By John Rainsford
Distance education Green Cert for non agricultural award holders meets vital farmer requirements
Using E-Learning, Teagasc is radically altering the educational roles and experiences of agricultural students, tutors, and institutions.
An innovative distance education (DE) approach was formally launched on November 14, 2005 by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, TD.
Teagasc Distance Education is now delivered by six agricultural colleges, and by education centres based in each of the 12 Teagasc advisory regions.
Frank Murphy, Curriculum Development and Standards Manager with Teagasc, explained the transformation taking place.
He said: “Distance Education is allowing our students to gain a qualification in a flexible manner while working the farm on a full-time or part-time basis.
“Two programmes are currently being offered, namely the Level Five Certificate in Agriculture, and the Level Six Specific Purpose in Farming [these programmes together equate to the Green Cert].
“These are the minimum qualifications required to become a trained farmer, so demand for places is high.
“Indeed, our intake has doubled in the past four years, assisted by the introduction of various Department of Agriculture schemes aimed at young farmers and the expansion of the Irish dairy herd.”
Some 1,400 students are now enrolled with Teagasc on DE programmes.
While Teagasc continues to offer a full-time training option, this is largely made up of school leavers aged between 17-19 years of age.
By contrast, DE is aimed at students holding a non-agricultural award at Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) Level Six or higher.
Such candidates tend to be older (mid-20s), with a proven ability to manage their own studies.
Digital technologies are decreasing the time that DE students need to spend in the classroom, with the students more self-directed in their learning.
Cyber-education is also seen to have bridged the gap to so-called ‘front-end’ learners who benefit from real-time dialogue in traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ type institutions.
The ‘virtual classroom’, in contrast, has no timetable or attendance sheets.
Instead, records are updated online using Computer Mediated Communications (CMCs) such as; ‘Blackboard’, ‘Sakai’ or ‘Moodle’.
Discussion groups and chat forums give learners a sense of what it means to be part of a group while simultaneously working in the comfort of their own living rooms.
‘Constructivist’ techniques meanwhile are applied to the creation of core modules, making ‘learning-to-learn’ easier for students.
Frank Murphy stated: “The typical contact time for the Teagasc Distance Education programme is about 190 hours.
“Students are also required to spend a considerable amount of their time on self-directed study and completing assignments.
“Students are given a series of work books which they study [replacing traditional lectures].
“They also attend for instruction on practical skills training days, for example in livestock and machinery skills.
“A number of discussion groups meet on benchmark farms, and students complete a number of projects and assignments on their home farm.
“Students attend for both written and practical exams, as part of our programmes.”
Students who have off-farm jobs, and who cannot attend class full-time, are delighted to discover that DE offers a better work-life balance.
Tutors (‘online moderators’) monitor the educational growth of students in a manner not unlike farmers cultivating their yield.
Originally seen in a pastoral role ministering to, advising, and assisting a student’s development, they are now seen largely in a collaborative capacity.
They also carry out and correct written exams, and assignments, whilst delivering skills training, and continuous assessments.
The emphasis is increasingly on equality and bottom-up development, (evaluations being continuous).
Prior knowledge is thus maximised, as part of a knowledge building process.
Indeed, the design of E-Learning courses is often more demanding than traditional counterparts, with new types of teaching employed to maximise student potential.
Tutors frequently make online postings and feedback available via CMC applications, encouraging collaborative learning and open communications.
In the process, classroom relationships have been revolutionised, with students taking greater individual responsibility while building self- esteem and group cohesion.
Susan Kearney, Head of Finance with Teagasc, commented: “Teagasc is the primary further education provider for the overall land-based sector.
“Teagasc is also involved in higher education delivery through its partnership with many higher education institutions.
“The integration of agricultural research, knowledge transfer, and education, under the Teagasc umbrella bring core strengths and expertise to agricultural education.
“In 2017, Teagasc has a budget of €138m for current operations, excluding pensions and capital.
The education programme accounts for €19.5m of this current operations budget.”
Co-ordination of all online programmes, and the provision of individual feedback, take place via ‘Moodle’.
Teagasc came to use this platform through their interaction with the University of Wales, and as a result of CMC research by FÁS, the former training agency.
CMC consists of two types.
‘Asynchronous’, where students are not connected to the communications technology at the same time, and ‘Synchronous’ web-based conversations completed in real time.
E-Learning mixes both approaches in order to maximise learning potential.