Australian Agribusiness Review - Vol. 3 - No. 2 - 1995
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Agribusiness education: where is the learning?
Education, learning, knowledge and process are topics of regular and substantial debates. As a continuation of some of these themes, the eighth annual conference of the Agribusiness Association of Australia and New Zealand met in Orange, in the Central West of New South Wales, from the 17-20 September 1995. The conference included an Agribusiness Education Workshop and an agribusiness education hypothetical, which raised a number of questions about learning. Both the Workshop and the hypothetical became devices for highlighting the need for deeper understanding, rather than defending the status quo. In other words, some enlightenment about agribusiness education is considered necessary and possible.
It is the purpose of this paper to review both the Workshop and the hypothetical in order to seek some understanding of the pathways for agribusiness education and, in particular, learning. The presentations in the workshop are appraised in relation to the learner and the processes of learning. This is followed by some judgements on agribusiness education arising out of the education hypothetical. Both of these raise a number of points, which are summarised under the issues to be resolved to establish a basis for further evaluation at a later stage.
The participants and the titles of their papers presented at the Agribusiness Education Workshop are listed in Exhibit 1. The presentations can be analysed by assuming a learning system exists that interrelates the facilitator and the learner, whilst accepting all participants as learners. As a consequence, it is possible to group the papers in terms of:
Workshop participants Johnson, Coffey and Jones and Archer all focused on learning and, in particular, from a process point of view. Johnson, for example, described the basis of contract learning 2, and cited situation improvements in regard to this. She claimed that learners through this method can achieve a number of skills. These include: a diagnosis of learning needs, a realistic identification of learning goals, a determination of the resources needed to achieve the learning, a monitor of progress, an evaluation and reflection of outcomes, and an empowerment in addition to learning itself.
It was not clear why this works although it can be assumed to be quite powerful as a learning philosophy because learners achieve their learning through self-directed processes within a facilitated environment. However, this is not necessarily unique. MacAulay in his summing up suggested that all teachers were operating within an informal contract situation through assignments and projects being completed by learners. Furthermore, whilst it is a powerful learning situation, it is not clear where learning contracts as a process sit in regard to a comparative evaluation with other learning situations. Nonetheless, its power lies in the acquisition of learning skills and inquiry processes that can be generally applied.
This is a theme that is taken up by Coffey and Jones, and also Archer. For example, Coffey and Jones focused on learning how to learn using the KoIb learning cycle which is implicit in a number of other papers. More specifically they state that learning has to do with the creation of knowledge. In terms of adult learning, this reflects the belief that learning is best associated with action and experience, and also the development of inquiry skills that are generic. It also implies the redundancy of some knowledge. They take this further by differentiating between being, knowing, and doing, where the totality of learning is deficient if all three are not present. More specifically, the distinction is between experimental learning (for being), propositional knowledge (for knowing) and practical learning (for doing). Accompanying these is the capacity for workplace learning to include self-reflection, which means a complementary relationship with the learning organisation.
However, what is the relationship to belief systems and how are these inculcated? Is it possible to have a variety of frames of reference within a single learning experience? What is the societal role of education in the workplace?
In essence, what Coffey and Jones are saying is that learning is about assisting individuals how to learn, whilst embracing the learning skills of knowing, doing, and being. It implies that partnerships may be necessary to create the right learning environment. Partnerships between the workplace and tertiary education are taken up by Archer, but more in relation to training. Like Coffey and Jones, this is in the context of integrated learning environments. Archer also suggests that the dynamics of learning systems for meeting industry needs, means that tertiary education will never arrive. This is reinforced by the view that the training needs of agribusiness are not being met by agribusiness education because of the lack of flexibility in educational provision, and the trend towards cross-subsidisation as a survival syndrome.
Archer also questions competency based approaches to training which are strong on content but less so on the process of learning 3, because the latter is vital to a life-long capacity to learn. Competency based fundamentalism will not meet the real needs of industry, because the tick-the-box approach does not enhance the learning flow. There is also the interesting proposition of a university of business as a partnership model with public and private interest groups that would also embrace action learning and direct industry experience.
The presentations from McKerchar, Frater and Bunch represented mature age perspectives to learning, especially in the acknowledgment of self of self being challenged and extended, and the vitality of this. These views reflect learning as never being easy with thresholds needing to be overcome, whilst learning itself is understood as a facilitated process.
McKerchar in evaluating her MBA experience highlighted that graduates should have skills and that this could be enhanced through partnerships with stakeholders. In line with this, Bunch raised the matter of computer-managed learning and its influence and whether there will be any improvements in the delivery of management education. Frater also asked what the role of technology is in regard to learning and its interface with management. Frater (p6), however posed the following:
All three presenters raise the question about learning as either a system of knowledge acquisition or some process where the learner learns how to adapt and adjust to complex demands that never go away. If it is the latter, the question arises as to what paradigms of management and learning are appropriate.
Fayed presented a most intellectually stimulating paper, especially in taking the interpretation of action learning and its effectiveness further in regard to paradigm shifts and notions of competition and advantage. He argues that the progress from individual learning, through team to organisation with performance enhancement, is the key outcome but this is complementary to skill and knowledge outcomes. He differentiates between incremental and transformational competition. Incremental competition is described as follows:
Transformational competition is described as follows:
The pathways through incremental competition to transformational competition to achieve a desired future means a paradigm shift, with the earlier phase involving extrapolation from within an existing paradigm, whilst the latter involves a more profound shift. What Fayed is also advocating is a philosophical depth to action learning. If transformational change in agribusiness education is needed, it will require a paradigm shift and an acknowledgment of action learning as the driving force and the power for it to occur. Like other presentations, learning is depicted as a process, but Fayed also presents action learning as a flow concept and practice, which means some avoidance of over-proceduralising the learning process.
In addressing the learner and learning, Weatherford described the partnership between the learner and industry in terms of its operational aspects, whilst Mahony accepted the concept and practice of life-long learning and sought to challenge the assumptions of traditional educational modes. Complementary to this, and based upon another means for learning, was Batten's description of the recognition of prior learning and its implementation.
Professional practice. as presented by Weatherford, adds considerably to learning and its meaning for learners, although it is not clear why. He concludes that learners have better experiences in large organisations, which seems to relate to ~ greater capacity to adjust. Formal approaches to professional practice means that not only can it be built into programs, it can also take place ex-ante or ex-post, although this may raise questions about the what, how and why of the educational process.
Whilst there is also the concept of the management trainee, it also includes the employer, employee and the tertiary education body in a tripartite process that embraces the totality of the learning environment as well as the self. While it is resource intensive, this should be balanced against the view that professional practice in its learning context may be more profound than is realised. And that this form of action learning, provided it is properly facilitated, can capture the essence of learning for the individual.
Mahony also addresses the issue of action learning, which she suggests is easy to say but requires a new type of partnership for enhanced learning, although who pays does become an issue. However, Mahony is also focusing upon the what, how, where and why of integrated learning that also embraces flexibility, access and partnership. Traditional provisions are said to be inflexible, and there should be more attention to the needs and expectations of the employee-learner. Given this, the agribusiness community faces considerable challenges in the new generation of educational provision and learning needs. Mahony also puts the view that distance education has many of the characteristics desired by the educational, and related interest groups. However, for agribusiness education this may mean acknowledging there is not one mode of education, that the delivery options have increased, and that there should be a more cohesive analysis of choice and the scope for partnerships. Again this implies that workplace learning may be the key. Associated with this is some sort of analytical framework for the evaluation of the effectiveness of learning.
A particular approach to educational flexibility is available through the recognition of prior learning (RPL), which Batten described in the context of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) in New South Wales. RPL acknowledges that learning occurs in a variety of ways and situations, and that this can be recognised. In its concepts, RPL is seen as a highly desirable approach because it relates to improved flexibility and access. However, Batten highlighted the difficulties that have to be overcome, especially with some learner interest groups, and also in implementing a competency based approach. In strategic terms it can be applied to any level of education and to any interest group. It is especially relevant to agribusiness because of the relative lack of access to formal programs. However, wholesale implementation could be very costly and demanding because of the sensitivity of client groups. This means TAFE's work should continue to be observed and monitored.
A New Zealand perspective to agribusiness education was provided by Zwart and Parker et al. Zwart, for example, described the downward trend in numbers of agricultural graduates which has been more than compensated for by the growth in general commerce and social science graduates. Parker, on the other hand, cited the importance of the influencing scenarios that are likely to exist in 2015-2020. These refer to vertical integration, demand for fresh food, interdependence between political, social and economic perspectives within society, and the declining real returns for traditional agricultural products. Accepting these forces means agribusiness education must be able to respond to them, to changes in government funding, as well as to adjustments in social, environmental and economic conditions. Parker contends that this means programs must feature a broad-based education, flexibility of choice for learners, problem solving and systems and a culture of life-long learning and step-Iaddering.
However Zwart examined the educational provision in greater depth, especially in relation to the paradox between the separateness of agricultural eduction and that for business as a whole, even when the latter requires some sort of disciplinary specialisation. What is the inter-linking between the teaching of specific management skills and the need to have knowledge of a particular industry? Are the generic skills of business problem-solving more important? Related to this is the importance employers place on personal characteristics and general capabilities such as communication, problem -solving, and group work. If educational offerings are knowledge-based, these capabilities will not be addressed, although process-driven learning would do so. As Zwart indicates, it may be overdue for tertiary education providers to look more closely at their curricula. Therefore, if an action learning paradigm is to be introduced, then what would be the nature of partnerships? There would be a need to balance knowledge and process whilst acknowledging that learning has a broader role than just providing people for jobs in agriculture.
The President of AAANZ, John Gunthorpe, in closing the 8th annual conference on 20 September 1995, referred to education as a key aspect for agribusiness development, especially when it includes practical experience. He, as did the Prime Minister, Paul Keating and Reg Clairs (Group Managing Director, Woolworths Limited) at the same conference and on the same day, referred to Australia becoming a dominant global supplier of food. If this is the vision and the pathway, where does agribusiness education fit in, and how will it play a role in facilitating this vision? Unfortunately the education hypothetical on Monday 18 September, 1995 did not help very much. Ironically it was left to the leaders of three successful firms - Roger Fletcher (Managing Director, Fletcher International Exports), John Diddams (Chief Executive, Australian Topmaking Services) and Peter Simpson (General Manager Commercial, Manildra Group) to highlight the experiential side to education and the importance of in-house training with educational partnerships that include experience.
A major disappointment of the education hypothetical, (which was meant to focus on the theme "How Does Our Agricultural Education Rate? Is it Keeping Up With the Needs of Agribusiness?") was the universal failure to comprehend the nature of learning. It was never mentioned, and there was defensiveness of the status quo. Furthermore, there was a lack of understanding of education and its relationships, which question communication processes and how these relationships may be perceived by the various interest groups.
What also seems clear from both the education workshop and the education hypothetical is the lack of understanding of agribusiness by educators with the reverse also applying. That is, there exists a whole range of issues on which there is reciprocal misunderstanding. What are the processes that link the two? Also ironic in this context is that education by definition and practice is a part of agribusiness, but this has not created any enhanced mutual understanding. If agribusiness education programs are going to be defined with an industry frame of reference that delineates a focus, some fundamental relationship and process with the industry being served would be expected.
It would appear there is considerable scope for some sort of forum on these matters, perhaps facilitated by the AAANZ, which would allow some focus on learning on the processes thereof and on the necessary inter-dependent relationships that would generate partnerships. This would allow some attention on how this inter-dependency would occur. There is also a need for some detailed analysis of the situation, given that much of the information is anecdotal.
A number of issues can be identified from the various presentations at the Agribusiness Education Workshop and from the discussions at the education hypothetical. Some of these are listed below on the basis that some attempt to resolve them will occur at some time in the future.
1. How effective is agribusiness education in terms of learning and
what are its limitations? Is the market system an appropriate frame of reference for
determining and meeting educational needs?
Within the discussion a number of common issues have
appeared, but these require further debate and analysis. Further forums would therefore be
useful. These issues are as follows
2 "In essence, a learning contract is a formal written agreement between the learner and facilitator about what will be learned (based on a diagnosis of learning needs). how the learning will take place, what will be produced as evidence of learning, and how the learning will be assessed. Dates for beginning and completing the contract are also specified. Following agreement on the learning contract proposal, learners work on their contracts for a specified period and then report on their learning. (Barbara Johnson 'Learning Contracts and Learning Groups as Key Strategies in Managing Development Through Distance Education', p 1).
3 - By process we mean that people learn through an educational activity from both the trainer and their peers. Their participation in the program, and the discussions, are just as important as the content. Through this, attitudes can change, mindsets can he challenged and training needs he met. This is how communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills are developed.' (Cameron Archer Industry and In House Training Needs. Are They Being Met?' p 4).