Irish Society for Information Technology in Agriculture
Sixth Annual Conference, Portlaoise, 7 November 2002


E Learning Opportunities for Rural Areas

Jim Phelan
Department of Agribusiness, Extension and Rural Development, University College Dublin 


Third level institutions have played a significant role in providing high quality educational opportunities for both rural and urban people. Rural people have always been at a disadvantage because most third level institutions are based in cities. Rural learners must incur the cost of travel and very often the cost of living away from home to advance their educational prospects. To combat this some educational institutions have engaged in different forms of distance learning, however, these courses have not been easy to pursue and have been characterised by significant drop out rates. Recent developments in electronic communication are beginning to create new opportunities for distance education. These opportunities allow for much greater contact between the student and the teacher and are not bound by geographic location, thus largely eliminating the travel or distance factor. There is also significant change occurring within third level institutions, which is making them much more conscious of student needs and allowing for greater flexibility and innovativeness in meeting these needs. The Ivory Tower, which was underpinned by principles of scholarship, pedagogy, academic freedom, where research and scholarship were individually designed, executed first and foremost at making a name for the academic have weakened. The purpose of this paper therefore is to outline the changing nature of university education and to examine the opportunities provided by E Learning particularly in the context of enhancing access for rural people, which is currently important in the Irish context given the increasing focus on rural development.  

The Changing Environment

Traditionally the main roles of academics were ones of teaching and research that is characterised in the literature through two models (Light and Cox  2001). The Linear Model which positions research and teaching as two detached practices competing for academics time. If research increases then teaching decreases.  The second model (The Inter-subjective Model) which probably gives a better reflection, views teaching and research as overlapping. Good research should inform teaching while on the other hand teaching should help to raise issues that could be addressed by research. In practice the difficulty arises in getting good researches to deliver material at a level, which can be understood by students. In addition research active academics very often operate in fairly narrow fields, while those with heavy teaching loads are forced to adopt a broader disciplinary approach. Thus one of the current critical issues facing academics is one of breath versus depth. Professionalism in these models has tilted more towards research, as it has been the critical factor in the academic reward system. The changing environment within universities has meant that research and teaching are no longer the only roles that must be considered. Administration now involves significant effort as more accountability is sought from those that fund competitive research that increasingly dominates the university landscape. Universities, like other institutions, have had to respond to increased demands for accountability, increased concerns regarding transparency, more regular curricular adjustment, increased planning at Faculty and higher levels all of which have added to the administrative burden.

  Globalisation and advancement in electronic communication has created a much stronger international dimension, many research programmes are collaborative involving several European partners. In addition there is increasing student exchange, and increasing efforts to create greater harmonisation of standards and qualifications across Europe, all of which draw on the academics time. Thus, many academics have moved away from the traditional teaching and research poles and now undertake a mix of responsibilities more characteristic of a modern market led business institution.  

Considerable philosophical change has also occurred in approaches to teaching and learning. The learning system of the past has been characterised as a teacher centred top down learning system.  Today there is a significant move from traditional lecturing to approaches that are much more student centred. Cooperative learning, participative learning, reflective learning and experiential learning are terms that appear with greater regularity in almost all curricula. There is also a move away from the traditional approach of universities focusing on knowledge to one where knowledge, knowledge application and skills are more prevalent.  

A number of authors have examined the teacher student relationship. Teachers very often view learning as an outcome in terms of a state of knowledge. While teachers often have a sense of what they would like their students to achieve, outcomes do not always match expectations.  Cox (1992) has referred this to in terms of learning gaps.  At the most basic level he claims that there is a gap between students being able to recall or recognise information and their ability to understand it. There can also be a gap between understanding information and having the ability to apply it. Those who reach this stage may for some reason not want to use the information and even those who end up doing something with the information may not change.  

The change in philosophy has meant a greater focus on students. This has also been necessitated by a significant change in the student base. Students now come to university with a great diversity in background, ability and interest. Many must work to be able to attend college and increased opportunities in the work place have meant that work is more available. Thus students adopt different approaches to learning. These have been characterised by Entwistle 1983 where he describes three common approaches adopted by students. The Deep Approach. Here the students aim is to understand the course in a way that is personally meaningful to them and which engages their own experiences and previous knowledge through an interactive process with relevant content knowledge and logic. The primary aim is to make personal meanings out of the shared meanings available. The Surface Approach. Here students use the available meanings to cope with course requirements. The meanings remain alien to the students and success is achieved largely through memorisation.  There is no substantive engagement with the student’s personal knowledge and experience. The Strategic Approach.  This approach is seen as engaging some principles from both of the above approaches. The main concern of the student is to achieve the highest grade and therefore she/he adopts an assessment focused approach. The student is alert to the cues, will have a high degree of contact with staff and will have an exam strategy.  

The student base at universities is also changing. While most students in Ireland still enter university mainly through the CAO (Central Applications Office), increasing numbers are entering from linked programmes where students obtain credit for work done in their previous programme. Current examples of this in the Irish context are the linked programmes with the institutes of technology and Teagasc, where students who have received certificates or diplomas at the required levels can transfer to the Faculty of Agriculture in University College Dublin. There are also increasing numbers of certificate, diploma and taught masters programmes as the focus on life long learning increases. Many universities in the past have engaged in distance learning, however, for most it has been a minor focus.  

The Evolution of Distance Learning  

The term distance learning has been applied to a great variety of programmes, providers, audiences and media. Its hallmarks are the separation of teacher and learner in space and/or time (Perraton 1988). The earliest form of distance learning took place through correspondence courses. Television and radio have also been used as a medium, but very often one found that academics who were expert in the subject matter area were not the best communicators. In addition early systems provided little opportunity for feed back leaving the learner isolated. The material was also very often not user friendly and only the most ardent persisted to the end. Schlosser and Anderson (1994) refer to Keegan (1986) model of distance learning and state that distance learning must recreate in as far as possible the atmosphere and interaction of the traditional classroom. Perraton (1988) views the role of the distance teacher as a facilitator of learning rather than a communicator of a fixed body of information which exemplifies traditional learning.

  Although technology is an integral part of distance learning, any successful programme must focus on the instructional needs of the students rather than on the technology itself. (Sherry 1996).  Saettler (1990) quoted in Sherry (1996) found that the mental effort a learner will invest in learning depends on his or her perception of two factors. The relevance of the medium and the message which it contains and the ability of the learner to make something meaningful out of the material presented. Inquiry learning which is a critical component of what is involved in web based distance learning means that the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage” but is the facilitator of discovery learning.  

The New Era  

The developments in computer technology and the advent of the World Wide Web have created new and challenging opportunities for both traditional and distance learning education. For educators the W.W.W provides exciting new opportunities for teaching and learning. In contrast with traditional distance learning systems it provides an opportunity for feed back and brings to life the concept of the “virtual classroom”. The main advantages put forward for learning through the use of on-line systems  are that it enables a large audience to be reached without the limits of geographic location.  It is accessible at any time so students can learn at their own pace. It reduces the workload on the lecturer (once developed). It allows students the opportunity to explore a wide variety of knowledge, it through linking students to a catalogue of libraries and databases.  While there are a lot of advantages there are also several drawbacks. On-line learning requires a level of computer literacy, it requires a certain level of investment or access to the necessary equipment, it lacks the class or group camaraderie which, is an essential part of learning. Computers vary immensely across the potential student population, with almost no two people having the same hardware and software.

A number of different classifications have been used to categorise current efforts in computerised learning. The following three typify these classifications:  

1. “Dumping Model”. Here lecturers simply dump their traditional lectures on the web, thus providing students with access. There is little interaction. The activity may often be supplemented by tutorial support. There is no effort made to create a curriculum that is web friendly or to endorse sound distance learning based principles. Most distance learning courses currently available are operating at this level.  

2.  Home Video Model”. Here course materials are designed with web based learning in mind. Efforts are made to develop materials in an attractive learner centred fashion. Facilitators are provided and some efforts may be made to use the virtual classroom (a system that allows students to exchange views electronically i.e. it makes use of the chat room concept which has become more renowned in other areas). The model uses some of the web based learning systems but lacks the finance necessary to create an attractive and interactive web based system.  

3.  Hollywood Model”. This model has well thought out and well developed curricula.  It employs the technologies necessary to make it truly interactive, uses examples, simulations, charts, it is supported by professionally developed audio linkages employing the latest communication technology. It is well linked to all supporting sites. It uses notice boards and group and individual exercises, it provides almost instant feedback with common interaction between students and tutors. The site is well designed with easy mobility from one section to next. It however, requires huge support in terms of intellectual time to create curricula and also in technical development to ensure its attractiveness to students.  

On-line Learning Pilot Project

  The overall objective of the pilot project was to develop a certificate level, competency based and IT deliverable distance education module in project management. The rationale developed as a result of the emerging need for expertise appropriate for rural development.  

The project brought together three organisations with strong professional links over a number of years and each with a solid grounding in the delivery of rural development programmes at all levels. The project proposal was submitted by UCD, and the project partners were AERDD University of Reading, UK and ANKA SA, Greece. Each partner had specific roles for the duration of the project.  

The Distance Education Certificate in Project Management (DECPM) was designed to proceed in 5 stages.

  Stage 1: Programme analysis –

  Stage 2: Programme design –

  Stage 3: Programme development –

  Stage 4: Programme implementation –

  Stage 5: Programme evaluation –

The Job and Needs Analysis Survey

In order to develop a curriculum shaped by the needs of practitioners and therefore, a clear focus on improving the tasks performed by on-the-job managers, a survey was carried out which assessed the skills and training needs of project field managers. The focus was on organisations involved in rural development, and in particular EU leader groups.  

Two categories of personnel were included for this purpose:

a)      project executives assessed skills and training needs of their managers

b)      project managers assessed their own skills and training needs

 Results were extrapolated from 74 questionnaires (28 executives and 46 managers), 30 from Ireland, 16 from the UK and 28 from Greece. Respondents were asked to comment on their own / managers (as appropriate) level of skill and training requirements in the following areas:

  Ø      Planning

Ø      Organisation / procuring

Ø      Managing finances

Ø      Monitoring / controlling

Ø      Handling information

Ø      Communication

Ø      Team building

Ø      Leading

Ø      Negotiating

Ø      Managing project technology  

From these needs a curriculum was developed, containing twelve topics. This curriculum followed both ‘academic’ considerations and ‘practitioners’ needs. 

Topic 1: Development

Topic 2: Participation

Topic 3: Planning

Topic 4: Communication

Topic 5: Project proposal preparation

Topic 6: Management

Topic 7: Team building and management

Topic 8: Information technology

Topic 9: Monitoring and evaluation

Topic 10: Financial management and control

Topic 11: Partnerships and networking

Topic 12: Training

  One Topic “Team Building and Management” was fully developed and used to assess the opportunities provided by E Learning.

Choice of Online Medium  

The Internet has revolutionised the ways the world works, plays and communicates. It has become a medium through which education can be brought online. The use of the Internet for ‘virtual’ education among academic institutions has exploded, as has the number of operating systems.

  The Washington D.C. based Blackboard Inc. was founded in 1997 with the vision of transforming the Internet into a powerful environment for teaching and learning. It develops, licenses and supports Web-based enterprise software for bringing education online, and as such describes itself as an ‘e-learning infrastructure’ company. The Blackboard team of 200 professionals represents experience and expertise in the areas of technology, instructional design and development. Currently, Blackboard, in association with the students and faculty at Cornell University, serves 3.5 million active users at more than 1,500 institutions in more than 70 countries. 

It offers a course management system coupled with academic portal technologies, e-mail readers, and community tools such as discussion boards, quiz generators and a virtual chat room.

Blackboard has more recently introduced its resource centre, created in response to customer requests for assistance with finding and aggregating credible academic information on the Internet. The goal of the resource centre is as a medium through which instructors and students can access high quality supplemental information and resources that enhance the teaching and learning experience. Information in the resource centre includes a collection of newspapers and journals organised according to academic discipline, along with a sophisticated browsing system and keyword search. It also has some useful links to external Web sites, lists of instructor and student communities organised according to academic category, discussion boards and chat rooms. 

In terms of products, Blackboard offers various books, hardware, software, study aids etc. It also provides services such as financial services, live e-learning, online storage and research tools. 

The choice of operating system for this project was based on many aspects. Operating systems that were considered included- Web CT, TOP-CLASS, and Blackboard.  Blackboard was chosen for numerous reasons. Firstly, in terms of its suitability for the project, it offered a range of facilities to encourage an interactive learning experience.  Availability in the three partner institutions was also an issue. Web CT was strongly considered, however, at the time of the course creation, UCD had not put this system into use. Similarly with TOP-CLASS it was felt that the supports necessary to run a course on the system were not available. It was felt that Blackboard was the system that offered the relevant technical assistance when using its product and which was available to all partners.

  DECPM online 

The course was offered online to participants in the three partnership countries, where. A one day workshop was held in each of the three participating countries and functioned as a welcome meeting and as a method of introducing course participants to this method of learning. Participants, with the aid of tutors, were given the opportunity to gain familiarity with the Blackboard system and the mechanics of moving through the course.

  On the workshop day each participant was given a student guide. This minimised the material that participants needed to print from the Internet, helping to encourage the ‘virtual’ learning experience. The guide was adapted from the Student Guide printed online by Blackboard, and developed to suit the needs of the DECPM project participants. A similar guide was designed for the tutors. The workshop for Irish participants was held in UCD and involved people from different locations and disciplines.

Because of uncertainties at the beginning of the pilot project a CD was developed to supplement this system. It contained all course documents in PowerPoint in two versions- one with sound and one without. It allowed participants to go through the course and only go online to participate in discussion threads, submit exercises etc. This method proved invaluable particularly for those that had difficulty with their Internet providers.

Project Evaluation 

The project was evaluated internally by the core partners, by the tutors and by the course participants. An external evaluation was carried out by an independent evaluator. All evaluators felt that the system had huge potential. It involved highly qualified staff from both academic and practical backgrounds, and followed a participatory approach in relations to the identification and satisfaction of training needs of the staff of development agencies.  

This method of online learning was endorsed by all evaluators. It was a valuable experience and much was learned by all involved. It represents a very real alternative to conventional learning methods, particularly for adult professional training.  

All evaluators stressed that the system had difficulties in terms of gaining access to blackboard online, moving through some areas of the course and use of the virtual classroom. It is expected that these were merely ‘teething’ problems that could be resolved with the new version of Blackboard that has come online. Of the 52 that registered, 23 received certificates. Lack of time, difficulty with accessing the course, and general technical difficulties were main reason for non-completion. The CD-ROM was essential in enabling participants experiencing technical difficulties to continue with the course.  

Generally tutor support worked well. The introductory workshop was essential, as it introduced participants to the tutors and to each other, in addition to the operating systems. However, it was suggested that the partnership should have taken a decision to have a more proactive tutor support for the duration of the project.  


On-line learning offers real potential for the future. It will never replace the presence of a lecturer and the class dynamic that is important in the learning environment. It will however, bring learning opportunities to areas where little was available in the past and this is a critical advantage for rural areas.  The cost of developing excellent courses is very demanding in terms of academic and technical time and substantial investment will be required to create good courses. There is likely to be many strategic alliances as universities position themselves in this arena, alliances between universities to get the relevant academic expertise and alliances with sponsors who will put up the finance for the development of such courses. The market however, is enormous as properly developed and accredited courses can be offered across the world. The rate at which courses are beginning to appear is increasing.  

At a more local level, considerable progress can also be made. It seems logical that with any course that is developed on-line, learning centres, which are becoming more widespread around the country can be established where groups of approximately 10 people can form a learning cell with a local facilitator. These could meet in local IT centres that would have sufficient common technology to lead the course. These can then be linked back to the main lecturers or tutors for set periods via the chat room concept. Given the difficulties still with the on-line systems it is almost a requirement that a back up CD be available as there will be several occasions for one reason or another that the system will not function. However, these difficulties will decrease with time as the systems are perfected.  As people become more confident they can begin to work more and more from their homes, however, it is the authors view that the bringing together of people in small groups is still a critical learning requirement.  

Over time on-line learning will affect all institutions either through active engagement in the process or through increased competition from those who do engage. Computers are becoming more widely available and the younger generation are much more computer literate than their predecessors. The flexibility of learning both in time and space that it allows will be attractive to many professional as they up skill themselves in a rapidly changing world. The challenge for universities is to become leaders not laggards in the process. In this regard the four National University of Ireland Colleges have come together and are developing a BSc in Rural Development. The programme was launched in the summer of 2002. The course is unique in that it will be delivered in partnership by the four colleges and will be E Learning reliant.


Cox, R., 1992

 ‘Learning  Theory and Professional Life’, Media and Technology for Human Development, 4 (4): 217-32.

  Entwistle, N.J. and P. Ramsden 1983

Understanding Student Learning,  London : Croom Helm, 1983.

  Keegan D., 1986

The Foundations of Distance Education, London, Croom Helm.

  Light, G. and R. Cox,  2001

Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Sage Publications London, pp 35-36.  

Perraton, H.,  1988

‘A Theory for Distance Education’. In D. Stewart, D. Keegan and B. Holmberg (ed), Distance Education: International Perspectives (pp34-45). New York, Routledge.

  Schlosser, C.A. and Anderson, M.L. 1994

‘Distance Education Review of the Literature’. Association for Educational

Communication and Technology, Washington D.C.  

Sherry, L. 1996

‘Issues in Distance Learning’,  International Journal of Educational Telecommunications pp. 337-365.  

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