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Distance learning for farmers

The impending opening of classes in August amid the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned wide public discussions about distance learning—the type of education without teachers and students being physically present in the classroom. In the past, this was described as correspondence courses in which students would communicate with their teachers by mail.

With the prohibition of face-to-face interaction between teachers and learners in the classroom, distance learning is being mainstreamed as the major mode of sharing knowledge in schools under the pandemic. Through the internet, distance learning uses a wide array of learning platforms accessed through connected devices like mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and personal computers.

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While the formal educational system harnesses distance learning to teach learners at home, it is also used by the nonformal extension-education system to share modern agriculture technologies with a huge number of farmers, especially those in far-flung areas. In this regard, the Department of Agriculture (DA) will soon launch a radio-based distance learning program for farmers.

At the core of this initiative will be unified School-on-the-Air (SOA) programs to be simultaneously aired nationwide three times a week through a network of rural broadcasters with state universities and colleges (SUCs), and local radio networks as major partners. The SOAs will target to enroll about 300,000 farmers in its first season of operation this year.

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In the Information Age, radio is still the most pervasive medium of mass communication in the grassroots. In the Philippines, there are about 700 radio stations, reaching more than 97 percent of rural households. Radio has advantages over the other mass media like television and newspapers since it is handy, portable, and cheap.

Being handy, it is a popular companion medium, accessible anywhere at any time. Radio is therefore a practical and creative solution to the massive information and educational needs of smallholder farmers, many of whom are unreached by government capacity-building programs.

With the internet, radio has gone online through social media platforms and converged with TV, enabling it to have a national and global reach. Hence, harnessing radio to complement and supplement the limited reach of the country’s agricultural extension workers is a strategic initiative.

Just like in schools, farmers are also enrolled in the SOAs, either as individuals or groups. Those not enrolled are also recognized due to the spillover effects of the broadcast medium. Prior to enrollment, an intensive listenership and promotion campaign is conducted to attract as many participants to the SOA program as possible.

Before lessons are aired, a pre-test is done to determine the level of knowledge of farmers about the subject matter, while their knowledge gain is measured through a post-test given after all lessons are aired.

Before the one-hour SOA program, a five-minute preparation and warm-up session is done by the broadcasters. During this session, farmer-learners are invited to tune in to the program and call on others to join. Feedback and requests from participants are then aired, which may include birthday greetings or information on specific agriculture-related issues.

The program proper normally follows an “edutainment” approach combining instructional, magazine, and public affairs segments. The instructional segment is a series of popularized lessons about agriculture technologies that are aired in the local dialect by broadcasters.

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To maintain the interest of learners, each lesson is delivered as entertainingly as possible, interspersed with spots and plugs on modern agriculture technologies. Lessons are clustered into bigger learning units called modules. A different module is aired each week, with one lesson discussed every broadcast session. Quizzes and feedback questions are given after every lesson.

The magazine segment is reinforced by news, ready-to-air scripts, and canned interviews with agriculture experts, as well as interaction with listeners through text. Hence, “what” and “how-to” information are presented in attractive and entertaining formats like drama, interviews with popular personalities, or music recordings combined with voice. A mass graduation of farmer-learners is done at the end of the SOA season.

The massive use of improved technologies is the engine of agriculture modernization in the Philippines. The spread of these technologies is mainly done through the agriculture extension system. However, the Local Government Code fragmented the delivery of extension services to the grassroots. While the law is novel, as it devolved frontline extension services from the DA to local government units (LGUs), the corresponding authority and budget were not included.

Hence, the regional offices of the DA have no administrative control over provincial LGUs. Likewise, the provinces have no administrative control over municipal and city LGUs. Working with miniscule budgets, many municipal LGUs did not appoint qualified individuals to agricultural extension posts due to political considerations. Worse, extension workers were assigned tasks unrelated to agriculture.

The weak linkages between the DA (the main provider of agricultural technology and support services) and LGUs (the provider of frontline extension services) is one of the primary challenges to agriculture modernization in the country. To firm up its linkages with LGUs, the DA has recently initiated the establishment of province-led agriculture and fisheries extension systems where provincial LGUs spearhead the development and implementation of agriculture extension programs in partnership with the DA, SUCs, and the private sector. This system will reform the top-down agriculture extension system and bring modern technologies closer to farmers.

Radio-based distance education will amplify and firm up these linkages, helping usher the much sought-after modernization of Philippine agriculture that will bring about prosperity to smallholder farmers and the country as a whole.

Dr. Rex L. Navarro is a member of the DA’s Technical Working Group on Province-led Agriculture and Fisheries Extension Systems and the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines. He is former director of strategic marketing and communication, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Hyderabad, India.

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TAGS: coronavirus philippines, covid-19 philippines, distance learning, education, farmers
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