The traditional extension education model, in which staff administers in-person presentations that growers in a particular region of the state attend, has proven successful in the past (Jones et al., 2007). Although effective, this model can pose challenges for the audience, particularly so for nursery crop producers. The need for growers to leave their daily activities and varying production schedules makes it difficult to select a time when all industry members can be present. Traditional programs are also associated with substantial travel costs and a great ongoing time commitment of faculty, staff, and participants. In recent years, extension budgets have decreased, limiting both faculty positions and their travel support.
The Internet is the fastest-growing platform for formal education (Allen and Seaman, 2011; Haynie, 2015) and is becoming a preferred method for informal education (Dittman Research and Communications Corp., 2010; Rich et al., 2011). Online distance education programs have the potential to be more time efficient and inexpensive compared with traditional programs due to economies of scale (Sagor et al., 2014; The Economist, 2014), and reach a larger audience regardless of their location. Furthermore, online continuing education programs have proven to be an effective way to reach green-industry professionals (VanDerZanden, 2013a, 2013b).
Online classes can either be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous classes are live webinars delivered in real time and have been implemented successfully for some forestry extension programs (Allred and Smallidge, 2010) and for the green industry (Vergot et al., 2014). Synchronous programs are popular because they offer real-time communication between the audience and the speaker, which provides a more traditional classroom experience, and require little infrastructure, presentation preparation beyond live classroom presentation, or program maintenance. Asynchronous programs, in which the participants log in and take the program at their own pace, are less common than synchronous programs, in part because they are more complex to produce and require more planning and a greater time commitment upfront (Zobrist, 2014). However, asynchronous online programs provide benefits for both extension personnel and course participants. Growers have access to the content from their home or office and can view course materials at their convenience. Like a flipped classroom (Herreid and Schiller, 2013), participants can view more challenging content as many times as needed to master the concept. Asynchronous programs are completed in advance of publishing online and the instructor need not be present when materials are viewed by students. Thus, the instructor schedule is unaffected by program dates as with a traditional program. In addition, online learning management software can automatically compile survey and questionnaire responses and tests taken by program participants. For a comparison of asynchronous and traditional programs, please consult the companion article by Marble et al. (2016).
The University of Tennessee, in collaboration with partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tennessee State University, developed an asynchronous education program for nursery producers entitled “Tennessee Master Nursery Producer Program” (Fulcher et al., 2014) (Fig. 1). This program was created due to grower interest in a comprehensive educational series covering the many aspects of nursery crop production. The TMNP was designed to provide Tennessee nursery producers with the best information possible to enhance their profitability and long-term environmental, economic, and community sustainability. Growers who successfully complete the program are certified as Tennessee Master Nursery Producers, and can receive greater cost-share opportunities through the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program, which provides cost-share funds to qualified growers in the state for approved business enhancement projects and expenses (Tennessee Department of Agriculture, 2015). Growers from other states may also take the course, but do not qualify for cost-share funds.
The TMNP was first designed as a traditional face-to-face extension program. Numerous seminars were presented to live, in-person audiences for 4 h per week for 6 weeks in Fall 2012 with the inaugural class of 45 growers graduating in Jan. 2013. Participants estimated they saved $4272 per graduate in the year after graduation as a result of information gained and practices changed. On the basis of grower feedback and economic impact, this course was successful, but it required a significant time commitment from faculty and staff. In addition, out-of-state experts were relied upon which required substantial financial resources and represented a significant ongoing expense. Participants also had to travel to attend the course each week, and those in locations distant from the course site were fettered by scheduling conflicts and/or the distance and expense of traveling overnight. Therefore, an asynchronous course was developed in 2013 to help mitigate these problems, maximize the economies of scale, increase availability across the state, and standardize content from class to class.
There is minimal information available to institutions concerning the staff requirements and other necessary resources needed for developing online programs for producers. Therefore, the objective of this paper is to use the development of the TMNP as a case study to present the resources needed and the overall process of successfully developing an asynchronous online educational program and to provide insights to other institutions wishing to develop similar programming.
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