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
Part 1 of 2
The term distance education refers to intentional processes of teaching and learning in which physical space separates instructors and learners. Learners and instructors communicate through various media, and an educational organisation exists to design, facilitate and evaluate the educational process. Distance learning is a broader concept. The term distance learning refers to the use of educational materials or media by learners who are not necessarily linked with an educational organisation or engaged in communication with an instructor. Distance learning can be an outcome of distance education processes, but it can also take place without an active relationship between those doing the learning and an educational agency.
Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of international interest in distance education and distance learning as potentially useful strategies for addressing human development issues. This resurgence has been rooted in part in the evolution of new information and communications technologies, and in part in the improvement of pedagogical and administrative models for facilitating learning at a distance. While FAO is not an institution of formal education, it is deeply involved with processes of education and learning connected to its mandate. The framework outlined in this executive summary is intended to help FAO, and its stakeholders in Member States, explore how distance education and distance learning strategies could be usefully applied to the challenges of food security and rural development.
Distance education and distance learning initiatives should:
The Food and Agriculture Organization will be an effective 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 education and learning methods to accomplish its strategic objectives.
There is a great diversity of individuals, organizations and communities of importance to the FAO mandate. The following examples of past and current FAO initiatives in the areas of distance education and distance learning illustrate that such initiatives can be flexibly applied to reach a wide range of target populations.
The mission of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is to help build a food-secure world for present and future generations. The achievement of this mission depends upon the capacities and actions of a globally distributed set of individuals, organisations and communities. While a range of factors determines such capacities and actions, education and learning are widely recognised as important components of development. Since its inception, FAO has played an important role in producing, managing and disseminating knowledge for processes of education and learning of importance to food security around the world. Table 1 identifies the corporate strategies and objectives to which the FAO has committed over the next fifteen years.
Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of international interest in distance learning and distance education as potentially useful strategies for addressing human development issues. This resurgence has been rooted in part in the evolution of new information and communications technologies, and in part in the improvement of pedagogical and administrative models for facilitating learning at a distance. In the context of this growing international interest, FAO is exploring how distance education and distance learning could be usefully applied to the achievement of its mission.
This paper introduces the concepts of distance education and distance learning, and reviews the general parameters of past distance education experiences in developing countries. The paper then proposes a set of basic suggestions for effective distance education, and concludes with suggestions regarding the integration of distance education and distance learning strategies into the FAO programme of work. The basic purpose of the paper is to provide stakeholders, both within FAO and in its Member States, with a foundation upon which to develop distance education and distance learning strategies to meet the challenges of food security and rural development.
In most ways, learning at a distance is similar to learning face-to-face. Therefore, the general concepts of learning and instruction are as important to distance education as they are to other forms of education. A simple and practical definition of learning is the development of new knowledge, skills or attitudes. Instruction can be understood as the intentional facilitation of learning toward identified goals.
The term distance education refers to intentional processes of teaching and learning in which physical space separates instructors and learners. Learners and instructors communicate through various media, and an educational organisation exists to design, facilitate and evaluate the educational process. Distance learning is a broader concept. The term distance learning refers to the use of educational materials or media by learners who are not necessarily linked with an educational organisation or engaged in communication with an instructor. Distance learning can be an outcome of distance education processes, but it can also take place without an active relationship between those doing the learning and an educational agency. Boxes 1 and 2 illustrate the distinction between these two concepts by introducing significant FAO initiatives that fit within each one.
REDCAPA is the "Red de Instituciones Vinculadas a la Capacitación en Economía y Políticas Agrícolas en América Latina y el Caribe" (Network of Institutions Dedicated to Teaching Agricultural and Rural Development Policies for Latin America and the Caribbean). REDCAPA was founded in 1993 through the initiative of the FAO Policy Assistance Division in collaboration with organisations from eleven Latin American and Caribbean countries, and financial support from the government of Italy. The REDCAPA network currently involves sixty-six universities and other organisations concerned with teaching agricultural economics and policies and sustainable rural development (www.redcapa.org.br). Most members are from the region, although several European and American universities take part.
REDCAPA's main objectives are to contribute to the improvement of teaching and research in agricultural economics, rural development and the environment, support institution building and improve national and international cooperation among its members. Among the various activities implemented to accomplish these objectives, the network coordinates regular distance education courses on pertinent topics.
In addition to its role in the establishment of REDCAPA, FAO has assisted the network financially, and provided training materials and direct support for a number of distance education courses offered through the network. These courses (and the years in which they have been offered) include:
Information about each of these courses can be found in the REDCAPA website at www.redcapa.org.br/Cursos/cursos.htm. The Women in Development Service (SDWW) was involved in the first course on this list, while the Agricultural Policy Support Service (TCAS) contributed to the two courses offered in 1999.
REDCAPA distance education courses are offered through an Internet-based virtual campus. Courses last between fourteen and sixteen weeks, and while learners can do their work at the location and time most convenient to them during the term, they write an in-person final examination. In addition to accessing course materials through the virtual campus, REDCAPA learners communicate with one another and with their instructors through both public discussion sites, and private messages. Synchronous "chats" are possible, although not required elements of the courses. REDCAPA courses are given for credit at the undergraduate or graduate level, and are taught and tutored by qualified instructors from one or more member institutions.
The Agro-Industries and Post-Harvest Management Service (AGSI) manages and facilitates the Information Network on Post-harvest Operations (INPhO). In addition to FAO, a number of international organisations, including the German GTZ, support INPhO. INPhO provides three basic services (www.fao.org/inpho):
INPhO's long-term objective is to contribute to food security and rural development by enhancing post-production systems around the world. The more immediate objectives are:
INPhO's targeted beneficiaries are small farmers, small enterprises and consumers. These beneficiaries are impacted through intermediary target groups including governmental institutions, research centres, universities, schools, non-governmental organisations, extension workers and entrepreneurs.
INPhO was developed in 1997, became operational in 1998, and has grown into an important network for information dissemination and learning. The INPhO website is a busy one, with over 8,000 hits / day (and 800 user sessions per day) recorded in October 2000. In addition to the website, INPhO disseminates CD-Rom versions of its information services (some 8,000 copies have been produced to date). The interactive communications services involve a question and answer service on post-harvest issues, as well as a structure for moderated and non-moderated e-mail conferences.
INPhO provides a functional FAO example of a computer-mediated learning network that combines the interactive potential of the Internet with the multi-media dissemination potential of the Internet and CD-ROM technology. It is not "distance education," since there is no explicit definition of learning goals, nor any commitment on the part of INPhO to interact directly with learners to facilitate or evaluate their progress toward meeting learning goals. It does promote "distance learning" however, since both the information and communication services are designed to enable people at a distance from FAO to access information in order to build their knowledge and skill concerning post-harvest issues. Educational institutions have utilised INPhO as a learning resource.
Two broad conceptualisations of the teaching and learning process guide much distance education practice. First, some practitioners see the effective transfer of information as the key to distance education. These educators have developed techniques for the design and delivery of learning packages, and stress the importance of learner independence in the distance education process. Second, other practitioners see the social construction of knowledge as the key to distance education. These educators have developed techniques for facilitating communication at a distance between learners and instructors, and between learners and other learners. They stress the importance of interaction as the means through which learners can most effectively relate new information to existing patterns of knowledge and experience.
In conventional educational settings, communication between instructors and learners is taken for granted. Given the physical separation of instructors and learners in distance education, communication is mediated by technologies. The basic media currently used in distance education are print, audio and videotapes, radio and television, teleconferencing, computer-based instruction, and computer conferencing. Each medium has distinct strengths and weaknesses in different contexts. The selection of media for a distance education initiative would need to reflect the nature of the instructional objectives and learning activities, the characteristics of the learners and their environment, and the economic and organisational feasibility of different options.
The use of distance education strategies in developing countries is by no means novel. A recent overview by Hilary Perraton (2000) organises distance education experiences in developing countries into four categories: non-formal and adult education, primary and secondary schooling, teacher training, and higher education. He provides numerous examples to indicate that countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have had significant experience with distance education since at least the 1960s. Box 3 introduces four examples of distance education programmes related to agriculture that have reached substantial numbers of learners in developing countries, and have been sustained for at least a decade.
Since the 1960s, "INADES-formation" (Institut Africain pour le développement économique et social) has provided non-formal distance education opportunities to tens of thousands of farmers, extension agents and other agents of rural development in Africa (Dodds, 1999; Perraton, 2000). Courses for farmers include those on agricultural production and animal husbandry, as well as those on basic mathematics, management, marketing, credit and co-operatives. For extension agents and other development workers, additional courses are available on communication, extension methods, management and the rural economy. The delivery strategy for "INADES-formation" courses is a combination of print-based correspondence packages with local study groups and tutorial support.
Since 1973, the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology has offered a Correspondence Course Programme to farmers and rural youth in Uttar Pradesh, India (M.P. Singh, 1992, 1999). About 500 learners each year select four courses from a list of seventeen options (fourteen concern the cultivation of particular crops, and one each concern dairy production, insecticide use and fertiliser use). The Programme's delivery strategy is print-based correspondence. Each course comprises five or six lessons, written in elementary Hindi. Course scheduling is timed to coincide with the seasonal production of the various crops under study. The University has twenty District Extension Centres which students can contact for personalised guidance and study support. Non-credit certificates are issued to all students passing end of term examinations in each course.
Since 1986, the Women's Secondary Education Programme of Allama Iqbal Open University has been providing rural women in Pakistan with courses to meet secondary school equivalency and to increase income generating opportunities through building practical skills (Batool and Bakker, 1997). The range of practical courses includes Selling of Home Made Products, Garment Making, Poultry Farming, Food and Nutrition, First Aid, Home and Farm Operations, and General Home Economics. The content of all courses has been designed to reflect the priorities, needs, and prior experiences of adult rural women. All courses are delivered through print-based correspondence methods, and learners receive tutorial support through local study centres. As of 1996, the Programme enrolled about 4,000 learners per semester.
Since 1988, Wye College of the University of London has delivered an External Programme that uses distance education to provide learners around the world with opportunities for graduate study in agricultural development (Bryson and Hakimian, 1992, Pearce and Sharrock, 2000). Currently, over 1,000 learners from over 100 countries are enrolled in a range of programmes rooted in agricultural and environmental economics, management and planning. The Programme initially used traditional correspondence methods, and has recently added an Internet-based learning system for delivery of learning materials, tutorial support, assignment submission and feedback, and opportunities for learner-learner interaction.
The fact that distance education is an established form of educational delivery in many developing countries does not mean that distance education is necessarily an effective tool in development efforts. Understanding the past impact and future potential of distance education for challenges related to food security and rural development is not an easy task. A range of general claims has been made about the strengths and limitations of distance education in developing countries, and many of these claims contradict one another. Table 2 indicates that there is no consensus about distance education in developing countries.
United Nations organisations have taken on four significant roles with regard to distance learning in developing countries. First, a number of UN agencies have issued policy statements encouraging the use of distance learning for purposes of development. UNESCO (1997) promotes the appropriate global use of distance education at all levels of educational systems. The World Bank (1999) promotes "innovative delivery" as one of its global priorities for the educational sector. WHO (1998) promotes the use of "telematics," including distance health education, in support of its Health-for-All agenda.
Second, UNESCO and the World Bank use Internet sites to disseminate information about distance education to people around the world. UNESCO hosts an "E-Learning portal" (www.unesco.org/education/e_learning/index.html) whose objective is "to increase and facilitate access to education resources in different regions of the world in different languages while stimulating professional cooperation to improve the quality of education and learning." The portal provides links to institutions and associations active in the use of distance education for primary, secondary and higher education, as well as for purposes of lifelong learning. The World Bank's Global Distance EducatioNet site focuses on the design and implementation of national, regional or institutional systems of distance education, and is structured into four key topics: teaching and learning, technology, management, and policy and programs (www.globaldistancelearning.com).
Third, several UN agencies deliver global distance learning initiatives. UNICEF facilitates networking and professional development among teachers through "Teachers Talking about Learning" (http://www.unicef.org/teachers) and facilitates networking and information sharing among teachers, youth and other interested people through "Voices of Youth" (www.unicef.org/voy). Through the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), the World Bank provides high-tech infrastructure for distance education in developing countries (www.worldbank.org/distancelearning/gdln/index.htm). Through World Links for Development (www.worldbank.org/worldlinks/english/index.html), the World Bank uses the Internet to link students and teachers from secondary schools in the South with their counterparts in the North.
Fourth, UN agencies have provided financial or technical assistance to a multitude of national and regional distance education projects in developing countries. Often, such projects also involve one or more bilateral assistance agencies. There are also a number of international organisations dedicated to promoting or supporting distance education. Box 4 identifies a number of the main organisations, and provides their URL addresses.
Clearly, there is a significant amount of distance education activity taking place in developing countries. What can we conclude about distance education as a means to promote rural development and food security? With regard its track record, distance education has had both successes and failures in developing countries. The lengthy list of problems and disappointments identified by critics of distance education would lead to a very pessimistic conclusion, except when one recognises that conventional alternatives in developing countries have also very often been unable to provide adequate levels of educational access, equity and quality. With regard to its future potential, distance education seems to be a promising response to certain educational challenges, but it should not be seen as a panacea. Many institutions in developing countries are steadily increasing their capacity to engage in distance education, and appropriate technological innovations are being used in many contexts.
The appropriateness and effectiveness of distance education depends very much upon why, how, and how well it is designed and delivered. Distance education initiatives should be undertaken for appropriate reasons, and in a manner that is suitable to the stakeholders of the initiative. Organisations undertaking distance education initiatives should have the capacity to do so, and should invest or obtain the necessary resources in order to do it well.
The claims listed in Table 2 are rooted in specific experiences of distance education in contexts pertinent to food security and rural development in developing countries. From these past experiences, it is possible to distil important lessons that have been learned. Paying attention to those lessons is a first step in creating some basic suggestions for an approach to distance education that would enable FAO to act appropriately in this challenging field. This paper proposes five key basic suggestions to guide FAO approaches to distance education.
Distance education for the right reasons
Meacham (1993: 227) suggests that distance education initiatives have been undertaken in developing countries for political or commercial purposes: "Apart from the obvious purpose of teaching more people more effectively, distance education systems have been used to: impress donors, placate ministers, justify consultancies, and even sell technologies." In the context of the contemporary development of new information and communications technologies, there is a danger that distance education initiatives can be driven by the availability of innovative technologies (and the desire to be seen to be using them), rather than by the educational needs of individuals and communities. Fillip (2000: 42) argues:
Starting with the real needs of communities cannot be stressed enough. There is a strong tendency in the donor community to start with the technology rather than with the needs of the community and to ask the wrong questions. The important question is not "Can the Internet be used to provide distance education to communities?" The important question is "What is the most appropriate, cost-effective and sustainable way to address the educational needs of communities?"
For FAO, distance education initiatives would need to be undertaken in support of its strategic objectives. Distance education should be conceptualised by FAO as a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself.
Distance education that is sensitive to context
There is no universally appropriate model for designing and delivering distance education initiatives. The potential target audiences for distance education initiatives in which FAO might become involved is very broad indeed, ranging from agricultural producers and marginalised rural populations, to relatively privileged urban professionals such as policy makers and information managers. It is essential that the form of distance education selected be appropriate to the particular context in which it is being applied. Box 5 provides an example that illustrates the importance of sensitivity to context.
In a study of South Africa, Geidt (1996) identifies very significant practical challenges that mean adult basic education at a distance cannot function on an open university model adopted from the United Kingdom. Communities most in need of adult basic education provision in South Africa tend to have the following characteristics: slow and unreliable postal systems, few and unreliable telephones, lack of access to television, lack of electrification, poor road conditions, few and inadequate libraries, and inadequate school or other public facilities for studying.
In addition to these infrastructural challenges, Geidt (1996: 16-19) identifies several social and economic characteristics of disadvantaged communities in South Africa that make an open university style of distance education unlikely to succeed. First, many people live in crowded housing conditions, and as a result learners do not have easy access to appropriate conditions in which to study. Second, written texts are not commonly used in day-to-day life, and as a result learners are not accustomed to critically interpreting textual messages and constructing written responses. Third, previous school experiences of most learners are of rote learning, and as a result learners must make a difficult transition to become independent and critical learners. Fourth, there is tremendous cultural and linguistic diversity, and as a result many learners may have difficulty with the language and culture of standardised instructional materials.
Geidt (1996: 14-15) concludes that distance education can only be effective when its delivery system and curriculum are appropriately matched to the social and political context of the learners. In the case of adult basic education in South Africa, Geidt (1996: 19-20) suggests that a substantial component of face-to-face support is essential, and identifies several means through which such support could be provided (e.g. community-based tutors, community learning centres, regional study centres).
One model of distance education cannot be appropriate to all potential target groups of interest to FAO. Distance education models and practices should be adapted to the social, cultural, economic and political circumstances of learners and their environment. As with other forms of educational activity, it is important to integrate gender analysis into the planning and implementation of distance education initiatives. For FAO, the need for sensitivity to context means accepting the fact that it will need to use more than one model of distance education (i.e. more than one set of instructional methods, more than one delivery strategy, more than one learner support strategy, etc.). An FAO approach to distance education should be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of learners and purposes, but directive enough to provide guidance to the preparation of educational initiatives for those different learners and purposes.
Distance education that uses existing infrastructure, and has sustainable costs
One disturbing tendency in the history of distance education in developing countries is the large number of initiatives that demonstrate significant learning outcomes and programmatic success during pilot projects, but are not sustained or replicated on a larger scale after the pilot project is complete and donor funding withdrawn. While the lack of sustainability and scalability may reflect a number of variables, it is frequently related to the use of inappropriate delivery strategies. The failure of many educational television projects in developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s is an example of what Meacham (1993: 227) calls "technological overkill" in distance education. This phenomenon refers to the use of expensive and complex delivery strategies when inexpensive and simple alternatives could be pedagogically effective. Fillip (2000: 25) argues that when it comes to choosing technologies for distance education "...it is essential to take a careful look at the level of infrastructure that the target populations have access to, and the extent to which the same target populations can afford to make use of that infrastructure for educational purposes." When donors have tried to provide a communications infrastructure for distance education programmes, such programmes have very rarely been sustainable. Given challenges with the costs and servicing of equipment, educational projects should use technologies that have already been established through entertainment and commercial sectors. With regard to sustainable technology choices, Dodds' (1972: 46) conclusion from nearly thirty years ago is still pertinent: "The installation of new and glamorous media at great expense may be less effective than the careful integration of existing resources."
The question of technologies and delivery strategy is related to the more general question of the cost-effectiveness of distance education. Distance education is sometimes presented as universally more cost-effective than conventional education. Past experiences in both developed and developing countries indicate that this is not necessarily the case. Distance education has the potential to be, but is not necessarily, more cost-effective than conventional education. There are a range of factors that contribute to very substantial cost differences between different distance education initiatives: numbers of learners enrolled, mixture of communications technologies, media and learning materials, degree of learner support and interaction, salaries and employment conditions of distance education staff, production standards, and institutional working practices and overhead costs. A general conclusion that can be drawn is that distance education tends to be more economically attractive at higher levels of education. This is because the costs of distance education are relatively similar at all levels, whereas the costs per student of conventional education are higher at higher levels.
The FAO should not see distance education as an inexpensive alternative to other forms of educational programming or field interventions. In some cases, distance education may provide a very cost-effective means of reaching target groups of learners, but in other cases conventional, face-to-face contact may be more cost-effective. The assumption that distance education is a low-cost alternative can undermine the quality and impact of distance education programmes by systematically depriving them of necessary resources.
The FAO should not endeavour to establish independent systems of communication for the delivery of distance education initiatives. Rather, in each specific case, delivery strategies for distance education initiatives should be developed according to the communications infrastructure that is currently available, reliable and affordable to the learners who will take part in the initiative. This does not mean that Internet-based delivery strategies must be universally rejected in favour of simpler alternatives such as print and radio. It does mean that the pedagogical strengths of any potential delivery strategy should be carefully assessed according to the practical constraints facing each group of learners. Some FAO target audiences will have ready access to computers and the Internet, while others will not even have electrical power or reliable telephone service. Finally, this does not mean that FAO could not help develop new resources, facilities or innovative approaches for distance learning. It does mean that FAO should make use of appropriate media and technology, and use existing national institutions and infrastructure whenever possible.
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