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Going the Distance with Agricultural Education

 Going the Distance with Agricultural Education

 

Live, two-way, interactive video conferencing, online course offerings and virtual learning technologies are enabling ag teachers to engage students in their own classrooms and across county lines. As school districts continue to face economic challenges, distance learning brings needed course content to schools without full agricultural education programs.

In the Stoughton, Wis., distance learning classroom of Jerry Wendt, eight television screens connect students from McFarland High School, White Lake High School and Northland Pines High School with those in his own classroom.  Live, two-way videoconferencing provides access to needed agriculture courses not available in the individual schools or districts they represent.

Wendt says he uses the same educational tools as he did when delivering content in his classroom prior to distance learning. Animals such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs, chickens, mice and snakes and  the pets his students bring to class help him teach animal management and public speaking skills.

“If your ultimate goal is to help someone be successful in an ag career,” Wendt said, “you make it work. Above all, our industry needs quality employees and I feel obligated to use this technology with students.”

For Wendt, the decision was also motivated by the desire to continue working full time. With the connected classrooms, he now has 24 students. If students are outside the Four Lakes District, their home district pays for their participation generating further revenue across district lines.  

For the past few years, ag and technology educator Lee Friesen has been teaching through the Dakota Interactive Academic Link (DIAL), a virtual learning community offering needed course content to small school districts in South Dakota.

“The curriculum done from a distance classroom doesn’t have to be that much different than a regular classroom,” Friesen said. “Students can even do complex labs via the technology.”  For some, distance learning may include providing access to needed content, advanced classes, college prep and college credit that would not be available otherwise.

Online opportunities

Doug Straight, an Ag teacher at Shickley High School in Nebraska, teaches beginning animal science, advanced animal science and ag economics in online courses.  

“I did distance learning for seven or eight years,” Straight explains. “About three or four years in with distance learning, it became difficult to juggle four different school schedules.  I ran into students not being able to attend class because of other activities or schedules in their own building. I began to look for another way to deliver content that remained meaningful and focused on skill development.”

Straight uses the ANGEL course management system because he and his students can access it from anywhere. Each class is broken out individually. Students enroll like any other class, follow the calendar Straight develops and use his assessment tools. “I provide notes in the form of PowerPoint presentations,” he said.

Straight believes that students need opportunities at the high school level for online course content because more of it is available at the post secondary level.  Students need to learn the self-discipline of time and study management. They can build their own self-responsibility skills through online classes.

Room for improvement
Straight wishes he had about 10 more hours a week for course development and preparation.

“I wish I could do a voice-over for course notes and have more hands-on applications to improve the learning experience.”

Wendt would like to have access to a portable videoconferencing unit that would enable him to teach from other locations besides the distance learning lab. “We are trying to get into more advanced content and would like to have a live feed from other locations,” Wendt said. “I would like to enhance the understanding that ag doesn’t only include typical farm animals. I’d like to bring horses, and a dairy cow as well as a kangaroo and penguin into the classroom while connected with remote sites.”

Wendt imagines an even bigger learning opportunity through distance learning.  Since nearby Madison, Wis., is the site for the International Dairy Expo, he imagines tapping into the diverse expertise present (some 80 countries will be represented ), conducting interviews and cultivating learning conversations using the technology to raise the bar on understanding global agriculture issues.