Posted February 1999
Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Extension Education
Department of Education, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
Director of the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE), USA
One of the major problems impeding the effectiveness of agricultural extension services in Africa is the low level of training of a large proportion of extension staff. Most extension staff lack the knowledge and skills required to work in the complex and rapidly changing agricultural environment. Consistently unresponsive, universities and colleges rarely offer extension training programmes that address the changing demands of the work environment. Compounding these problems, the academic discipline of agricultural extension is marginalized in agricultural universities and colleges, especially in Africa, with only a negligible number of credit hours allocated to agricultural extension and related courses. The training departments of ministries of agriculture and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) generally run ad hoc in-service training programmes that do not prepare extension staff adequately to deal with complex agricultural problems.
This article discusses an innovative extension training initiative being implemented in selected universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa. The authors argue that African agricultural universities and colleges must strengthen their capacities to develop and deliver responsive extension training programmes in order to train extension staff to become critical thinkers and reflective practitioners. A framework is proposed to guide universities and colleges interested in developing and launching responsive agricultural extension training programmes.
Current agricultural trends, such as those related to population, gender and environmental issues, are placing diverse, and often very complex, demands on extension staff. Agricultural extension staff are central to facilitating the changes associated with these trends. It is imperative that formal training (or retraining) programmes provide opportunities for extension workers to conduct independent or group educational projects in environments similar to those they face in their extension activities. This hands-on approach to extension training builds upon the concept that experiences are the building blocks of learning (Kolb, 1984).
The SAFE initiative combines revitalization of the agricultural extension curriculum with reform of the universities and colleges themselves. The institutions are helped to increase their flexibility, develop client-driven training programmes, acquire relevant core instructional materials, forge partnerships and linkages and mobilize internal resources (both human and financial) to sustain their programmes. Candidates for the mid-career training programmes are nominated by their extension organizations, evaluated by the university and admitted if they meet the following criteria: 1) they have a minimum of three years of field experience in extension services; 2) they are at least 30 years old; and 3) they possess five "O-Level" passes, including mathematics and science. Qualified female candidates are encouraged to apply during each intake, with a view to addressing the gender imbalance and insensitivity that exist in agricultural extension organizations.
This step usually revolves around asking the stakeholders their views on the following key questions: 1) what are the needs of the mid-career extension staff who will enrol in the training programme? 2) what conditions and environment will support learning? 3) what can be done to enhance learning potential, both during and after the training programme? and 4) how can the programme be funded and sustained? The answers to these questions also help to increase awareness of the actions that will be necessary to bring about the desired change.
The following questions are often raised and discussed during the workshop: 1) is the university campus the most appropriate and effective place for students to learn in? 2) do students need to be under the constant supervision of university lecturers to maximize learning? 3) what is the role of agricultural extension staff? 4) are individuals with advanced degrees (M.Sc. or Ph.D.) the most effective teachers? 5) are field resource people with lower academic qualifications (diplomas or B.Sc.) less qualified to teach than those individuals with postgraduate degrees? and 6) is academic rigour compromised by allowing resource people with lower academic credentials to participate as members of a teaching team?
Facilitating a dialogue about these concerns draws on the knowledge, competencies and experiences of all stakeholders during the programme's conceptualization, development and implementation. It also facilitates the development of partnerships between organizations working in the agriculture sector. These partnerships are vital for resource mobilization (both human and financial) and the sustainability of such a demand-driven programme.
The process of developing or revitalizing a curriculum "often involves a contest, with the outcome negotiated among faculty and various constituent groups by academic planners and administrators" (Kranz Jr., 1995). Sometimes the stakeholders will be in general agreement and curriculum revitalization will be simple, as was the case with the process that led to the launching of the first programme at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, in 1993. In other cases, curriculum revitalization can be a long process, as was the case with the second programme launched at Alemaya University of Agriculture, Ethiopia, in 1997. The negotiation of power and interests among the stakeholders was very slow as a result of government decentralization and devolution of power. The stakeholders were in agreement about the urgent need to provide training for mid-career agricultural extension staff in Ethiopia, but discussion about revitalizing the extension curriculum and starting the training programme had to be conducted not only with central, but also with regional government officials.
One unique and very important element of curriculum revitalization is the off-campus experiential learning component of the programme, referred to as supervised enterprise/experience projects (SEPs). After a period of study on campus, students return to their work environment to conduct SEPs independently or in groups to narrow the gap between theory and practice. Other scholars have referred to this type of learning as "experiential learning" (Macadam and Bawden, 1985; Kolb, 1984), "double-loop learning" (Argyris and Schon, 1978), "knowledge-in-action" (Applebee, 1996) and "learning as a way of being" (Vaill, 1996). SEPs, which generally last for a period of about eight months, are also meant to: immerse students in valuable farmer-focused, experience-based learning activities; reduce the discrepancy between training and the tasks the extension staff perform in their real work environment; and avoid the traditional tendency of making the training too theoretical (Zinnah, 1995; Zinnah et al., 1996). The essence of SEPs is to develop the students' ability to identify problems and explore practical ways to correct them.
Field-based resource people are usually identified and asked to serve as co-supervisors of the students. They assist the university lecturers with monitoring and supervision of students' projects. Farmers and community groups who may be affected by a proposed project are involved in the process. To evaluate the success and sustainability of each SEP, the following aspects are considered: the level and nature of the involvement of beneficiaries in the project; feedback from field-based co-supervisors; information from a logbook maintained by the participants; and a dissertation which is defended.
There is a strong extension focus in this initiative. For example, in the B.Sc. agricultural extension curriculum in the School of Agriculture at the University of Cape Coast, approximately one-half of the total credit points required to graduate are acquired from extension and extension-related courses. By contrast, in the existing B.Sc. general agriculture curriculum, fewer than one-tenth of the total credit points required to graduate are allocated to extension or extension-related courses.
Forging strong linkages is intended to help stakeholders to recognize an enduring and shared commitment and the need for each of them to benefit from the diverse talents, resources, experiences and perspectives within the partnership (Bagchee, 1994). Representatives from partner institutions and agencies are encouraged to participate in workshops and study tours, to share their experiences and apprehensions and to support the risk-taking that is inherent in innovative and non-traditional ventures such as the revitalization of curricula.
The experience gained from this initiative has shown that planning responsively means actively accepting the risks and rewards of the outcomes of the planning work that has been done; planners have to be able to understand the power and interests in a given planning situation; and it is irrational to follow the same steps in every situation because curriculum revitalization is a process rather than a recipe or set of principles and different circumstances call for different responses.
There is an urgent need for agricultural and extension education in African countries (Steele et al., 1993). This initiative clearly demonstrates that there is considerable scope in sub-Saharan African countries to improve the training of agricultural extension staff, especially mid-career staff. Efforts are under way to spread the idea across sub-Saharan Africa. The main aim of this initiative is to share experiences among institutions and agencies committed to the vision of training mid-career agricultural extension staff. The momentum is already building up, as major universities in Africa, including Alemaya University of Agriculture in Ethiopia, Sokoine University of Agriculture in the United Republic of Tanzania, Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, have embraced this new approach to training mid-career extension staff.
Reflecting on their experience with this initiative, the authors consider that this process could be applied to other fields of study. The initiative emphasizes a holistic approach to the process of developing responsive curricula. The process perceives course participants, the university, the users of the graduates (ministries of agriculture, NGOs, farmers, etc.) and other interest groups as a community of learners who have a stake in the nature and content of the curricula.
The process of revitalization of agricultural extension curricula in universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa will need continued frank and thoughtful debate, discussion and refinement. The authors share Short and Burke's (1991:27) view that "there are no final solutions, only current best solutions". This innovative initiative will continue to evolve over the coming years.
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