-2232423. E-mail: rimisp@reuna.cl.
Robert D. Hart is with INFORUM. 611 Siegfriedale Rd, Kutztown, PA 19539, USA. Fax +1-610-6836383. E-mail: bhart@undp.org

The authors present five examples of electronic applications that could be used for the purpose of improving higher education in forestry, particularly in the context of developing countries. They then briefly explain how electronic networks, services and applications aimed at promoting forestry education could be developed and, finally, describe one such application, the electronic virtual Center for Information and Knowledge Exchange in Support of Rural development in Latin America.

Electronic applications in higher education

A search of the Internet in October 1996 identified about 30000 documents containing the keyword "forestry education", about 80000 documents containing the keyword "forestry", about one million documents containing the keyword "education" and about three million documents containing the keyword "university". It can be imagined that, within this large body of information, there are many different types of applications. In addition, Internet software, servers and connections are being improved so rapidly that new instruments and options are appearing almost on a daily basis. The five following examples of Internet's electronic applications for higher education, and particularly forestry, emphasize the potential of the Internet to deliver solutions to problems that could not previously have been addressed by most universities of developing countries at a feasible cost.

FIGURE 1: The Distance Learning main page of Iowa State's Media Resources Center

On-line distance learning

There are a large number of universities and private companies working to develop Internet-based distance learning services and applications. Studying a course via the Internet means that, in addition to the features of a distance learning course carried out through mail correspondence, the student can also communicate with his or her instructor and fellow classmates via electronic mail (e-mail) and electronic conferences (e-conferences), submit assignments in real time via e-mail and participate in electronic tutorials from home. These aspects make studying via the Internet particularly suitable for those who live far away from university centres or for those whose employment or domestic situation makes it difficult to travel to a study centre. Courses currently presented via the Internet normally have the paper-based materials, any audio or video tapes and home experiment kits sent via conventional surface mail or courier before the course begins, although some course material may also be available in electronic form.

FIGURE 2: The main Internet page for FAO's bibliographic databases

On-line distance learning could become a very powerful tool to promote cooperation and exchange among forestry educators from different countries, and, in particular, to facilitate the exchange of educational expertise and technology. Course syllabuses, texts, exercises, exams, lecture notes and other such materials could be exchanged at a very low cost through the Internet among universities participating in networks or other cooperation agreements.

The Media Resources Center of Iowa State University maintains a list of several organizations within universities from all over the world that are dedicated to developing distance learning tools (www.public.iastate.edu/~mrc/links/centers.html), including on-line courses. Two organizations where additional information about on-line distance learning can be found are the Society for Applied Learning Technology (www.salt.org) and the United States Distance Learning Association (www.usdla.org).

Obtaining bibliographic information

A common constraint for many universities in developing countries is the difficulty in maintaining up-to-date libraries and other forms of data and information banks. Without access to these resources, it is very difficult to improve the quality of higher education. In this area, the Internet is already having a vast impact.

Today, the Internet provides access to the catalogues of almost all the main libraries throughout the world, either free (if the cost of the Internet connection itself is discounted) or at a very low cost. All of the main bibliographic databases, such as FAO's AGRIS and CARIS (www.fao.org/library/default.htm) or CAB International's Abstracts (www.cabi.org), are now searchable online. In addition, several of the most important libraries have now set up services to provide low-cost copies of the actual documents to overseas users (e.g. the Document Supply Centre of the British Library, at portico.bl.uk/dsc/, and the Document Delivery Services of the National Agricultural Library of the United States, at www.nalusa.gov/ddsb/about_ddsb.html). The combination of these two services virtually assures professors and students access to all the books and journal articles that until now have been available only in the universities of developed countries.

FIGURE 3: FAO's main Internet page on forestry research, education and extension

There are several large projects under way to improve the situation further by creating "virtual libraries", in which it will be possible not only to obtain catalogue information online but also to download the actual documents in digital format. An example is FAO's Virtual Library Project which may eventually place the entire FAO collection on-line, including several million forestry-relevant documents.

Accessing basic information about universities

The Internet makes it possible for universities to make information about their departments, the undergraduate and graduate degrees they offer, the curricula of each degree, the faculty and their current research and recent publications, upcoming events, scholarships and other resources for students available to an incredibly wide audience.

Examples of universities that are already using this potential in the field of forestry include the School of Forestry and Resource Conservation of the University of Melbourne (www.agfor.unimelb.edu.au/agroforestry/agfor.html) and the Department of Forestry of Aberdeen University (www.abdn.ac.uk/~for257/index.htm). Universities can also share information about the syllabus of their courses (see the University of Vermont's Web Site at www.uvm.edu/~tlynch/b4sylbus.htm).

CollegeNET administers a searchable database with information on 2500 colleges and universities (www.collegenet.com). Another database with thousands of universities listed can be found at www.mit.edu:8001/people/cdemello/univ-full.html

The FAO Directory of Forestry Education and Training Institutions, available on-line at (http://www.fao.org/WAICENT/faoinfo/forestry/free/foedu/foedu.htm) provides concise information on about 810 forestry education and training institutions in more than 110 countries. Also included is a Survey Form on Forestry Education Organizations to allow institutions to enter or update inputs on-line. FAO also maintains on-line directories of forestry research institutions (gopher://gopher.FAO.ORG/11gopher_root%3A%5Bfao.fo_res%5D), and directories of forestry extension organizations and/or arid lands research organizations are under development.

Accessing information about recent publications and ongoing research

There are many databases about recent publications and ongoing research being made available, free or at a low cost, through the Internet. These can be very important resources for the improvement of higher education programmes.

An example of a database of recent publications is the CAB ACCESS service of CAB International, which provides detailed information - updated weekly of the publications of almost 1000 international journals in 15 fields, including forestry, ecology and soil and water resources (www.cabi.org./catalog/curaware/cabacc.htm).

The FAO Forest Products Division is developing a compendium of databases on forest products marketing which, when completed, will be available on-line and will be of significant value to higher education programmes in forestry.

Electronic conferences

E-conferences are "meetings" that take place over the Internet, using two combined electronic services: e-mail and listservers. A listserver is a software that administers a list of e-mail addresses (of the participants in the conference) and facilitates the exchange of messages between them; it usually also maintains an archive of the messages exchanged. Electronic conferencing can be used for higher education purposes by itself or as part of an on-line distance learning programme.

For an example of the process and potential of e-conferences in forestry, see the article by A. Sherwood on p. 19 in this issue. It is noteworthy that many of the participants in the e-conference were associated with forestry faculties at universities.

FAO's Advisory Committee on Forestry Education could utilize e-conferencing to promote an active exchange of knowledge and information among forestry educators and students throughout the world.

Setting up electronic networks, services and applications

In the preceding section it was suggested that a body such as FAO's Advisory Committee on Forestry Education could play a strong role in promoting the use of the new electronic applications in advancing forestry education. To be effective, it would need to organize and set up an electronic network.

Outlined below are the basic steps that should be followed when setting up an electronic network parallel with an institutional network such as the FAO Advisory Committee on Forestry Education. The section is based on the experience gained by the authors in the development of FIDAMERICA, an Internet-based network of Latin American rural and agricultural development projects supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

1. Analyse the current information exchange needs of the institutional network. It is important to start by understanding the characteristics of the network or association of institutions that is considering setting up an electronic network. The key questions are: how is information currently being exchanged or shared? What (non-electronic) applications have been set up? Typically, these will include face-to-face meetings, newsletters, technical reports exchanged by air mail, telephone and fax to communicate between individuals. Are these non-electronic applications cost-effective? If they are working well, does it make sense to set up electronic applications, services and networks?

2. Design an appropriate network, services and applications. Start by identifying potential high-priority applications, not by designing a network and services and then trying to identify applications that could use services. For example, begin by identifying what functions people and institutions need in order to share information and knowledge more effectively. Identify the services that need to be set up. Design a network with one or more server computers that could provide these services. If at all possible, design your network in such a way that you make use of the servers already made available (normally at a cost) by specialized organizations; not only is this option likely to be less costly but it will allow you to concentrate on exchanging information and knowledge and not on solving computer problems or upgrading your systems every time they become obsolete (which is about once a year at a minimum!). Analyse the current capabilities of the institutions where the client computers will be set up and the types of telecommunication networks that are available in the region and in each country. Use whatever telecommunication services are available; in most cases it is likely they will tend to improve over time.

3. Compare the cost-effectiveness of current vis-à-vis electronic applications. This can be a difficult analysis. The cost of setting up an electronic network and services and of learning how to use the electronic applications is often difficult to estimate. It is usually not clear how many of the non-electronic applications should be replaced. It is very important to analyse personnel costs carefully since they are always much higher than the cost of computers, software or communications.

4 Obtain commitment from member institutions. While setting up an electronic network sounds like a computer and software issue that should be left in the hands of engineers, it is actually a personnel issue that will affect everyone. It is very important to demonstrate to senior staff how the applications will work and how the plan will be implemented.

5. Train staff on how to implement electronic applications and use services. A key activity is to organize training workshops for staff from the institutions. These workshops will have two objectives: to teach people how to use the new tools and to motivate them to invest the time and money necessary to set up client computers with client software with access to telecommunications networks so that they can begin to use the applications. For example, of the 35 institutions trained at four FIDAMERICA workshops, only three had not taken these steps after four months; perhaps a key element in this successful "adoption rate" was the incorporation in these workshops of simulated electronic workshops and other applications that clearly showed the potential contribution of the new tools to improving the work of the participants.

6. Set up a first service on a server and organize pilot applications. The first electronic services that are set up to facilitate the exchange of information will depend on the demand from the institutions. In most cases, the first electronic service that networks will set up is a Listserver; this will allow the development of several electronic services, such as electronic bulletin boards, e-conferences, electronic document archives, electronic newsletters, and simplified communication and information exchange procedures among the members of the institutional network.

7. Reinforce linkages between institutional and electronic networks. It is very important to set up other applications quickly to follow up on the enthusiasm that is usually generated by the first exchange. At this point, the link between the institutional and the electronic networks must be strengthened or there is a danger that they will separate. For example, managers of the institutional network may continue to use their old non-electronic communication procedures, while the staff assigned to manage the new tools will want to get involved with applications that are not set up by the institutional network. The best way to reinforce the link is to set up electronic applications that are directly relevant to the needs of the institutional network. Often, moderated e-conferences are a logical place to start, as has been the case with the FIDAMERICA network, whose first activity after training was one such electronic workshop with 60 participants in 28 countries.

8. Expand services and applications in response to demand. Once the institutions are actively using electronic applications, staff will begin to see the potential of organizing other applications that will require other electronic services. For example, researchers may decide they want to share data, and distributed databases may be set up to respond to this demand. In the case of FIDAMERICA, an Electronic Farmers' Market was established to respond to the demand of the members of the institutional network to take advantage of the new tools to improve access to market information and marketing opportunities. Mechanisms must be set up to ensure that member institutions are aware of the potential applications, and also so that the specialized staff develop new applications in response to the members' needs and demands and not their own technical preferences. In FIDAMERICA all the members were encouraged to send in written suggestions to develop the first annual work plan, and over 40 such recommendations were received.

An example of electronic applications and services for forestry education networking

InterCambio is the Virtual Centre for Information and Knowledge Exchange in Support of Rural Development in Latin America. It was established by the Red Internacional de Metodologías de Investigación en Sistemas de Producción (RIMISP), a Latin American Production Systems Methodology Network, and INFORUM (an international NGO that supports electronic networking).

InterCambio is a virtual electronic centre that uses various types of electronic services, such as electronic conferencing, electronic libraries, electronic marketplaces, on-line databases, on-line technical assistance services, etc. Its mission is to work with national and regional development, research and policy institutions to facilitate their access to information and knowledge through modern electronic communication tools in order to enhance the impact and efficiency of their efforts to promote changes in rural life through improved agriculture and natural resource management.

The first institution to become a founding member of InterCambio was IFAD. RIMISP and INFORUM are actively looking for other institutions that would be interested in joining IFAD as founding member.

InterCambio's supporting members are institutions that want to take advantage of the electronic structure that has been set up to make available specific electronic services such as databases, e-conferences, etc. Supporting members benefit from the synergy derived from being associated with members providing other services, much as an individual store benefits from being located in a shopping mall. Supporting members have three options: i) they can contract InterCambio to develop, set up and manage an electronic service; ii) they can develop the electronic service on their own computers and then contract InterCambio to move the service to the InterCambio Center; or iii) they can set up the electronic service on their own computers and then ask InterCambio to set up a direct connection so clients accessing the InterCambio Center can link directly to their electronic service.

InterCambio's first supporting member was FIDAMERICA, a network linking IFAD-funded institutions in Latin America. FIDAMERICA has announced plans to convene at least five moderated electronic conferences during the next two years, and it will develop an electronic library of publications on rural and agricultural development in Latin America, a database on human resources for rural development and, in partnership with other institutions, an electronic marketplace for agricultural and nonagricultural products from Latin American rural communities.

InterCambio will provide various types of electronic services that are relevant to the purposes of a network or association of institutions and individuals involved in forestry education, including: electronic newsletters; electronic bulletin boards; e-conferences; an electronic library; on-line databases; and guidelines to access to information in the World Wide Web.

Conclusions

With time electronic services and applications will change the nature of forestry education for the same basic reasons that they will affect many other knowledge- and information-based human activities: they will reduce the constraining impacts that distance and, consequently, time and costs have had until now on the flow of information and knowledge.

Forestry educators need to ask themselves the following question: What could be done if distance, time and cost were not significant factors in the flow of information?

Internet technology is developing at an incredible pace. Five years ago the only practical use for most people was sending short electronic messages; today, all sorts of digital data move rapidly and cheaply in the Internet, and these services are becoming available to an increasing cross-section of the world's population.

These technologies will not replace the classroom, at least for a long time, but they hold promise of allowing a revolution in education and, in particular, of allowing students and professors in developing countries access to vast information and knowledge resources.


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