COLUMNISTS

The evolution of virtual learning for farmers and agribusiness professionals

Heidi Johnson
The University of Wisconsin Division of Extension has traditionally relied heavily on in-person meetings and conferences to share the latest research on agricultural production topics. However, the pandemic certainly threw a curve ball to this information-delivery model.

This year has certainly challenged Wisconsin farmers, from market interruptions to disruptions in day-to-day operations due to the pandemic. In Extension, our mission is providing farmers with the information they need to run their businesses, so we are especially attuned to how the pandemic has changed the way farmers receive information. 

We have traditionally relied heavily on in-person meetings and conferences to share the latest Extension research on agricultural production topics. The pandemic certainly threw a curve ball to this information-delivery model.

We were fortunate in Extension to have already been dabbling with virtual learning platforms, so we felt, at least slightly, prepared to continue to try to reach farmers through these means. But that didn’t mean we didn’t face lots of challenges and a steep learning curve. I will share some observations of challenges and opportunities we’ve learned along the way.

Access

Internet accessibility and stability of access is a major issue across our state.  Although, we’ve noted that it doesn’t initially appear that participation in our Extension events (and other virtual learning events) has waned, it has made us consider whether the audience engaged in these offerings has changed from our traditional audiences. Are we now leaving out audiences without internet access but have gained new audiences that didn’t want to travel to events or prefer to sign on to things virtually? We haven’t had enough time to explore this question but will certainly be something to consider.

Technology challenges

Internet access isn’t the only technology issue to consider when engaging in virtual learning. There is also the issue of interacting and using technology platforms. It can be frustrating for participants when they can’t figure out how to sign up, sign on or interact in a virtual learning event and providing real-time technology support can be challenging for virtual event hosts. It appears that the technology companies have been equally busy during the pandemic improving user interfaces, but we still have a way to go before everyone feels comfortable using the various platforms.

Too many options!

One of the interesting challenges that we’ve noted as we move into the heavy conference and meeting season for agriculture is that, in a virtual learning environment, the options are nearly endless and many times overlapping. For those of us engaged in the education sector, we have noted that presenters and topics are often repeated from event to event. This made sense when events were separated by geography and registration fees but becomes messy when they are offered virtually and often free. More coordination and collaboration would help to solve some of these challenges, given time to make those connections.

Upside potential

Being divorced from the constraints of the time and money involved in traveling, opens a world of possibilities for farmers and other agricultural professionals looking to learn. Currently it is just as easy to participate in events in New York state as it is to participate in Wisconsin. This really widens the options and opportunities for learning and hearing from producers and experts in other regions.

Lack of connectivity

While virtual learning offers many opportunities, we know that it will never fully replace human interaction. Some of the best conversations that I’ve had with farmers, where new ideas and concepts were exchanged, were in the hallway after a meeting or ‘rolling the cob’ with a smaller group after a field day. The biggest thing that is missed in a virtual learning environment is the happenstantial conversations that make us feel connected. We in Extension also use these casual conversations to help us understand the evolving needs and ideas generated by our clientele to inform university research. 

While we will never completely give up in-person events, this pandemic has taught many of us that a hybridized approach between in-person and virtual events may help us experience the best that both has to offer. We have learned a lot and feel sure that, in some ways, this will change the way we do our work forever.

Heidi Johnson

Johnson is the Agriculture Institute Director at UW-Madison, Division of Extension

UW Extension