When I took on the position as the Statewide Coordinator of the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program, plans for an online version of the Master Gardener training course were already in the works. Although I had taught in a traditional classroom setting for 12 years (8 years as a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of Maryland and 4 years as an Assistant Professor of Biology at Fordham University), I had no experience with an online course – as either a teacher or a student. Thus, I cautiously approached the idea of online education.
In an online class, how would I know if my students were learning? Unlike scientific research, where it can take several years (or more) for you to gauge whether or not your ideas and experiments worked as expected, students let you know – each and every day you teach – whether or not you are doing a good or a bad job as an instructor. I love this instantaneous feedback. If I could not read and react to the expression on my students’ faces, as I present a new concept or teach a new lesson, how could I tailor the class to meet their needs? Could teaching and learning in an online course be as dynamic as interactions in a traditional classroom? I did not know the answer to these questions as I began to develop an online version of the Oregon Master Gardener training course, but I was sure that I would find out in short measure.
Across the nation, Extension Master Gardener training usually involves several weeks of coursework, followed by a volunteer internship or volunteer practicum. Usually, the coursework is offered during the week (e.g. in Oregon, only 2 of 28 counties offered Master Gardener training on a weekend or in the evening, in 2009). Offering classes on a weekday has been a successful model for recruiting and training a highly qualified corps of Master Gardener volunteers – as evidenced by the over 94,000 Master Gardeners in the United States, who together donated over 5 million hours of volunteer service in 2009!
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine that the timing of Extension Master Gardener trainings precludes many potential participants from enrolling. Folks may be interested in becoming a Master Gardener, but are not able to take the time away from work or family to attend on-site trainings. Instead, they may wait until their children are older and/or their work schedules are more flexible to become a Master Gardener. As a result, the pool of eligible Master Gardener volunteers narrows. In Oregon, for example, over 75% of volunteers were 56 years of age or older in 2007 (Miller and Langellotto, unpublished data). Online Master Gardener trainings are one way to broaden the availability of this popular Extension program to a wider array of constituents.
In Oregon, I helped to relaunch the online Master Gardener training course in 2008 (a previous course had been taught, on a limited scale, a few years earlier). The course consists of 12 lessons, including: botany; soils, fertilizers and compost; entomology; plant pathology; sustainable landscaping; herbaceous ornamental plants; container gardens; pesticides, IPM; woody landscape plants; history and mission of the Master Gardener Program in Oregon. The course contains narrated Power Point lectures, optional homework assignments and quizzes, pdf versions of their textbook readings, and supporting materials and web links. Assignments, in particular, are structured to give students hands-on experience with particular topics. For example, students are invited to test their soil texture, identify and investigate a ‘mystery plant’ in their backyard, and to assess their landscape’s sustainability score (Figure 1). The course also provides opportunities for interaction via a moderated discussion board and optional online chats.
|Figure 1. Example of an assignment (only part of which is displayed) for the Oregon online Master Gardener course. Students must take a Landscape Sustainability checkup, and report on their cumulative and categorical scores. Students are then asked to consider how they might improve their scores, in categories where they did not score so high.|
Two options are available for the online course. Those who are interested in the information provided by the Master Gardener training course can take the class, without completing a volunteer internship or practicum, to earn a Certificate of Home Horticulture. Those who are interested in earning a Master Gardener badge must take the class AND successfully complete a volunteer internship or practicum. This volunteer work is completed at a county Extension office, and under the supervision of their local Extension agent. Thus, it is impossible to simply take the online course to become a Master Gardener, as the volunteer practicum is an essential component of the training that Master Gardeners receive. Individuals must take the course, pass the final exam, AND complete their volunteer internship. In Oregon, the volunteer internship consists of 40-70 hours of answering gardening questions that come into the ‘Plant Clinic’ desk or hotline, educating or assisting others in a demonstration or community garden, or on another OSU Extension-approved volunteer activity.
Thus far, the course has largely been successful. Over 256 students have enrolled in the course since September of 2008. Geographically, these students came from 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties, 16 additional states (AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MA, MD, MO, NJ, NY, OH, PA, TX, VA, UT, WA), one US territory (Puerto Rico) and 7 countries (Canada, Democratic Republic of Georgia, Denmark, Mexico, Myanmar, South Korea, Trinidad)! Of these 256 students, 131 have earned Certificates of Home Horticulture and 65 have gone on to complete their volunteer internship to earn their Master Gardener badge. The completion rate of 77% (190 of 256 students enrolled successfully completed the course) is on par with what we see in Oregon, for on-site trainings (72% in 2008, but includes both the coursework AND successful completion of a volunteer internship/practicum).
Many students share positive remarks about the course. Veteran Master Gardeners, who have been assigned to mentor an online student, have remarked that they especially enjoyed how the discussion board allowed for extended and in-depth conversation on a topic – something that isn’t always possible when instructors come to present a topic at an on-site training. And, although I didn’t expect that I would enjoy teaching an online course, I have to admit that it is fun interacting with such a diverse group of students, and that I find comfort in being able to take my time to answer a question.
Oregon is not the first or the only state to offer an online or distance version of a course for Extension Master Gardener certification or recertification. Check out the courses offered by these states (or, if I inadvertently omitted your state’s online training course, please feel free to add to the list, in the comments section!).
Of course, the classroom component of Master Gardener training is only one part of the equation. As we increase the availability of Master Gardener training to those who can not attend classes during the week, so too must we increase volunteer opportunities for those who can not volunteer in an Extension office during the week. In Oregon – weekend, evening and distance volunteer options are available in select counties. These options include: staffing plant clinic booths at weekend farmer’s markets and other events, weekend volunteerism in demonstration and community gardens, fielding and answering gardening questions that have been submitted online (under the supervision of a trained mentor and/or Extension agent), and working with faculty and staff on projects that can be completed from home.
My foray into online education has been scary, eye-opening, fun and challenging – often, all at the same time! However, given the ubiquity of the internet and general interest in the Extension Master Gardener Program, it is likely that online trainings will only increase in popularity. Delivering online courses with the same high standards that we demand in on-site classes, and coupling course content with hands-on experiences (via assignments AND the volunteer internship/practicum) will help to ensure that online delivery of Master Gardener trainings continues to foster well-trained and enthusiastic Master Gardeners who are poised to make positive contributions in their communities.