In an operating mode of shrinking resources and expanding clientele, the Cooperative Extension System is continually asked to do more with fewer funds (Lyons et al., 2008), and the Master Gardener training program directly experiences these budget cuts (Young, 2007). In accommodating financial limitations, it is important to identify cost-saving measures that do not compromise the mission of the Master Gardener program to develop horticultural experts for the community. One strategy employed by several states to respond to budget reductions is the use of distance education to reduce the number of face-to-face trainings across the state (McGinnis, 2015; Stack, 1997; Warmund and Schrock, 1999). Upon the introduction of new innovations such as VWC , it is crucial for training standards to be maintained given both their value to trainees (Schrock et al., 2000a, 2000b) and importance for preparing volunteers to provide agricultural education in their communities (Doerfert, 2011).
Although there is not a universal definition, we operationalize distance education as, “institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors” (Simonson et al., 2009). This definition highlights three key features of distance education, which must be explicitly addressed in the instructional design and delivery: 1) learners are physically separate from one another and/or the instructor, 2) some type of digital technology is mediating communication, and 3) the learner is interacting with other learners, the content (resources), and the instructor (Moore, 1989). Learner interactions are a critical component of distance education positively associated with student learning outcomes (Bernard et al., 2009). Decreased interaction can lead to learner or instructor misunderstandings (Moore, 1993) and negatively influence students’ perceptions of their own learning gains (Chen and Willits, 1998), one measure of perceived course quality. Thus, course designers should consider the impact of digital technology choices on interaction.
One way to consider how a specific digital technology might impact a learning experience is to evaluate it in terms of its media naturalness. Media naturalness theory suggests face-to-face interaction is biologically conditioned in humans, and digital communication media should provide for the same elements of communication that are available in face-to-face-communication (Kock, 2005). These include colocation (sharing the same space), synchronicity (quick exchange of communication), access to speech, access to facial expressions, and access to body language. If these elements are limited, such as an inability to clearly hear speech, the technology-mediated communication between the learner and the instructor or other learners moves away from face-to-face interaction, potentially introducing ambiguity and the need for greater cognitive effort (Kock and Garza, 2011). Distance education includes synchronous instruction, occurring for all learners at the same time, or asynchronous instruction, occurring at different, learner-chosen times (Hrastinski, 2008; Offir et al., 2008; Skylar, 2009). Although both can be effective (Skylar, 2009), VWC is typically used for synchronous instruction, and, when functioning properly, provides relatively high media naturalness. Learners and instructors have access to speech, facial expressions, and body language in real time through the combined video and audio channels. However, design specifications of each platform and the system infrastructure (e.g., wireless Internet access) can impact these.
Previous investigations of distance education strategies for Master Gardener training identified equivalent learning outcomes when compared with an in-person comparison group (Jeannette and Meyer, 2002; Stack, 1997; VanDerZanden et al., 2002; Warmund and Schrock, 1999), in alignment with the well-established, no-significant-difference phenomenon in online learning (Russell, 2010). This work began in the 1990s with researchers studying the use of interactive televisions (ITV) to increase Master Gardener training reach (Stack, 1997), finding that distance learners receiving ITV instruction performed as well as local learners on weekly quizzes. More recent investigations align with the development of new technologies such as VWC (McGinnis, 2015) and online modules (Jeannette and Meyer, 2002; Meyer et al., 2012; VanDerZanden et al., 2002). Jeannette and Meyer (2002) found similarly significant increases in horticultural knowledge for both classroom instruction and self-guided modules. On self-reported measures of perceived learning, Meyer et al. (2012) found participants were more comfortable with the module topics, but this was not in comparison with a face-to-face group. Although there is typically greater learner interactivity in online modules as compared with VWC (Moore et al., 2011), Master Gardener trainees did not perceive the interactive features of modules as useful and instead identified flexibility as the primary advantage of modules (VanDerZanden et al., 2002).
Although there has been no significant difference between measured learning outcomes from remote and face-to-face Master Gardener training, researchers have identified concerns with volunteer retention (Stack, 1997), and technical limitations (McGinnis, 2015; Warmund and Schrock, 1999) associated with distance learning. If Master Gardeners do not complete volunteer commitments following training, their reduced retention may negate the cost savings of remote training due to the need for more frequent trainings. Rohs et al. (2002) suggested prioritizing the trainees’ perceived benefits of the program to increase volunteer retention as one strategy for cost savings. Master Gardener programs across the country see a variety of volunteer commitment levels. For example, the Oregon Master Gardener program reported 5-year retention rates across 20 counties ranging from 31% to 79%, with a mean of 50% (Langellotto, 2013). Researchers have hypothesized reduced retention may be a product of dissatisfaction with the education volunteers received (Strong and Harder, 2011). Education has been identified as one of the leading motivational factors for volunteering and the greatest benefit of the program (Boyer et al., 2002; Rohs et al., 2002; Schrock et al., 2000a, 2000b). The opportunity for informative and engaging horticultural education draws in and provides personal enhancement for volunteers. Thus, it is critical to maintain standards of training quality to not only ensure Master Gardeners are prepared to engage with community clientele (e.g., Meyer and Jarvis, 2003) but also to deliver an educational experience that provides value in exchange for volunteers’ commitment to the program.
Delaware Cooperative Extension is committed to maintaining the high 5-year Delaware Master Gardener retention rate of 84% for 2011–16 (R.A. Pelly, unpublished data). Close examination of a new training innovation on both volunteer learning outcomes and training perceptions is required to accomplish this goal.
In this study, we explored two research questions: “What differences, if any, exist between Master Gardener trainees’ learning when they receive instruction via face-to-face vs. VWC remote delivery,” and “How do Master Gardener trainees perceive the overall training when VWC was used for remote delivery?” Learning is operationalized as the trainees’ ability to use content from the session to answer application questions similar to those they encounter as a Master Gardener. Based on previous findings of equal learning in remote and face-to-face instruction (Nguyen, 2015; Storck and Sproull, 1994), we hypothesized there would be no significant difference between learning outcomes for participants in the remote vs. face-to-face sessions. The only variation between the remote and face-to-face conditions was delivery format; the session content and instructional strategies remained constant. We hypothesized that Master Gardeners’ perceptions of the overall training would align with the technical functionality of the system, based on learners’ ability or inability to access the elements of face-to-face communication (Kock, 2005). The findings from this project will inform the scale-up of remote delivery with VWC as an instructional mode for training a wide variety of extension volunteers.
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