Online learning takes an ag twist
“We’re in the third year of offering an online ag business degree,” says Casper College instructor Marty Finch. “We saw a need to fill with the rural nature of Wyoming, and a lot of those rural people want to get degrees despite being place-bound.”
Finch says the program is open to anyone, but was originally targeted for more non-traditional students. “I have a student from Belgium in some of my online ag classes this fall. Some are in the military, and several are from outside Wyoming. There are also many mothers and wives in rural settings who are continuing their education with online courses,” notes Finch of his student base.
Casper College has also been in contact with Colorado State University (CSU), which is starting an online Bachelor’s of Ag Business degree. But, in order to be eligible students must have an associate’s degree. “This online program fits that requirement, and allows students to continue their education beyond an associate’s degree, should they choose,” adds Finch.
“We don’t offer a completely online ag degree, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen in the future. Casper and CSU are both doing it, and I think it’s only a matter of time before we offer one as well,” comments Northwest Community College Assistant Professor of Agroecology and Range Management Micah Humphreys.
He adds that Northwest offers online ag and equine courses, in addition to a number of “hybrid courses,” where students spend some time in a face-to-face classroom setting, but most of the work is completed online.
“Among our online classes are an equine nutrition course and a computers in ag course,” adds Humphreys.
Justin Wood is a traditional student who originally attended school on campus in Casper and is now completing his degree online.
“Rent and cost of living in Casper was a huge expense. I save a lot of money taking classes online. It gives me a lot more freedom in scheduling my days, too, and would make it much easier to get a part-time job,” explains Wood. “It’s much easier to find work when you don’t have to leave for a couple hours in the middle of the day to attend class.”
Cost per credit hour is the exact same at Casper and Northwest colleges, regardless of whether a class is online or in a classroom.
“One thing I don’t like is that to get my bachelor’s degree online, I have to go through CSU. Laramie doesn’t offer one, and the closest I can get is a Business Administration degree. There is a huge price difference between going online at Laramie versus CSU, and it bugs me that I live in Wyoming, but can’t get that degree here. I don’t know if Casper has any control over that, but it’s something worth considering if you’re planning to continue your education,” comments Wood.
To the best of Finch’s knowledge, Casper was the first community college in the state, and quite possibly the nation, to offer an online ag degree. He says in the first couple years it was a struggle to get everyone on the same page and ensure students understood what was expected, but he says this year everything “just clicked.”
“This year students just know how to get the job done. It used to take three weeks to get everyone lined out and on the same page, but the students this year are doing great. You have to be dedicated and able to utilize the learning styles compatible with online learning” comments Finch.
“With online classes you can learn as much as you want to in a lot of cases. I preferred attending lecture on campus, but I really like having the freedom to dedicate more or less of my time during the week to a class depending on how much I’m understanding,” notes Wood, adding that the quality ag instructors he works with also make online learning a positive choice.
“I haven’t had any teachers outside my ag classes offer a lot of assistance, but within the ag program my professors have tried to get to know the students and helped out and just care. If I have a problem I can email Marty and he will get right back to me within the day. His emails always have his phone number and you can call him with anything. He says you can call, and he actually means it. That’s a big help,” explains Wood.
At Northwest College students are exposed to additional forms of technology in classroom setting ag courses. Integrating the iPod Touch into an agroecology class allows students to access a variety of class-related information via the devices.
“Last year was our pilot year, and we used the iPod Touch in our agroecology course, which is a basic plant and soil sciences course,” explains Humphreys. “We used it as a study tool, lecture aid and to do quizzes and tests through our college website. We can also use it for remote lectures, which is great for students who are on the livestock judging team or involved in other school activities,” says Humphreys.
The program is popular with students, according to polls from last year. “The device is useful in so many ways – it has the world-wide web on it and a variety of education specific applications, several of which we used in the class. Students really saw it as learning a long-term skill they can continue to utilize throughout their college experience,” comments Humphreys.
In the Casper online program there are two ag professors backed by the entire Casper College Ag Department, which Finch feels is a positive thing.
“Todd Jones lives in Hyattville and he teaches some courses in the spring semester. It’s fun to have him involved because he is a specialist with a master’s in ag economics who has his own business. The students benefit from his business world experience and unique teaching style,” comments Finch.
Each professor can set up their class as they see fit, to an extent, much like in classroom-based courses. Finch uses a lot of forums and discussions in his classes, whereas Jones incorporates a lot of videos in some. Humphreys’ class structure is also very influence by access to the web, and he utilizes plant videos, pictures and notes in a variety of ways through the iPod Touch.
“There’s a huge difference in how teachers set up their classes, which can take some time to figure out,” notes Wood.
“I’m really considering continuing it. I will likely switch my major to Business Administration – I would much rather have a piece of paper on my wall that says UW and not CSU. I am also a Hathaway Scholarship recipient, and I don’t want to just not use those funds. I really enjoy the ag classes, and being able to spend more or less time on class work as I need too. I really love the freedom it gives me,” explains Wood.
“You have to be very self-motivated and directed to get this accomplished online. But it sure meets a lot of needs,” adds Finch.
“The skills students gain from learning how to properly utilize technology are a huge help to them down the road. Those skills are useful in so many ways in today’s world,” comments Humphreys.