August 9, 2014

Agricultural education in New Zealand. 7. Better ways needed for future learning

 By Dr Clive Dalton

Mentoring on the job 
Early humans must have worked out that learning on the job was highly effective, where people with different experienced could share knowledge and learn together, by mutual mentoring and motivation in a relevant environment. 

I found many ‘mature’ folk initially hated coming to my Polytech Herd Managers’ classes, as it exposed their difficulties with literacy, numeracy and dyslexia.  It was amazing how many said that their high school teachers had written them off –suggesting the farming would be a suitable career where academic skills were not needed!  Teachers forgot that in less than a decade, these same young folk could be sitting in a bank manager’s office doing a budget to borrow $1.5 million to buy a herd of 300 cows.

Currently about 40% of the NZ adult population has numeracy and literacy problems, and this is the nature of the problem of young folk entering primary industry and other trades.  High schools can do little about it, as they don’t have time, facilities or the staff to correct things at their level.

Without a revolution in the current education system, nothing will have changed by 2025.  So primary industry will have to live with this ‘elephant in the room’ and find ways around it.  It’s not talked about in the industry, and certainly when you look at technical manuals and written information put out by companies for farmers, there’s no recognition of literacy and numeracy problems.

It’s makes no economic sense for employers having to spend time and money on teaching staff how to read and write.  Thankfully the Internet and modern technology is already making a massive change for the better in primary industry.  Data gathering technology is increasing on many farms now and this will increase rapidly as the tech-savvy generation enters the industry – if they can be attracted.

Contact with peers and mentors 
With Internet learning on line, learners (both staff and employers) can still meet with peers and mentors for special motivational sessions (on or off farm) when needed, or if this is not convenient, they can communicate using Skype and social media.

Inspiring tutors only 
When oral information is needed, this can be provided on line with only the best inspiring tutors in the country being used.  Finding them may be a challenge, but the use of such ‘inspirational communicators’ is now a growing business in international education over the Internet.

Film and video
There is no limit to the mass of information now accessible via the Internet in the form of film and video, with a wide range of devices and applications available to view them on.  So much in farming is visual and involves action, so this is clearly the medium to use.
Hands-on learning. 
Where learning involves a ‘hands on’ component, such as condition scoring a cow, or assessing pasture covers, then this can be provided at appropriate venues using one-on-one instruction, or by group involvement to compare accuracy between learners.

Discussion groups.
These were the foundation of information transfer among dairy farmers for 100 years, and the world came to NZ to see how discussion groups operated, and to take the concept home with them.  They are just being introduced to South American dairy farmers so are still going strong.

But drastic changes were needed years ago and to be brutally honest, they have always been of limited value, simply because of the way they were run. The basic format is that you stand around in a half circle, with the expert running the group and asking each in turn a question such as ‘what’s your average farm pasture cover’, or ‘what’s your average cow condition’. Both are stupid questions for a start.  It’s dreary, and a waste of participants’ valuable time.

This format is supposed to have been modernised, but it’s still using the same basic approach. The benefit to participants has always been mainly social, as information could be transferred in other more effective and time saving ways using the Internet – if the organisers could think of them.

My former Polytech tutor colleague and top farmer, says he stopped going to them years ago, and gets more value from equivalent time on the phone or using Skype with his switched-on farming mates and mentors. 

Using top farmers and staff 
By using the Internet, learners can get access to and share the resources of the country’s innovative farmers and their top staff. This is an incredible resource, which is currently not being used. With ‘Google Earth’ and aerial drones which are increasingly available, farms all over the country can be visited to show features and management practices.

At the Waikato Polytech, we must have wasted hundreds of hours trudging over farms with students to assess pasture and looking at the cows’ body condition scores – taking all day, and then running out of time to discuss the real issues of what we went there for.  A drone could have done the job in minutes, and we could have spent time on doing the feed budget and discussing outcomes.  We could have had the whole job on laptops or tablets without getting boots dirty or shocks from defective electric fences!

Using experts for ‘quality interaction’
Using the Internet, learners can get up-to-the minute business information on important issues like banking, investment, livestock trading and more, again provided by the best available experts.  Everyone nation wide could benefit from this oral ‘quality interaction’ for all to be shared on line.

A classic example was on my Waikato Polytech Herd Managers’ course, where I used to get Mr Ric Dawick to talk to my classes of around 20 students at five different Waikato locations.  Ric was a senior stock agent for Waikato Farmers Ltd, and developed the first on-line sale and purchase agreement for dairy herds.  He was the best in the business, as well as being a very talented communicator who helped many of our students to eventually buy herds when they went sharemilking.  He got many of them top jobs.

It was an enormous contribution for Ric to give his talk five times a year, using up four hours per class at five locations.  They were fantastic sessions that we all enjoyed, because of Ric’s empathy with young folk and his great desire to help them into an industry with plenty of fishhooks in livestock trading.   

Imagine how great it would have been to have Ric’s session available on the Internet via the cloud, along with video of herds for sale and purchase, inspecting herd records, and especially how to check each clause in the Herd Purchase Agreement. Then to cover the critical bit of how to deal with people in a business-like way, at a time often filled with considerable stress and emotion for all involved due to the large amounts of money changing hands – most of it belonging to the bank!

This material could have been shared by all Ag learners on line, accessible 24/7 via the Cloud, and accessed as and when required. It could have been updated regularly with changes in livestock prices, bank interest rates and in help to prepare budgets.

Using industry leaders
The Internet Cloud could be used for access to the ‘Big Cheeses’ in the industry, to talk directly to Ag learners via single or group Skype, giving regular updates on the state of international trade to make them feel part of their industry.  Leaders could be questioned directly to make them more credible, rather than reading press releases from their organisations – which nobody reads in any case, and certainly rarely believes.

International interest - NZ global reputation
This Internet learning approach using the Cloud, if well packaged, could be offered to the world on line, and lead to developing international consultancy and investment. It could lead to a massive growth industry for NZ Inc, gaining support and promotion through the World Bank, FAO and the UN.

 NZ should have the global reputation as the leader in agricultural education, and have the faith that if you give a certain amount of that content away, the result will be people beating a path to your door to learn in the educational institutions, just like Harvard found.

Apple also founded a similar University online called iTunesU, that works on iPads. All the big universities jumped on board, with free content, that has again proven by advantageous to the providers - they have generated thousands of new students from the free content.

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