Education Knowledge

September 2001

Distance education and distance learning: A framework for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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.

Box 6: Best practices in distance education

Establish a purpose and engage the stakeholders

  • the purpose of the distance education initiative is grounded in a significant issue or problem
  • stakeholders to the initiative are identified, understood, and effectively represented in processes of analysis, planning, implementation and evaluation
  • programmatic objectives are defined, and the place of distance education strategies in the accomplishment of these objectives is identified

Analyse instructional possibilities and define learning objectives

  • the characteristics of the target populations of learners are understood, and the main features of their learning environments are known
  • the substantive content (subject matter) of the initiative is well-understood, and desired learning outcomes (changes in knowledge, skills and attitudes) are stated
  • concrete learning objectives are defined

Identify resource requirements and marketing strategies

  • fixed and variable costs are assessed and budgeted
  • adequate resources are mobilised to support the initiative
  • marketing, recruitment and selection strategies are devised to ensure that an adequate number of appropriate learners take part in the initiative

Design instructional content and process

  • a course development team is assembled to ensure adequate expertise in the subject matter, the instructional design process, and the media of communication to be used
  • substantive content is organised into short and focused modules
  • the teaching and learning process is designed to involve a range of instructional methods (e.g. presentation, discussion, tutorials, drill and practice, simulations, group problem solving)

Design delivery strategies and materials

  • potential delivery strategies are identified (print, audio and videotapes, radio and television, teleconferencing, computer-based instruction and computer conferencing)
  • the mix of media for the initiative is determined based upon nature of the learners, learning objectives and instructional methods, in the context of the economic and logistical feasibility of different options
  • educational materials and processes should be designed for each delivery strategy

Administer teaching and learning at a distance

  • educational materials are produced or purchased, stored and distributed
  • systems to enable communication between instructors and learners, and between learners and other learners, are developed and maintained
  • instructors are given orientation, training and support in their role as distance educators
  • learners are oriented to distance learning, and integrated in student support and record-keeping systems

Facilitate learning

  • learners enrol and learning materials are delivered to them
  • learners work toward learning objectives through independent study, and through interaction with instructors and other learners

Assess learning

  • learner outcomes (satisfaction, learning, behaviour change, impact) are evaluated
  • in formally accredited initiatives, learning is assessed through much the same processes as in conventional education (e.g. examinations, essays, projects, evaluations of practical experience, etc.)

Evaluate the initiative

  • pre-testing and formative evaluation of educational materials and processes is undertaken regularly
  • summative evaluation processes lead to improved planning and implementation activities, and inform the ongoing analysis of the purpose of the initiative itself

Looking toward the future

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.

Operational Suggestions

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.

Box 7: Education and Food for All - A strategic approach to education for agriculture and rural development

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:

  1. Targeting multiple stakeholders in a systemic approach to education for rural development and food security (in contrast to traditionally exclusive support to vocational and higher education for production agriculture).

  2. Contributing to placing education at the core of the global and national agendas for development and food security (including enhancing access to education in rural areas, improving the quality of education, and strengthening institutional capacity for planning and managing education for rural development and food security).

  3. Fostering interdisciplinarity and new partnerships (including the facilitation of global, regional and national movements in the domains of Education for All and Food for All).

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.

Box 8: Rural radio in Africa - Distance learning grounded in local participation

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.

Box 9: Information dissemination through the FAO Internet site

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.

Box 10: The WAICENT Outreach Programme Resource Kit initiative - Distance learning modules for information management

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:

  • The role of information in institutional development
  • Management of spatial and statistical data
  • Management of documents and images
  • Data modelling and decision support
  • Community building: electronic networking and communication
  • Evaluation of the impact of information

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.

Box 11: Agricultural Policy Support Service (TCAS)

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:

  • demand-driven and country-specific capacity-building through in-service training and technical assistance activities aimed at government and civil society organisations
  • cooperation with national and regional training institutions, and joint organisation of regional and national policy workshops
  • development of training materials for TCAS activities as well as for use by other training institutions

The substantive content of TCAS training and technical assistance efforts falls into several categories (for details):

  • macro-economic and sectoral policies for food security
  • specific policies for agricultural development
  • policies for agricultural trade
  • institutions for agricultural and rural development
  • promoting sound investment in agriculture

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.

Box 12: Distance Education for Sustainable Artisanal Fisheries

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:

  • Participatory Research and Appraisal (PRA) Port Profiles
  • Infrastructure Maintenance and Improvement for Small-Scale Fishing Ports and Landing Sites
  • Landing Site Management by User Groups

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.

Box 13: VERCON and FarmNet - Information and communication networks for rural development

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.

FAO Distance Learning Logic Map

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.

Basic framework

  1. Any distance education or distance learning initiatives undertaken by FAO would need to be firmly grounded in the Organization's strategic objectives.

  2. Rather than seek definitive models of distance education and distance learning, FAO should flexibly adapt its models and practices to the characteristics of learners and their environments.

  3. FAO should not assume that distance education and distance learning are low-cost activities. Such activities should be undertaken only when they provide cost-effective alternatives to other activities.

  4. FAO should deliver its distance education and distance learning initiatives through systems of communication that are available, reliable and affordable to the target learners of such initiatives.

  5. FAO should engage a full range of programme stakeholders in the planning, implementation and evaluation of distance education and distance learning initiatives.

  6. FAO should recognise and follow best practices in the pedagogy and administration of distance education and distance learning.

  7. Pathways to learners: Direct outreach

  8. In the short-term, it would not seem appropriate for FAO to undertake the widespread, direct provision of distance education opportunities to learners in developing countries. Such provision would require substantial human resource development, organisational renewal and capacity building, and investment in order to be done properly. FAO could, however, explore how to become a valuable partner in the distance education offerings of other institutions (see recommendations 13, 14 and 15), and how to make its knowledge resources more accessible for distance learners (see recommendations 9, 10 and 11).
  9. FAO could explore and enhance means through which its Divisions and Services can communicate more effectively with target learners. Computer conferencing systems, where target learners have affordable and reliable access to the Internet, provide a potential means for FAO to be directly engaged in distance learning networks.

  10. Pathways to learners: Working through the production of knowledge resources

  11. Information systems, such as those currently operated through WAICENT, offer an opportunity for FAO to make available considerable knowledge resources of use to distance learning processes. FAO could continue to build on its expertise in the management of such systems.
  12. FAO knowledge resources should be produced with delivery formats and styles that can be accessed and appreciated by institutions of education and learning, and by target learners themselves.
  13. Divisions and Services could be encouraged to review their top-quality, recent training and resource materials in order to determine which materials might be best suited for translation into distance learning resources.

  14. Pathways to learners: Working through institutions of education and learning

  15. FAO should not consider itself to be a primary builder of distance learning capacity for institutions of education and learning in developing countries. There is little doubt that institutions of education and learning in developing countries could benefit from enhancing their capacity to use distance education and distance learning strategies to reach their target learners. However, FAO involvement with such capacity building should reflect its distinctive mandate with regard to agricultural and rural development. FAO may have some comparative advantage in helping to integrate substantive content of pertinence to food security and rural development into the curricula of institutions of distance education and distance learning. It may also be well placed to help conventional institutions of education for agriculture and rural development network with open universities and schools.
  16. FAO could explore how its knowledge resources could be more effectively utilised through open and dual-mode universities and schools in developing countries.

  17. Pathways to learners: Working through other international actors

  18. FAO could explore how its knowledge resources could be mobilised through international distance education and distance learning organisations.
  19. FAO could explore how its knowledge resources could be mobilised through the distance education and distance learning efforts of other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations.

  20. Distance Education Working Group

  21. To promote a more efficient use of resources, and to encourage collaboration among its decentralised units involved in distance education, an informal FAO Working Group on distance education could be established. Members of the group could initially be invited from those Divisions and Services with the most significant past experiences in distance learning, and those with the most ambitious plans for future involvement. Terms of reference for the Working Group could be kept informal at first, but its basic reason for being would be to provide a forum for networking, information exchange, and the development of collaborative initiatives in the field of distance learning.
  22. The Working Group could consider what organisational changes and investments would be most helpful to the decentralised implementation of distance learning initiatives by FAO Divisions and Services.


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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