As times change, so must education change—particularly its availability. Gone are classes taught solely in a traditional lecture style with the professor pontificating to a group of 18- to 22-year-old students. The advent of the Internet, smart phones, and electronic book readers, coupled with technology-hungry and savvy consumers, has led to a significant change in the ways courses are delivered. Information—accurate and inaccurate—is available with a few key strokes. These advances in technology, coupled with an economic downturn and a reduction in university teaching resources, have made it clear that the teaching paradigm must shift. To attract students and still deliver a quality education in horticulture, expertise and resources must be shared across institutions. The Agriculture Interactive Distance Education Alliance (2011) (AG*IDEA) provides shared access to undergraduate and graduate level courses in horticulture and related disciplines for students enrolled through the member universities. The alliance also provides the opportunity for students to pursue three graduate certificates in horticulture. In this way, current students as well as industry members and others have the opportunity for lifelong learning in horticulture via distance.
Graduate level distance courses in horticulture have been shared and offered across institutions since the late 1990s (Great Plains Interactive Distance Alliance, 2011; Williams and Paparozzi, 2002). Only recently has demand significantly increased, resulting in the formation of inter-institutional collaborations. During the last 2 years, representatives from several universities have been meeting monthly to develop horticulture graduate certificates through AG*IDEA.
AG*IDEA is the agricultural arm of the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (GP*IDEA). GP*IDEA was formed by the human sciences colleges located in the Great Plains region of the United States. Later, an alliance for agriculture was initiated by Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa. This alliance joined GP*IDEA, expanded membership beyond the Great Plains region, and chose the moniker of AG*IDEA. Agriculture joined this group because of the belief in the common founding principles. These principles state that all institutions will behave as equals, respect institutional differences, and simplify student navigation to access courses and certificate/degree programs. Institutions pay a one-time fee of $2000 to belong; these funds support the overall project coordinator. The current composition of AG*IDEA includes 18 universities with full membership from all regions of the United States. Over the monthly conference calls of our horticulture group, attendance has varied in composition, but a core group has arisen from that interaction. This core group includes: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State University, Texas Tech University, North Carolina State University, Iowa State University, University of Kentucky, and North Dakota State University. The faculty chairperson of the group is drawn from these universities. This individual serves a 1-year rotating term.
Within this group, faculty members had different reasons for participating. For some, it was curiosity, for some coercion. For others, it was the promised monetary reward for teaching distance courses (75% of tuition revenue returns to the home institution) and others sought to supplement undergraduate and graduate courses and curricular offerings. Tuition is set by AG*IDEA and is currently $440 per credit regardless of which institution the student chooses to enroll in and where the student resides. Today, horticulturists and horticulture programs cannot be all things to all people. So, common among all participants is the belief that the structure of current and future horticulture educational programs needs to change. Literature strongly supports the opportunity for comparable and even enhanced student learning when well-designed and implemented coursework is delivered via distance technologies (Allen et al., 2002). “Knowledge” is already flowing freely among the public. So the choice became simple: be part of the change to contribute to collaborative distance-learning programs or continue to stand alone.
Unlike the human sciences programs where each university created a course or two and taught them exclusively, horticulture decided to rely on existing online courses across institutions to create three graduate certificates (Table 1) and share other courses that may be of interest. The group felt that horticulture, being an integrated science as well as an art, needed to also rely on the disciplines of entomology, plant pathology, agronomy, and business to offer a meaningful graduate experience and meet the interests of a wide range of potential students. Where there was course duplication, a rotation among universities offering the courses was agreed upon (Table 2). The same flexibility was applied to the scope and the requirements (12 or 15 credits) within each certificate.
The course requirements of the three horticulture graduate certificates that are projected to be available for enrollment in 2012.
An example course rotation for the Floriculture and Nursery Production Management Certificate which ensures that students have access to courses when they need them and that all universities participate in the offerings.
Constructing the curricula associated with the certificates is what faculty members enjoy most and do best. Unfortunately, then comes the sales job, in three installments: convincing local colleagues to participate and submit an appropriate learning outcomes-based syllabus, creating/submitting/getting the approval of a business plan by the Executive Committee of the AG*IDEA Board of Directors, and then finally, obtaining the administrative and graduate school approvals necessary to implement the program at each of the participating institutions. Frustration at each installment varied but was omnipresent. Delays for final approval at some institutions are running as long as 1 year. It is planned that these courses and certificates will be available in 2012.
While each participating faculty member handles the particulars of moving the certificate(s) through their system, how the group will implement the certificates is being handled by the alliance. The horticulture group is working from a faculty operating handbook and a detailed assessment plan. GP*IDEA conducts a student entrance and exit survey as part of the program assessment if faculty provide program-specific questions. As individual faculty evaluations cannot be shared across state lines, the use of Plan for Researching Improvement and Supporting Mission (PRISM) administered by Colorado State University will serve as the assessment environment that can be accessed by all members of the alliance (Plan for Researching Improvement and Supporting Mission, 2011).
Agriculture Interactive Distance Education Alliance 2011 AG*IDEA: An affiliate of Great Plains Idea 12 May 2011. <http://www.agidea.org>.
Allen, M., Bourhis, J. & Burrell, N. 2002 Comparing student satisfaction with distance education to traditional classrooms in higher education: A meta-analysis Amer. J. Distance Educ. 16 83 97
Williams, K.A. & Paparozzi, E.T. 2002 Model to develop a synchronous, inter-institutional course using distance technologies North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 46 28 33