The Fourth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4)
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Scott McLean

ODL for Agricultural Development and Rural Poverty Reduction: A Comparative Analysis of Innovation and Best Practice in Asia and the Pacific

Scott McLean
University of Calgary Continuing Education

Alexander Flor
University of the Philippines Open University

Malcolm Hazelman
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Abstract
Education and learning are widely recognized as essential to processes of development and poverty reduction. Given the inadequacies of conventional systems of education, training, and agricultural extension, many developing countries have introduced innovative approaches to open and distance learning (ODL).

The authors of this paper, supported byCOL, organized and analyzed five case studies from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the Pacific Islands. The primary objective of this research project was to understand and improve the application of ODL strategies to the challenges of agricultural development and rural poverty reduction. Our case study research found that successful innovation and best practice is grounded in basic principles regarding motivation, sensitivity, infrastructure, engagement of stakeholders, and soundness of pedagogical models.

Further, the keywords that appear in our case studies include: collaboration, networking, public/private partnerships, efficiency, effective use of technology for learning, practicality, accessibility, acceptability, validity of content, economics, gender sensitivity, basic education, geographic reach, and sustainability.

In our presentation to the Pan Commonwealth Forum, we will describe the common elements of successful innovation and best practice among these five institutions, and discuss the lessons learned from this project that may be generalized to other developing countries in the Commonwealth.

CASE STUDY FOR INDIA:

 

Introduction

 

Education and learning are widely recognized as essential to processes of development and poverty reduction.  In many developing countries, issues of educational access, equity, and quality have been identified as prerequisites to the achievement of development goals.  Given the inadequacies of conventional systems of education, training, and agricultural extension, many developing countries have introduced innovative approaches to open and distance learning (ODL).

 

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 2000 and 2001, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) surveyed the experiences of ODL for agriculture and rural development in low-income countries [http://www.irrodl.org/content/v3.1/mclean.html].  From this survey, the FAO argued that, to be effective in developing countries, ODL should:

 

·        Be undertaken for the right reasons;

·        Be sensitive to the context in which it is being applied;

·        Make use of existing infrastructure, with sustainable cost structures;

·        Engage stakeholders in participatory processes; and

·        Use sound pedagogical and administrative models.

 

In recent years, there have been numerous examples of institutions in developing countries using ODL strategies to address the challenges of agricultural development and rural poverty reduction.  We believe that much could be learned from identifying the common elements of successful innovation and best practice from leading institutions in this field.

 

This paper is a product of research sponsored by the Commonwealth of Learning and supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific), and the University of the Philippines Open University.  The research for this paper was focused on case studies prepared of the following institutions:

 

  • National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management, India (MANAGE)
  • Allama Iqbal Open University, Pakistan (AIOU)
  • The Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture (OPAPA)
  • Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, Thailand (STOU)
  • University of the South Pacific, School of Agriculture and Food Technology, Samoa (SAFT)

 

The collaborating researchers engaged in the production of the case studies were:

 

  • MANAGE: Dr. Shyamal Majumdar and Dr. V.P. Sharma
  • AIOU: Dr. Benjamina Gonzalez-Flor
  • OPAPA: Dr. Alexander Flor
  • STOU: Dr. Kamolrat Intaratat
  • SAFT: Mr. Aaron Kama

 

The primary objective of the research project was to understand and improve the application of ODL strategies to the challenges of agricultural development and rural poverty reduction.

 

In this paper, prepared for the Fourth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (2006), we outline the case studies completed for this project, provide a synthesis of the common findings from the studies, and provide our conclusions and recommendations.  The complete paper, and the five case studies upon which it is based, is available at the following URL: http://www.upou.org/research/odlforagri.htm.

 

 

Summary of the Case Studies

 

The National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), is a premier national institution of the Indian Ministry of Agriculture. The mandate of the Institute is to develop, test and implement innovative extension systems and models in India.  In the last five years, MANAGE has tested the innovative use of ICTs to enhance the communication capacity of the agricultural extension system in the country.  MANAGE has installed and used a videoconferencing system connecting 40 national centres of excellence in the areas of agriculture and agricultural extension and training.  MANAGE has also piloted the use of mobile videoconferencing to directly link farmers with researchers and policy makers.  With costs falling for these technologies, such innovations present a huge opportunity for improving the communication capacity of agricultural extension systems. 

 

The innovative features of the MANAGE case study focus on:

 

·        Collaboration: a high level of networking with state agricultural universities, non-governmental organizations, research institutions, international agencies, and public and private sector organizations.

·        Efficiency: an organizational structure based on modest base budgeted staff and resources, blended with the extensive use of consultants and contractual arrangements.

·        Effective use of technology for learning: making best use of state-of-the-art ICTs, including video conferencing networks, a mobile VSAT van, and information kiosks using Wireless-in-Local Loop (WILL) technology.

 

The Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU), established in 1974, was the first distance education post-secondary institution in Asia and Africa. It is Pakistan’s response to filling the gaps left by the conventional system and taking education to areas and groups unable to benefit from that system of education. AIOU has received the UNESCO NOMA and Raja Roy Sing awards, recognizing their achievements especially developing a teacher training program and more than 400 courses for illiterates and semi-literates. Program offerings range from secondary to PhD levels consisting of 1000 courses to choose from. Since it started, cumulative enrolment now stands at more than 23 million students.  The Pakistan experience has shown how a poor country can take advantage of distance education as an alternative mode of developing the capacities of its people for greater productivity. Inasmuch as traditions greatly impede women from enjoying equal rights with men, distance education has explicitly been utilized to address those inequities. Given its topography, and its increasing population living in mountainous areas where educational facilities and access to information is scarce, distance education is of great benefit. 

 

The innovative features of AIOU at the heart of this case study are:

 

  • Gender sensitivity: AIOU has achieved substantial success in promoting the education of Pakistani women.
  • Basic education: AIOU has successfully developed and delivered courses and programs to illiterate and semi-literate people in rural areas.
  • Geographic reach: AIOU courses and programs are made available to rural and remote villages, despite the considerable challenges of a mountainous geography.
  • Sustainability: AIOU generates nearly 90% of its budget through sources other than government support.

 

The Open Academy for Philippine Agriculture (OPAPA) is a network of institutions providing education, training and extension in agriculture, specifically to researchers, extension workers, farmers, and support service providers. It is an alliance of national, local, and international organizations that will utilize and tap existing network infrastructures, their content and information databases, in an open environment using ICT and distance learning. It links policymakers, researchers, service providers, markets, business organizations, and farm communities. The Philippine Rice Research Institute serves as the lead agency assisted by several partners representing government line agencies, the academe, international agricultural research agencies, and the private sector

 

The innovative features of the OPAPA case study are:

 

  • Networking: OPAPA has brought together an unprecedented network of government agencies, academic institutions, and corporate businesses.
  • Public / private sector partnerships: OPAPA has partnered with SMART (mobile phone provider), and numerous Internet Cafés to serve as a sustainable and practical venue for training extension workers.
  • Last mile linkages: OPAPA has successfully used a remarkable blend of communications technologies (from radio to cellular telephony) to reach even remote farmers.

 

Sukhothai Thammathirat  Open University (STOU) was formally established in 1978 as the first university in Southeast Asia to use open and distance learning.  The STOU system is the eleventh state university of Thailand, and has a mandate to serve life-long education, to improve the quality of life of the population, to upgrade the educational and professional qualifications of working people and to expand educational opportunities at all levels.  STOU uses the following open and distance learning strategies: self-learning package, radio programs, television programs, satellite programs, CAI, audio and video on demand, online learning, professional experience activities, and tutorials.  In addition, face-to-face educational services are provided at study centers, regional distance education centers, provincial study centers, and the “STOU corners” in main public and high school libraries across Thailand.  STOU services are provided all over the country, to ensure access to quality education to all Thai people. 

 

The best practices of the STOU case study relate to the following key features of the institution:

 

·        Networking and partnerships: STOU engages in partnerships with a broad range of organizations and individuals.

·        Practicality of learning:  STOU courses and programs are focused on the practical needs of the learners.

·        Accessibility: STOU courses and programs are accessible to various kinds of learners scattering around the country, making the institution known as the “People’s University.”

·        Acceptability: STOU courses and programs are appropriate to the skills and lifestyles of participating students.

·        Validity of content: STOU courses and programs have high quality subject-matter content, such that graduates are recognized by Thai society.

·        Economics: STOU makes its courses and programs available at an affordable price, to serve its mission of “to open opportunities for all”.

 

The University of the South Pacific, School of Agriculture and Food Technology (SAFT) in Samoa is a premier regional institution for providing tertiary education in agriculture to 12 Pacific Island countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. As one of the Schools of the University, its mission is to maintain, advance and disseminate knowledge through teaching, consultancy and research and otherwise, the provision at appropriate levels of education and training responsive to the well-being and needs of the communities of the South Pacific. The School of Agriculture and Food Technology, through its distance and flexible learning (DFL) initiatives, has provided agriculture degree courses to potential technical agriculture staff, extension staff, agricultural science teachers, and many others who come from agriculture related areas. DFL courses are currently offered through print-based materials and supplemented by audio-visual materials, satellite tutorials, and audio-conferencing. In the near future, SAFT will start offering its courses on-line

 

The innovative features of SAFT outlined in this case study are:

 

  • Collaboration: SAFT works closely with government departments, other secondary and post-secondary educational institutions, non-governmental organizations, and regional agencies to support the ODL experiences of students.
  • Geographic reach: SAFT uses correspondence and audio-conferencing systems to make courses available across twelve countries and massive distances.
  • Practicality of learning: SAFT courses and programs are focused on preparing professionals and technicians to undertake key roles with public and private sector employers in agriculture and food systems across the Pacific.

 

 

Synthesis of Common Findings

 

From the case studies undertaken for this project, common elements of successful innovation and best practice in ODL for rural poverty reduction are summarized by the five simple principles defined in the introduction to this paper.

 

Starting with the right reasons

 

In the context of the contemporary development of new information and communications technologies, there is a danger that ODL initiatives might be driven by the availability or attractiveness of innovative technologies, rather than by the educational needs of individuals and communities.  It is important that ODL initiatives be firmly grounded at the intersection of the sponsoring organizations’ mission, and the needs and aspirations of the individuals and communities to be involved in such initiatives.  In some cases, ODL strategies are appropriate, cost-effective, and sustainable means to address people’s needs and aspirations.  In other cases, another approach would be more suitable.  Ultimately, in the quest to reduce poverty and promote the sustainable development of agriculture, ODL should be seen as a means to an end.

 

Being sensitive to context

 

There is no universally appropriate model for designing and delivering distance education initiatives.  The potential target audiences for ODL initiatives for agricultural development and rural poverty reduction is very broad indeed, ranging from farmers and marginalized rural populations, to relatively privileged urban professionals such as policy makers and information managers.  It is essential that the form of ODL selected be appropriate to the particular context in which it is being applied.

 

ODL models and practices must be adapted to the social, cultural, economic and political circumstances of learners and their environment.  In practical terms, the need for sensitivity to context means accepting the fact that “one size” does not “fit all.”  In working with various groups of learners and various programmatic and learning objectives, it is necessary to develop the capacity to use more than one set of instructional methods, more than one delivery strategy, more than one learner support strategy, and so forth.

 

Using sustainable infrastructure and budgets

 

Infrastructure is important to ODL initiatives.  On the one hand, infrastructure involves technologies such as telephone lines, broadcasting facilities, and Internet connectivity.   On the other hand, infrastructure involves the organizational capacity to manage and administer learning at a distance.  Technological infrastructure for ODL is closely related to the delivery strategies through which instructional and learner support services are provided.  Educational institutions are rarely able to sustain independent systems of communication for the delivery of ODL initiatives.  Rather, delivery strategies for ODL 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.  Often, entertainment and commercial sectors create such infrastructure, and educational institutions can make use of it.

 

Just as infrastructure is important, so is money.  It is essential that ODL initiatives be organized in a manner that the ongoing full costs of delivering and sustaining the initiatives will be matched or exceeded by the revenues that the initiatives will attract.  There are essentially three sources of revenue for ODL initiatives: tuition or other fees paid by learners themselves; tuition or other fees paid by the parents or the employers of the learners; and indirect support to the learners paid by governments, corporate sponsors, or donor agencies.  Through some combination of these sources, ODL initiatives must generate sufficient revenues to sustain themselves over time.

 

Engaging stakeholders

 

The need for participatory and empowering educational practice was identified by FAO (1999) in a guide entitled Participatory Curriculum Development in Agricultural Education.  The guide categorizes general groups of stakeholders in curriculum development processes as the “insiders” (leaders with training organizations, teachers, students, producers of educational materials), and the “outsiders” (policy-makers, politicians, educational administrators, educational experts, employers, professional bodies, clients, funding agencies, parents, past students and interest groups).  Early in the analysis of a potential ODL 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.

 

Using sound pedagogical and administrative models

 

There has been a substantial number and range of ODL experiences over the past several decades in developing countries.  While ideal models and practices have yet to be developed, practitioners and scholars have done much to critically examine ODL and make its application more appropriate to diverse circumstances around the world.  Over the past decade, the practice of ODL in both developed and developing countries has evolved substantially. 

 

 

Conclusions and Recommendations

 

First, to be undertaken properly, it is important that ODL initiatives aimed at rural poverty reduction and agricultural development follow the five principles defined by the FAO in 2001 (see the introduction to this paper).

 

We recommend that COL and other stakeholders to this project promote widespread commitment to these five basic principles of ODL in initiatives related to rural poverty reduction and agricultural development.

 

Second, the five case studies developed for this project clearly indicate that successful innovations and best practices have been achieved by a number of institutions in Asia and the Pacific.  The keywords that run through these case studies are: collaboration, networking, public/private partnerships, efficiency, effective use of technology for learning, practicality of learning, accessibility, acceptability, validity of content, economics, gender sensitivity, basic education, geographic reach, and sustainability.  Such keywords, in the context of the basic ODL principles, provide important guidance to those seeking strategies to address the challenges of rural poverty reduction and agricultural development.

 

We recommend that COL and other stakeholders to this project work to develop further understanding of innovation and best practice related to ODL for rural poverty reduction and agricultural development around the world.

 

Third, as this report indicates, knowledge about such successful innovations and best practices could be usefully and economically disseminated throughout the world.  There are a range of options for the dissemination of such knowledge, including:

 

  • The website to be developed as part of the project itself (with the synthesis paper and the complete case studies).
  • Print-based publication of project documents.
  • Publication of a summary paper in a scholarly or professional journal.
  • Presentation at conferences where leaders and professionals from pertinent organizations are in the audience.
  • Invitational workshops for specific stakeholders.
  • The establishment of an on-line community of practice, with members drawn from various institutions from across Asia and the Pacific.

 

We recommend that COL and other stakeholders to this project explore and pursue these options for the dissemination of knowledge regarding successful innovation and best practice in ODL for rural poverty reduction and agricultural development.

 

Fourth, such dissemination would contribute to capacity-building efforts, and ultimately to a stronger role for ODL strategies in the pursuit of agricultural development and rural poverty reduction in developing countries.  To replicate or adapt what has been demonstrated by these five case studies would require other institutions to engage in strategic planning and capacity-building exercises.  Strategic planning would be important in order to determine how some of the innovations and best practices described in this report would fit different institutional missions, environments, and cultures.  Adopting such innovations and best practices would require the investment of resources, and a strategic planning process would help institutions organize for the mobilization, monitoring, and evaluation of such investments.

 

Beyond strategic planning, capacity development will be required in order to ensure that the institution and its staff members are prepared to successfully adopt such innovations and best practices.  By institutional capacity building we refer to developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of leaders and staff members, as well as to facilitating organizational development such that an institution is better able to support the work of its staff and partners.

 

We recommend that COL and other stakeholders to this project promote holistic and integrated processes of strategic planning and capacity building among institutions having a mandate to apply ODL methods to the challenges of rural poverty reduction and agricultural development.

 

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