The Journal of Extension -

June 2017 // Volume 55 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW4

The Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science: A Nine-State Online Collaboration to Improve the Turfgrass Short Course

Increasing costs and decreasing numbers of university Extension faculty have made it difficult to provide quality turfgrass short course education. In response, faculty from nine institutions collaborated to develop the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science. This 12-week online course provides students with unique learning experiences through a combination of assigned readings, quizzes, lectures, and live instructor discussion. Student attendance increased and costs decreased relative to traditional in-person short courses. Additionally, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. These results demonstrate that online courses such as this can provide an effective and flexible source of knowledge that meets the busy schedules of students and instructors.

Paul L. Koch
Assistant Professor
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Madison, Wisconsin

Douglas J. Soldat
Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Madison, Wisconsin

Brian P. Horgan
University of Minnesota
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Samuel J. Bauer
Assistant Extension Professor
University of Minnesota
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Aaron J. Patton
Associate Professor
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana


For nearly 100 years, turfgrass short courses have offered highly applicable educational and advancement opportunities for turfgrass managers outside formal college or university settings. Lawrence Dickinson offered the first turfgrass short course in 1925 at the Massachusetts State Agricultural School, and similar 8- to 12-week courses were initiated in subsequent years at Penn State and Rutgers University (Beard, Beard, & Beard, 2014). Many university programs across the country currently offer a turfgrass short course, but in recent years many institutions across multiple states have merged to provide joint short courses. Illinois and Indiana were the first states to merge, in 1994, and numerous other states initiated collaborations in following years (Patton, Trenholm, & Waltz, 2013). Declining enrollment and fewer turfgrass science faculty have been the primary drivers behind the merging of short courses, and the mergers allow the larger numbers of participating short course faculty to offer more specialized instruction tailored to their particular strengths.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities merged their short courses in 2003 and alternated the host site between the two states. The course averaged 25 to 30 students each year until 2014, when unusually low enrollment coupled with increasing course costs drove discussion about developing a new course format. Those discussions eventually included turfgrass faculty from surrounding states, and the result was a nine-state online collaboration called the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science that debuted in 2014.

Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science

The 12-week online course occurs once per week for 2 hr. Each week a topic is taught by an expert in a particular area (Table 1). This lead instructor presents a live lecture to the class via Google Hangouts, which is embedded in a Moodle class management website. Two or three additional instructors participate in the lecture, asking questions and initiating discussion (Figure 1). Typically, following the main presentation, the course administrator and other instructors engage in a 15- to 20-min roundtable discussion on the topic(s) covered. These discussions are not scripted and tend to hit on the latest trends or controversial subjects that were not presented in the main lecture. Over 90% of the students surveyed indicated that these discussions were helpful to their understanding of the associated topics (Table 2).

Table 1.
Participating Institutions and Faculty and Topic Areas for the 2014 Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science

Institution Faculty member Title Area of expertise
University of Minnesota Sam Bauer Assistant Extension professor Course administration and general turfgrass familiarity
University of Minnesota Brian Horgan Professor Selection and establishment
University of Wisconsin Doug Soldat Associate professor Soil science
University of Wisconsin Chris Williamson Professor Entomology
University of Wisconsin Paul Koch Assistant professor Plant pathology
Texas A&M University Dave Chalmers Professor emeritus Mowing and cultural practices
Michigan State University Kevin Frank Associate professor Nutrition and fertility programming
Ohio State University David Gardner Associate professor Turf species identification
Chicago District Golf Association Ed Nangle Director of turf programs Specialty product usage
Purdue University Aaron Patton Associate professor Weed science
University of Nebraska Zac Reicher Professor Mathematics and calibration
Cornell University Frank Rossi Associate professor Abiotic stresses

Figure 1.
Screenshot of Google Hangouts Feed from
Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science Showing Main Lecture in
Primary Window and Assisting Presenters in Smaller Windows

Table 2.
Responses to Survey Administered at Conclusions of 2014 and 2015 Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science Courses (n = 66)

Item Strongly disagree
Somewhat disagree
Neither agree nor disagree
Somewhat agree
Strongly agree
I would not have been able to take a turf management course without the flexibility provided by the online format. 0 0 1.5 3.0 6.0 21.2 68.2
I believe I learned as much from the online format as I would have in person. 1.5 1.5 3.0 6.0 22.7 36.4 28.8
Online discussion amongst instructors increased my understanding of the topics. 0 0 0 6.0 10.6 42.4 40.9
The course was a good value. 0 0 0 0 3.0 19.7 77.3
I would recommend this course to others. 0 0 0 0 1.5 21.2 77.3

The online platform provides a unique way for Extension professionals leading the class to engage the students (Gharis, Bardon, Evans, Hubbard, & Taylor, 2014). Students can sign on and watch the Hangout live and ask questions through a live chat with the course administrator, or they can watch the recorded version at their convenience and ask questions of the instructors via Moodle forums. Students are assigned relevant readings prior to each live session and take a quiz developed by that week's instructor(s). To receive a certificate of completion, a student must satisfactorily complete 10 of the 12 quizzes. To date, approximately 50% of the students complete the course in 12 weeks, 35% take longer than 12 weeks, and 15% do not complete the required number of quizzes.

The benefits of using this format for both the students and the instructors have been numerous. First, the nine-state footprint increased overall student enrollment threefold relative to the best years of the Wisconsin–Minnesota short course and allowed students from varied geographic areas and segments of the turfgrass industry to participate (Table 3). Second, the flexibility of the online class was critical for both students and instructors. Nearly 90% of students surveyed in 2014 and 2015 agreed that they would not have been able to take a turfgrass science class without the flexibility the online course offered (see Table 2), and each instructor only needed to prepare for one lecture and assist in two others. Third, the class was effective in transferring knowledge to the students and, likely, in changing their behaviors (Table 4). Students reported their knowledge of pertinent topics before and after taking the class by using a 4-point scale (1 = poor knowledge, 4 = excellent knowledge; data not shown). Self-assessed student knowledge on a variety of topics covered in the class increased from an average of 1.9 prior to the start of the class to 3.1 at the conclusion of the class (data not shown). Fourth, enrollment costs were lower for students relative to the in-person course because there were no facility rental, food, and printing expenses to be covered. Moreover, students did not need to budget for hotel or travel costs and were not away from work or family for an extended period of time.

Table 3.
Student Enrollment in the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science in 2014 and 2015

Number of students
State 2014 2015
Arizona 0 1
Colorado 0 1
Connecticut 1 0
Florida 2 0
Idaho 4 0
Illinois 2 5
Indiana 0 5
Kentucky 0 1
Massachusetts 2 0
Michigan 5 14
Minnesota 12 16
Missouri 1 2
Nebraska 1 3
New York 9 5
South Dakota 3 0
Virginia 0 1
Washington 2 0
Wisconsin 20 14
Internationala 12 9
Total 76 77
aStudents from Canada, China, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Sweden were enrolled.
Table 4.
Respondents' Willingness to Adopt Various Practices Discussed During Class According to Survey Administered Immediately Following Course Completion in 2014 (n = 29) and Again Six Months Later (n = 17)

Area of focus Definitely will not Probably will not Undecided Probably will Definitely will Already adopted
End (%) 6 mo. (%) End (%) 6 mo. (%) End (%) 6 mo. (%) End (%) 6 mo. (%) End (%) 6 mo. (%) End (%) 6 mo. (%)
Methods/practices for greater economic efficiency 0 0 0 0 3.5 0 6.9 11.7 82.8 70.6 6.9 17.6
New or improved practices for ecologically sensitive management 0 0 0 6.0 0 0 27.6 17.6 62.0 58.8 10.3 17.6
New or improved practices that will enhance clientele/supervisor's acceptance and/or appreciation 0 0 0 0 0 0 10.3 11.7 79.3 52.9 10.3 35.3
New practices learned or improvement of existing practices 0 0 0 0 0 0 10.3 11.7 82.8 23.5 6.9 64.7

There were also drawbacks associated with the transition to a completely online course. Foremost was the resistance to online learning by some students in the course. As nontraditional students, many had never taken part in an online educational seminar and may not have known what to expect. There was also a technology gap for both faculty and students that led to technical difficulties, though it should be noted that the incidence of these was much lower in 2015 than in 2014. Despite these minor problems, the class to date has been considered an unqualified success by nearly all the instructors and students who have participated.

The Future of Turfgrass Short Course Education

The use of short courses will remain a staple of turfgrass management for years to come, and their importance in educating the industry may even increase in the future. Enrollment in traditional 4-year university turf programs has declined at most institutions for a variety of reasons (Richman, 2014), and workers entering the turfgrass industry will likely require continuing education from nontraditional sources (Patton & Reicher, 2011). Short courses, and, in particular, interactive and online short courses such as the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science, may be particularly attractive to these potential students. Though lack of support and accreditation from universities may hamper online short course growth, benefits such as flexibility and the opportunity for interaction between students and experts make online courses such as the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science increasingly valuable tools in educating the turfgrass industry workforce.


We wish to express our gratitude to the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendents Association, Minnesota Turf and Grounds Foundation, Midwest Association of Golf Course Superintendents, Midwest Regional Turf Foundation, Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, and Turf Republic for partnering with us and promoting participation in the Great Lakes School of Turfgrass Science. We also wish to thank the course co-instructors for their hard work, which has made the course a success.


Beard, J. B., Beard, H. J., & Beard, J. C. (2014). Turfgrass history and literature. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Gharis, L. W., Bardon, R. E., Evans, J. L., Hubbard, W. G., & Taylor, E. (2014). Expanding the reach of Extension through social media. Journal of Extension, 52(3), Article 3FEA3. Available at:

Patton, A. J., & Reicher, Z. J. (2011). Basic training: A 1-day education module for new clientele in the turf industry. Journal of Extension, 49(5), Article 5TOT6. Available at:

Patton, A. J., Trenholm, L. E., & Waltz, F. C. (2013). Turfgrass extension and outreach programming. In J. C. Stier, B. P. Horgan, & S. A. Bonos (Eds.), Turfgrass: Biology, use, and management (pp. 147–177). Madison, WI: ASA, CSSA, SSSA.

Richman, H. (2014). Defending their turf. Golf Course Management, 82(11), 42–44, 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 56.