South Carolina Master Gardener Training Online — Wildly Successful

Can you fight shrinking state budgets, increased demand for services (particularly for knowledge of food production) and a need to reach different audiences by putting the Master Gardener course online? That was the question a small team of South Carolina County Extension Agent Master Gardener Coordinators and the State Coordinator, Karen Hall, wanted to answer in 2010.

South Carolina had Master Gardener programming throughout the state. Would an online course make agents obsolete? Could students get the same quality programming that in-person participants received?

“In online learning, design is critical and should be based on andragogy (not pedagogy), have high authenticity, interactivity and promote higher order thinking,” Hall said. “Adult learners like safe environments where they can participate if they choose and have options for learning styles. We wanted to reduce the fear of quizzes, find options for digging deeper in the information and have ways to be social. eXtension offered us just such an environment through http://campus.extension.org.”

Through Moodle software on eXtension, the Clemson University team added videos, questionnaires, downloadable slide sets and additional resources to accompany the traditional reading and quizzes.

Recruited through statewide newspaper advertising, 120 people enrolled in the first online course in fall 2011. The waiting list was enough to fill another class and was used for an additional class in the spring. Millie Davenport, a member of the development team, liked the activities and quizzes so much that she incorporated them in her face-to-face class. She felt the students enrolled in front of her were not as well trained without access to the online items. Her effort is snowballing around the state so that several in-person classes now are offered as hybrids.

State Coordinator Hall gave this assessment: “In particular, I am most proud of the activities that the students do. The activities are designed to get people into their own gardens, making use of what they have just learned. Participants are asked to choose a single activity per module (large topic, such as botany or soils), but many do all of them! The activities could be as simple as performing a soil test, identifying insects in the yard or creating a map of native species in the yard. Then they post photos in Moodle and have conversations with their classmates about their experiences. This is the real heart of the course and we find that participants love it!”

Since that first offering, the South Carolina team has trained 400 people which is an astounding number for the state in that time frame. The team — Millie Davenport (Oconee, Pickens, Anderson Counties), Cory Tanner (Greenville County), Amy Dabbs (Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester Counties) and Karen Hall, State Coordinator — received a state award for their work.

For information about using Moodle on eXtension, contact Larry Lippke at llippke@eXtension.org For additional information about the South Carolina team and its online course, contact James Blake at jblake@clemson.edu.