Distance Delivery of Graduate Education in Agricultural Economics For Middle- and Low-Income Countries

In a recently completed study supported by Farm Foundation, the National Association of Agricultural Economics Administrators (NAAEA) evaluated the demand for distance graduate education in agricultural economics. Distance delivery courses would enable U.S. institutions to deliver significant parts of graduate programs through institutions in developing countries, reducing time students from developing countries must spend in North America or Europe. The study also outlined a framework and evaluated the feasibility of delivering course work or degrees.

The study concluded that there was substantial interest worldwide within medium and low-income countries in receiving graduate courses and graduate degrees in agricultural economics by distance. Demand was assessed by both personal contacts with departments in medium and low income countries (mainly in Africa) and a formal sample survey of similar countries worldwide. Some of the observations from the study were:

  • There is considerable interest in the program.
  • There is interest both in taking degrees and in the possibility of taking individual courses.
  • There is demand both for core economics and quantitative courses and for applied courses.
  • Indications have been mixed regarding support for degrees given by U.S. or Canadian rather than by local universities. At least in Africa, the majority of the universities surveyed wanted to make use of distance learning courses to supplement their own programs, rather than to confer degrees.
  • Personal contacts in Africa indicated that departments would like their faculty to have a substantial role in course design and delivery.
  • If the program was delivered only over the Internet, some countries would not be able to take full advantage of it at the present time. Among respondents, 55 percent favored the Internet as a delivery vehicle and 39 percent favored CD-ROMs.
  • Unless demand is very high, users of the program would not be able to afford fees that cover costs. The majority of respondents indicated that $250 per three-credit course was the maximum they could pay.

The study examined current distance education programs and concluded that the program being investigated would be unique. Other programs fall into two main categories: programs where users or their employers have a high ability to pay such as MBA programs online and master’s degrees in agribusiness, and programs aimed primarily at broadening the number of students within the delivering institution’s area such as distance education programs which most land grant universities currently offer. The NAAEA program proposes that universities cater to the needs of students who are outside of the traditional catchment areas and who cannot afford to pay full costs.

Desirable features of the programs and their feasibility were identified. The programs should be:

  • Analytically rigorous. The challenge will be to persuade members of the profession to contribute since work on related programs has not been well rewarded in tenure and promotion evaluations.
  • Adaptable to varying local national contexts. The program will have to be open to strong local participation where it is wanted and elsewhere find other ways to ensure local relevance.
  • Adaptable to varying requirements of local universities and students. The program could begin by first offering individual courses in high demand and gradually develop the full range of courses needed for a degree.
  • Course material provided in a variety of media. Course designers should use whatever variety of media which is appropriate given the nature of the material they wish to convey, the communication infrastructure available, and the cost of alternatives.
  • Cost low enough to make the program viable with financing from fees and realistic donor subsidies.
  • An institutional framework that will allow a group of universities to offer the course.

Peter Wyeth, Distance Delivery of Graduate Education in Agricultural Economics for Middle and Low Income Countries. Final Report to the Farm Foundation. Pullman, WA: Washington State University, April 30, 2002. 

Farm Foundation supported this project as part of its role of agricultural institutions priority area. This study is envisioned as a starting point for developing distance delivery programs and has the potential to change the way graduate training is delivered. Making better graduate training available in low and middle income countries will benefit these countries and the world.

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