February 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // 1IAW1

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Developing a National Web-Based Learning Center for Natural Resource Education

Abstract
The National Web-Based Learning Center for Private Forest and Range Landowners is being built to be a "virtual natural resource education center" to provide interactive online instruction for the target audience of all private forest and range landowners and managers. Content for the Center is being developed by land-grant universities across the nation. Content modules will contain timely information on a particular topic relating to natural resource management and utilize interactive Web features to enhance the learning experience of the user. The Center will provide increased access to accurate information on natural resource management to forest and range landowners.


Samuel W. Jackson
samjackson@utk.edu

George M. Hopper
ghopper@utk.edu

Wayne K. Clatterbuck
wclatter@utk.edu

University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee


Introduction

Over the last 20 years, the development of new technologies for information retrieval and transfer has greatly outpaced what anyone expected. In the early 1990's, few people knew what the Internet was, and even fewer had access to it.

Times have changed, and in the United States today, an estimated 186 million people have access to the Internet in their homes and to its wide range of resources (Nielsen NetRatings, 2004). This low-cost way of providing information to an increasingly larger audience is a valuable tool for both Extension clientele and educators, especially those interested in natural resource education.

Background

Extension education has traditionally focused on face-to-face, county-based programming, where typical natural resource Extension clientele have been rural residents who live on the land they own. Today, however, the increasing number of landowners who are not traditionally associated with Extension, specifically absentee landowners, makes it difficult to reach landowners through workshops and meetings. In light of this fact, many states have begun searching for educational alternatives. The current dominance of the Internet, convenient and cost-effective, has made it another logical delivery method for Extension programming.

Although the Internet provides us with another tool in Extension education, in no way does it replace the roles a county agent or state specialist play in interacting with clientele. The Internet is simply another tool through which Extension can interact with its clientele. Web-based learning will not replace traditional Extension, but will provide increased access to knowledge and information to a much more broad audience in a cost-effective manner.

The first steps of the transition to online Extension education and programming have been made by using the Internet to provide continuing education and training to Extension agents. Many state Extension programs have planned, provided, and/or participated in online continuing education since the mid-1990s (Muske, Goetting, & Vukonich, 2001; Lippert, Plank, Camberato, & Chastain, 1998; Lippert & Plank, 1999; Lippert, Plank, & Radhakrishna, 2000).

Web-based educational material for general Extension clientele has developed more slowly. Today, with increased public access to computers and the Internet, Web-based learning has begun to develop at a more rapid pace, and several successful online programs have been developed for Extension clientele (Swann & Einstein, 2000; Jenkins, 2002).

In natural resource Extension, a national program that oversees the development of online information is needed to utilize the best content from a variety of sources to make complete and accurate information available to the user. In the US, there is no such online program.

The Development of a National Center

With funding from the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), the National Web-Based Learning Center for Private Forest and Range Landowners has been established to provide a nationally organized Web destination for Internet users interested in forest and rangeland management issues.

The Center, housed and coordinated by the University of Tennessee, Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries Extension, will allow users to participate in an interactive educational process. Regionally based information will be available for landowners and clientele across the country to access through online tutorials, educational modules, articles, and references covering a host of natural resource topics and issues.

The primary objective of the Center is to create an interactive learning environment through the development of regional Web-based learning modules to present natural resource management information to nonfederal forest and range landowners. These modules will be designed to educate users on topics related to forest, range, wildlife, and fisheries management and will contain features such as digital video, interactive graphics, text, references, and assessment tools. All of the modules are designed to allow users to learn and proceed through the information at their own pace.

Another objective of the Center is to use interactive technology and resources to increase the teaching capacity of Extension educators. Within a secure portion of the site, Extension educators will be able to download prepared computer-based presentations and handout materials that have been developed in conjunction with the online learning modules. These resources will make the modules and topics usable in traditional clientele workshops and other programming needs at a local level. There will be a discussion forum, email list-serve, and file sharing features to allow educators from around the country to share information and discuss issues and problems that arise.

To guide the development of the Center, a National Advisory Board has been assembled (Table 1). The Advisory Board will oversee and guide the design, content, and organization of the Web site. Additionally, an independent evaluator will be used evaluate the Center in design, content, functionality, and impact

Table 1.
Advisory Board Membership

Position

Organization

Principal Investigator

Univ. of Tennessee

North-Central Region Representative

Univ. of Minnesota

Southern Region Representative

Univ. of Tennessee

Northeastern Region Representative

Univ. of New Hampshire

Western Region Representative

Colorado State Univ.

1890 Land Grant Program Representative

Tennessee State Univ.

Educational Design Evaluation

Univ. of Wisconsin

Information Technology

USDA Forest Service

Natural Resources and Environmental Mgmt.

Southern Region Extension

Evaluator

Mississippi State Univ.

E-Extension and Standards

Univ. of Tennessee

Network Technology

Univ. of Tennessee

Extension Director

Univ. of Tennessee

CSREES Liaison

USDA

CSREES Liaison

USDA

Coordinator

Univ. of Tennessee

Development of modules and Extension educator material is conducted by subcontracting with both 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions. Thus far, two rounds of content development have been held, and 16 different content modules are in development. The Center is working with approximately 67 individuals from 18 institutions around the country in this effort. Over $210,000 has been allocated to these groups for development of the interactive content modules. Table 2 illustrates the breadth of coverage these modules entail.

Table 2.
Current Module Titles

Content Module Title

State of Origin

Northeast and North Central Forest Owner Planning Module

New York - Wisconsin

The How When and Why of Forest Farming

New York

The Story of the Forest: Forest Connections˘A Family Economic Issue

Kentucky

After Wildfire

Montana

The Basics of Forestland Ownership

9 Western States

Developing a Wildlife Enterprise -- Is It For You?

Arkansas

Making Estate Planning More Accessible for Forest Landowners

Indiana-Pennsylvania

Riparian Area and Grazing Management

Montana

Using Livestock Behavior to Improve Landscapes

Utah

Water Quality and BMPs

Kentucky - Georgia

Livestock and Wildlife Interactions

Montana

Windbreak Renovation

North Dakota

The Basics of Vegetation Monitoring for Rangelands

Arizona

Woody Plant Identification

Virginia

Visual Guide to harvests

Virginia

Sources of Assistance

Tennessee

When these and other modules, as well as the design of the Center's Web site, have been completed, they will be made available for public access. The National Web-Based Learning Center for Private Forest and Range Landowners will be available to the public at http://www.forestandrange.org/ by mid-summer 2004.

Conclusion

The National Web-Based Learning Center for Private Forest and Range Landowners will be a valuable online learning tool for Extension clientele and Extension educators. The Center will provide increased Internet user access to well-organized and accurate natural resource information online, delivered in a cost-effective and convenient manner.

This increased knowledge and management will bring both economic benefits to landowners as well as biological benefits to the resources.

References

Jenkins, D. H. (2002). Forestry at the fringe: Virginia's Woodland Options Web-based course for landowners. Forest Landowner. 61(5):50-53.

Lippert, R. M., Plank, C. O., Camberato, J., & Chastain, J. (1998). Regional Extension in-service training via the Internet. Journal of Extension [Online], 36(1). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1998february/a3.html

Lippert, R. M. & Plank, C. O. (1999). Responses to first time use of Internet in-service training by Agricultural Extension Agents. J. Nat. Resour. Life Sci. Edu. 28: 53-56.

Lippert, R. M., Plank, C. O., & Radhakrishna, R. (2000). Beyond perception: a pretest and posttest evaluation of a regional Internet Extension in-service training. Journal of Extension [Online], 38(2). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2000april/a2.html

Muske, G., Goetting, M., & Vukonich, M. (2001). The World Wide Web: a training tool for family resource management educators. Journal of Extension [Online], 39(4). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2001august/a3.html

Nielsen. (2004). NetRatings [Online]. Available URL: http://netratings.com/news.jsp?section=dat_to&country=us [Accessed 20 January 2004].

Swann, D.L. & Einstein, M. (2000). User analysis and future directions of the Web-based Aquaculture Network Information Center. Journal of Extension [Online], 38(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2000october/iw2.html