by Scott McLean
in collaboration with
The Education Group,
Extension, Education and Communication Service Research, Extension and Training Division (SDRE),
FAO Sustainable Development Department
and The WAICENT Outreach Programme,
Library and Documentation Systems Division (GILW),
FAO General Affairs and Information Department
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Distance education that engages stakeholders
Many of the problems with previous distance education programmes in developing countries related to a lack of participation, on the part of those individuals and communities who were supposedly the beneficiaries, in the design and delivery of the programmes. Guy (1991: 169) argues that an appropriate conception of distance education would require a focus on programs in which participants have control over not only what is taught, but how and where distance education takes place. It is dependent on the participation of people, who through participatory planning and action, develop a deeper understanding of their lives and the structures which surround them in time and space.
The need for participatory and empowering educational practice has been identified by FAO in its work in the fields of agricultural education, extension and communication for development. FAO (1999) has published a guide entitled Participatory Curriculum Development in Agricultural Education. The guide (FAO, 1999: 70-73) categorises general groups of stakeholders in curriculum development processes as the "insiders" (leaders with training organisations, teachers, students, producers of educational materials), and the "outsiders" (policy-makers, politicians, educational administrators, educational experts, employers, professional bodies, clients, funders, parents, past students and interest groups). Early in the analysis of a potential educational intervention, it is important to identify the stakeholders, understand those stakeholders' diverse interests, and develop a process through which such stakeholders will be represented in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the intervention. The process of identifying, understanding and involving stakeholders helps to ensure that distance education initiatives are undertaken for the right reasons, are sensitive to the contexts of learners and their environments, and are sustainable.
Distance education based on sound pedagogical and administrative models
FAO can learn from the substantial number and range of distance education experiences accumulated over the past several decades in developing countries. Such lessons can help FAO craft pedagogical and administrative models that avoid replicating some of the fundamental mistakes that have been made in the past. While ideal models and practices have yet to be developed, practitioners and scholars in both North and South have done much to critically examine distance education and make its application more appropriate to diverse circumstances around the world. Over the past decade, the practice of distance education in both developed and developing countries has evolved substantially. The FAO approach to distance education should be aware of the pedagogical innovations of the past decade. A model of best practices is required that provides guidance to the Organization while offering flexibility for implementation with a broad range of learners having diverse characteristics and goals. Box 6 identifies the basic outline of such a model of best practices.
Establish a purpose and engage the stakeholders
Analyse instructional possibilities and define learning objectives
Identify resource requirements and marketing strategies
Design instructional content and process
Design delivery strategies and materials
Administer teaching and learning at a distance
Evaluate the initiative
The Food and Agriculture Organization will be an international catalyst for the learning of a diverse and globally distributed set of individuals, organisations and communities whose capacities and actions influence the achievement of food security and rural development. In collaboration with a wide range of partners, and in conjunction with other methods of intervention, the Organization will employ innovative and appropriate distance learning and distance education methods to accomplish its strategic objectives.
FAO is already involved with conventional education, training and distance learning. Boxes 7 through 9 illustrate existing FAO activities, while boxes 10 through 13 provide four examples of FAO initiatives being developed that have an explicit distance learning focus. At a broader level, the FAO Medium Term Plan for the period 2002 - 2007 contains numerous references to activities for which distance learning strategies would be pertinent. Approximately 80 "entities" from the MTP explicitly identify one or more major outputs involving education or training. A nearly equivalent number mention the promotion or facilitation of networks in which participants' learning would be an expected outcome.
The Education Group of the FAO Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE) recognises the integral connections between lack of basic education and food insecurity around the world (Gasperini, 2000). Despite unprecedented global levels of food production in the world today, more than 800 million people do not have access to enough food to meet their basic requirements. Poverty is a major cause of food insecurity and sustainable progress in poverty eradication is critical to improve access to food. More than 1.3 billion people live in poverty and nearly three fourths of them live in rural areas. Despite unprecedented global investment in education and training, about 880 million people in the world remain illiterate. Illiteracy and chronic undernourishment are related, and out of school children are more at risk of being undernourished than those attending school. In 1998, the less developed regions as a whole accounted for 97 per cent of the 113 million children out of school.
The SDRE Education Group has identified three priority areas for systemic action in making progress in the closely related Food for All / Education for All movements:
Within this overall strategy of promoting educational access, equity and quality, the SDRE Education Group sees distance education as a potentially useful tool, among others (Gasperini, 2000). In this regard, the innovative application of distance education methods to primary schooling is a particularly important goal. For example, through its Technical Cooperation Programme, FAO is helping to strengthen nutrition education in primary and secondary schools throughout Chile. In this project, the Internet is being used to distribute curricular innovations and learning resources to teachers and schools, who then apply such innovations and resources in their classrooms.
Radio has been a key medium of communication for informal distance learning in the areas of agriculture and rural development. Farm radio forums have provided agricultural producers with innovative learning opportunities in countries as diverse as Canada, India and Ghana. "Radiophonic" schools in Latin America have provided children and adults in many countries with access to structured basic education programmes. Radio broadcasts have been used to support primary and secondary school instruction in many developing countries, through providing direct teaching support in areas such as language and mathematics. Issue-specific broadcasting campaigns have used radio to inform rural audiences around the world about topics related to areas such as nutrition, health, and agriculture. Radio broadcasting offers certain obvious advantages for developing countries. The technology for receiving radio broadcasts is relatively simple, affordable and accessible, and the oral nature of communication places no demands on the literacy skills of participants.
Since 1966, FAO has been very active in the development and evolution of rural radio in many African countries. Led by the Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE), FAO has developed methodologies and strategies for integrating radio in development processes, supported the creation and management of rural radio stations, and facilitated the training of a wide range of professionals working to apply rural radio to development challenges across Africa. In addition, FAO has sponsored research into rural radio, and provided a forum for reflection and dialogue on the contribution of radio to rural development.
As an integral part of its work in the field of communication for development, SDRE has developed four methodological basic suggestions for rural radio. First, rural radio operations should integrate the efforts of a wide range of stakeholder groups. Second, rural radio programming should be interdisciplinary in nature. Third, rural radio should be interactive, involving local communities and rural people themselves in an ongoing dialogue. Fourth, to ensure the durability of rural radio, appropriate administrative, legal and institutional frameworks should be developed. Following these methodologies, rural radio can become an important forum both for participatory social dialogue at a local level, and as a means to provide rural people with informal opportunities to learn about issues at a global level.
The most recent innovation being developed with FAO assistance is the integration of rural radio with new information and communications technologies. Internet connectivity in rural Africa is sparse, but there is interesting potential to use rural radio networks as the intermediary between rural communities and ICTs.
On its own, rural radio is not distance education. Radio broadcasts have often been used as components of distance education (and conventional education) courses using print materials or local study groups as the primary delivery strategies. However, rural radio is a powerful medium for learning that is both "at a distance" and very much grounded in the local context and participation of the learners themselves.
Knowledge resources disseminated through various specialised information systems managed by WAICENT (the World Agricultural Information Centre) constitute one means through which FAO is an actor in distance learning processes. A number of thematic information systems are currently functioning online. Five examples are those concerning Gender and Food Security, Desertification, Sustainable Development, Agricultural Trade , and Biological Diversity.
Each thematic website provides substantive information concerning its focus. For example, the Gender and Food Security website contains short articles, written for non-specialists, about the connections between gender and agriculture, environment, forestry, nutrition, fisheries, rural economics, population, and education, extension and communication. In addition to such immediately accessible information, each website contains links to a range of multi-media resources. Such resources include publications (some available online), photographs, videos, maps and statistics. Simply clicking on a related piece of text from the website accesses some of these resources, while others may be located through sub-menus or search functions built into the website.
Each thematic website directs the user to further substantive information through a series of Internet links and directories. Through such links and directories, users can connect to related websites, pertinent organisations, and to electronic and other networks of individuals and organisations active in the thematic area. As a subset of such connections, contact information is provided for the FAO Divisions, Services and staff members working in closely related areas. Each website also provides information about related FAO programmes and projects.
FAO thematic information systems are means for disseminating information and providing users with pathways to additional sources of information. In themselves, they do not constitute distance education, because there is no commitment to working with learners to identify and fulfil particular learning needs. However, such information systems can be very useful resources for distance learning experiences. Independent learners, not engaged with any educational institution, can access the FAO website and fulfil their personal and professional objectives for information access and learning. Conventional and distance educational institutions can use the FAO website as a learning resource for students and teachers. FAO thematic information systems offer a globally distributed learning resource to a range of distance learners.
Through the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT), FAO has generated substantial expertise and credibility related to agricultural information management. For example, FAO has developed a range of useful tools and technologies such as the Key Indicators Mapping System (KIMS). However, there is a pressing need to effectively disseminate such resources so that stakeholders at national, regional and local levels can adapt and integrate them to meet their information management needs and priorities.
WAICENT has launched an Outreach Programme to improve the dissemination of WAICENT's resources, and to enhance capacity for agricultural information management among Member Countries. A major and one-of-a-kind initiative thus far at FAO is the Outreach Programme's Information Management Resource Kit. The overall objective of the Resource Kit is to share tools and methodologies with Member Nations to build their capacity to manage agricultural information efficiently and effectively using digital information and communication technologies. The following learning modules are currently envisioned:
Each module will be developed for delivery at a distance. The main delivery strategy will be computer-assisted instruction through CD-ROM. Some information may also be delivered through either the Internet or print-based materials, and computer conferencing may link learners of each module with one another and with a technical support system. Target learners for the modules will depend to a large extent on the subject matter covered in each module. However, they will vary from information management professionals and policy makers to agricultural research scientists.
The information management Resource Kit initiative will be an example of an FAO distance learning project in non-formal, continuing education. Learners will receive no formal accreditation for completing their modules, and tutorial support from FAO will be minimal. However, FAO will be structuring a process for learners to work through a course of study focused on explicit learning goals.
As part of its overall mandate to promote food security and sustainable agricultural development, FAO provides advice to member countries on food and agriculture policies. The Agricultural Policy Support Service (TCAS) works to assist the building and strengthening of national capabilities for policy formulation. TCAS undertakes this work in three main ways:
The substantive content of TCAS training and technical assistance efforts falls into several categories (for details):
In support of its global training and technical assistance agenda, TCAS has produced a large quantity of training materials (for details). These materials include training manuals, methodological guidelines, proceedings from workshops, case studies, and textbooks.
Although most of its training activities are conducted in face-to-face settings, TCAS has both past experiences and future intentions to use distance education methods to enhance the outreach of its activities. The Policy Assistance Division was integral in founding the REDCAPA network in Latin America (see Box 1), and the Service has provided content and instructional support for several REDCAPA distance education courses. Over the next five years, TCAS has committed itself to reviewing all of its training materials, and translating selected materials into distance learning modules for Internet-based delivery.
TCAS is currently working with the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and Latin American academic, training, and non-governmental institutions on a four-year regional training programme. The substantive focus of the programme is on agricultural and rural development policies. Over twenty distance education courses would be produced through this programme, whose target audiences would include civil servants and NGO staff members involved in agricultural and rural development, and recent university graduates looking to become specialists in the field. Intensive face-to-face training and applied fieldwork would complement the core distance education courses in the programme.
TCAS has also developed a proposal to offer Internet-based training in the field of multilateral trade negotiations on agriculture. This distance education project would support existing sub-regional workshops, whose goal is to ensure that developing countries are fully informed and able to participate effectively in order to ensure that the international regulatory framework contributes to their agricultural development.
In many countries, artisanal fisheries provide a potentially important and sustainable alternative to industrial fishing operations. However, the potential social and economic advantages of artisanal fisheries are frequently constrained by challenges in the development and management of ports, landing sites and processing facilities, and by the absence of coherent resource management strategies.
In order to support the sustainable development of the artisanal fisheries sector in developing countries, the FAO Fishery Industries Division (FII) is developing a series of distance education courses aimed at building local technical knowledge and management skills. Target learners for the courses will be fisheries officers, leaders of fisheries groups, national technical experts, fisheries extension agents, local government representatives, and others interested in supporting sustainable and profitable artisanal fisheries. Through participating in distance education courses, such learners will become more effective advisers and advocates for artisanal fisheries user groups.
Three courses are currently envisioned, the first two of which are currently being field tested in West Africa:
The main delivery strategy will be print-based correspondence. Some course components may also be delivered through either face-to-face workshops or videotapes. Local tutorial support will be provided, and learners will be encouraged to work in small teams with regular meetings. Each course will be designed to engage learners in collaborative field projects having immediate real-world application to the local challenges facing artisanal fishing communities. For example, the first course will require participants to use participatory methods to describe and analyse a landing site, including its physical characteristics, stakeholders, infrastructure, management systems and key problems and opportunities.
The artisanal fisheries initiative will deliver continuing education at a distance to practising professionals, resource people and leaders. FAO will develop the substantive content of the courses, while a range of national and international partner institutions will provide local administrative, tutorial and co-ordination services. Evaluation and accreditation of learners will require the participation of recognised international training institutions, as well as operational funding at least in part, by international donors.
Most FAO distance learning initiatives are grounded in FAO's substantive expertise and knowledge in areas related to food security and rural development. However, FAO has also built valuable expertise in the process of managing information and facilitating communication for development. The Communication for Development Group of the Extension, Education and Communication Service, and the WAICENT Outreach Programme have collaborated to develop two initiatives that offer structures and processes to facilitate the exchange of information among learners in developing countries.
VERCON stands for Virtual Extension, Research and Communication Network. The VERCON concept applies the multi-media capabilities of the Internet to facilitate linkages among networks of people working with agricultural research and extension institutions. Technically, the VERCON prototype is a variant of the numerous Internet-based networking, learning and information management platforms available from commercial vendors. Substantively, VERCON is distinctive in its focus on engaging the stakeholders of agricultural research, extension and education systems in a participatory process to develop a technical platform suited to the needs of their network.
A FarmNet is a network of rural people using communication tools and processes to facilitate the generating, gathering and exchanging of knowledge and information among themselves and with the intermediary organisations that work with them. Operated by farmers and their organisations, a FarmNet links farmers to each other and to the resources and services that they need to improve their livelihoods through agricultural productivity, profitability and food security. Both conventional media and new ICTs are used in FarmNet's key activities: participatory information audits and needs assessments, rural networking, capacity building, and participatory monitoring and evaluation.
Both VERCON and FarmNet are currently in the pilot-testing phase. VERCON is being piloted in Egypt in order to improve linkages between research and extension in four centres as the basis for creating a national electronic agricultural knowledge and information network. FarmNet is being piloted in Uganda to facilitate the flow of information through the national, district and local levels of the Uganda National Farmers Association.
There are interesting synergies between the VERCON and FarmNet initiatives. Linking a VERCON to a FarmNet could provide farmers with better access to technical expertise, while helping researchers and extension workers understand the local, site specific problems that farmers face and the practices that they apply in their farming systems.
VERCON and FarmNet are not distance education projects, since they do not explicitly define learning goals, nor commit FAO to interact directly with learners to facilitate or evaluate their progress toward meeting learning goals. Both initiatives do, however, create structures in which distance learning is meant to take place, and in which distance education courses could be delivered (if determined to be useful by their users). Their strength is in their capacity to facilitate the exchange of information and views between learners, and therefore to encourage the social construction and evaluation of knowledge.
Given its past involvement and future plans for training, information dissemination and the promotion of learning networks, FAO could enhance its overall effectiveness by more fully integrating a coherent distance education and distance learning strategy into its programme of work. The FAO Distance Learning Logic Map below presents the conceptual foundation for this integration.
The small circles at the top of the logic map represent the diverse and widely scattered target learners of relevance to FAO. Although heterogeneous, such target learners can be grouped into general categories (recognising that within each category, differences of gender, culture and other socio-economic variables may be very important):
The rectangles at the bottom of the logic map represent FAO Divisions and Services. Such Divisions and Services have only a modest capacity to directly reach target learners in developing countries. Distances and costs of such reach are great in comparison to available resources. Target populations are large and diverse, and many such target populations have educational, cultural, linguistic, technology-access and economic profiles that make direct interaction with a United Nations Organization challenging. Although limited, such direct interaction does take place, through such processes as conferences, training events, field projects, missions, correspondence and e-mail conferences.
In addition to direct interaction, the logic map identifies three indirect pathways through which FAO Divisions and Services can have an impact on target learners in developing countries. The second pathway is through the direct access of target learners to knowledge resources produced or gathered by the FAO. As indicated on the logic map, all FAO Divisions and Services contribute to the accumulation of knowledge resources, in such forms as books, journals, newsletters, Internet-based documents, training manuals, videocassettes and CD-ROMs. Target learners may directly access such knowledge resources. The degree to which such direct access takes place varies, depending on the extent to which the target audiences are aware of the existence of such FAO knowledge resources, and the extent to which those resources are available with suitable content, style, format and language, at a cost that is both affordable and appealing in comparison to alternatives.
The third pathway for FAO Divisions and Services to reach target learners in developing countries is through institutions of education and learning in such countries. A variety of such institutions exist, including those of formal educational systems (e.g. Ministries of Education, schools, technical institutes, universities) and those outside such formal systems whose goals nevertheless include the learning of target populations (e.g. Ministries of Agriculture, non-governmental organisations, extension agencies, public health agencies). FAO Divisions and Services have two basic options for building the capacity of such institutions of education and learning. First, FAO knowledge resources could be accessed by institutions. Second, FAO Divisions and Services could intervene through training, networking or other strategies involving direct interaction with institutions. Through either option, contributing to the capacity of institutions of education and learning in developing countries offers FAO Divisions and Services a potential multiplier effect in their efforts to reach target learners. Although few institutions in developing countries are as large or endowed with resources as is the FAO, the large number and proximity of such institutions to target populations makes them far more likely to be able to interact directly with most target learners.
The fourth pathway for FAO Divisions and Services to reach target learners in developing countries is through collaboration with other international actors. Such actors exist in parallel to each of the levels on the right of the logic map, and the potential for collaboration is large and complex. There are United Nations and other international organisations developing knowledge resources and working with the institutions and target populations of interest to FAO. There are other organisations gathering bodies of knowledge resources pertinent to the challenges of food security and rural development. There are individuals, communities and organisations around the world with direct links to counterparts across developing countries. Other international actors represent a fourth general pathway for FAO Divisions and Services to reach target learners in developing countries. For example, an international non-governmental organisation could access FAO knowledge resources, and use them in its work with communities in developing countries.
The FAO role in education and learning processes was recognised in the (1996) Rome Declaration on World Food Security. In the Rome Declaration, leaders of the international community made the following core commitment:
We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.
The Rome Declaration positioned education and learning as central to the accomplishment of food security around the world:
We recognize the need to adopt policies conducive to investment in human resource development, research and infrastructure for achieving food security.... We acknowledge the fundamental role of farmers, fishers, foresters, indigenous people and their communities, and all other people involved in the food sector, and of their organizations, supported by effective research and extension, in attaining food security. Our sustainable development policies will promote full participation and empowerment of people, especially women, an equitable distribution of income, access to health care and education, and opportunities for youth.
FAO involvement with distance learning strategies could help accomplish its mission through increasing the Organization's impact on the capacities and actions of its target learners. The following suggestions, derived from the process of preparing this paper, are provided in order to enhance this impact.
This paper has suggested a framework for FAO approaches to distance education and distance learning. It has clarified key concepts, and reviewed the general parameters of distance learning in developing countries. It has proposed five suggestions for effective distance education. Finally, it has presented a logic map that depicts the pathways through which distance education and distance learning could assist the Organisation to reach its target learners, and provided specific suggestions for strengthening these pathways.
Through distance education, distance learning and more conventional strategies, FAO could function as an effective builder of capacity among individuals and institutions whose actions have a global impact on the challenges of food security and rural development.
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