Education online

by Stormy Wylie
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A post-graduate diploma and master of science degree in grain storage management, particularly for tropical and sub-tropical climates, can now be earned over the Internet thanks to a program developed by the U.K.-based Natural Resources Institute. The NRI, which is affiliated with the University of Greenwich, recently launched a Computer Mediated Distance Learning (CMDL) program that teaches online the same principles and practices of handling cereal grains, pulses, oilseeds and other commodities as are taught in the classroom-based program that has trained more than 420 students from 63 countries.

Like the classroom program, the NRI's web-based version has six compulsory units or courses in storage and handling, biodeterioration factors, processing and quality, management and economics, information and communication, and a project relevant to the student's professional needs and submitted as a dissertation.

Students who complete these six basic courses receive a post-graduate diploma. To earn a master of science degree, the student also must complete a course in research methodology and a research project.

To be accepted into the program, applicants should be proficient in English, hold a degree or equivalent professional qualification and have experience with post-harvest management systems.

John Brice, director of the Grain Storage Management and Post-Harvest Horticulture Program in the Food Systems Department of NRI, said the CMDL program was necessary to keep up with changing times. "People everywhere are more and more busy and therefore find it increasingly difficult to leave their job for extended periods," he said. "The distance learning training can be fitted in to suit their busy lifestyles."

The CMDL program, he added, "allows participants to study from his or her own country, at a time of day to suit their specific requirements — during the day, if part of their job, or in the evening after work."

Students are provided technical manuals for each course along with a resource pack containing videos, wall charts, insect samples and research papers. In both the classroom and web-based programs, students are trained by a team of over 20 tutors who work in the post-harvest field.

A tutor develops activities for the student, either individually or as part of a group. The student then submits his responses to the tutor, also via the web. "These discussions allow a healthy exchange of ideas and experiences between fellow professionals, often from a wide variety of cultural and geographical backgrounds," Dr. Brice said. "For example, a student from the U.S. may be working on a problem with someone from India or Zimbabwe. Given the potential range of participants, much of the learning is gained from the sharing of each others' professional experiences rather than just from the tutor."

He said the highly flexible format enables tutors to incorporate the latest research developments and up-to-date experiences from the field, and allows the student to focus on their own interests.

"As a tutor myself, I find the CMDL approach to teaching and learning to be fun as well as academically stimulating," Dr. Brice said. "To throw ideas to and fro between myself and a fellow professional halfway around the world and who is in a totally different culture can be fascinating. Activities such as asking him to visit local pest control companies or feed mills and then report back on his findings means that the information being discussed is directly relevant to the participants' home situation."

Dr. Brice said the Internet also is a relatively cheap way for people to obtain training. "Traditionally, most of our students come from overseas and so the total cost of the master of science degree, including flights and subsistence, can approach £15,000 (U.S.$21,500), compared to £5,000 for the same degree by distance learning," he said.

The pilot for the web-based program was completed with just one participant. Ahmad Addo was an agricultural engineer at a commercial maize and rice farm in Ghana before moving to Japan, where he is now a full-time graduate student in post-harvest horticulture at the University of Tsukuba. "But the importance of grain as the major source of food for sub-Saharan African countries is very crucial at a time that the available stocks of grain does not meet the increasing population," Mr. Addo said. "Therefore, I thought it wise to study storage and processing of grains after completing my studies in Japan."

He learned of the NRI's grain storage management program and decided the CMDL program "was a better opportunity in terms of cost savings, and also the possibility of pursuing the course while a student in Japan so that there would be no need to spend another year elsewhere as a residential student."

Self-discipline is important when completing a course over the Internet, he said, and it helps to have a daily, well-planned schedule in order to read the course manuals and submit assignments and exercises on time.

"I read the course manuals two hours a day before going to classes (at the university), but my secret is that I do a lot of reading on weekends," Mr. Addo said.

"Last, but not least, students have to be conscious of ethics regarding the use of the Internet, because human relationship is very important here since a student does not physically meet with his tutors. I always find it interesting working with every tutor as if we already know each other, and it has helped me during the training program."

The NRI's next classroom program on grain storage management will be offered March 12-June 29, 2001, at its facilities in Kent, U.K. Enrollment in the web-based program may be more flexible. "Although we would prefer everybody to start with course one and then progress onwards, there is no reason why some late-comers couldn't start with course two and then do course one later with the next batch of students," Mr. Brice said.

For more information about the NRI's classroom or web-based programs on grain storage management, contact the training officer by e-mail at; by telephone at 44-1634-883-448 or by fax at 44-1634-883-386; or visit the web site at