AgScape E-learning tool supports agri-food education
Several years ago, June Matthews, an associate professor in the School of Food & Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College in London, Ont., started to realize that something was missing from their otherwise comprehensive curricula: evidence-based information about agriculture.
“Most students are several generations removed from farm life; however, they have a genuine interest in learning how their food is grown/produced,” said Matthews.
She began advocating for the addition of a course on agriculture as part of Brescia’s Foods and Nutrition program. While attending a conference at the University of Guelph in 2018, she learned about a comprehensive online training tool offered by AgScape and realized that it would allow her students to enhance their knowledge and understanding of agriculture and food.
In January 2019, the Agriculture and Food Systems: Critical Conversations course started at the University with 33 students enrolled to learn about agriculture and food topics, such as local food, food security, agriculture in Canada, and animal health & welfare.
Developed by AgScape, the Business of Food (BOF) e-learning modules form the foundation of the 12-week course. BOF offers learning modules on 12 agri-food topics. An “essentials” and “comprehensive” level is offered for each topic, along with one module on careers in the agri-food sector.
In addition to the learning modules, BOF provides students with 24/7 access from any location, allowing them to live-track their progress and immediately measure learning impact through pre- and post-surveys and quizzes.
Students further explore the agri-food topics through: in-class presentations; discussions with topic experts via video conferencing; interviews with individual farmers; and experiential learning field trips to local farms.
“This course provides a safe space for in-depth, objective discussions on food production. I appreciate the balanced, objective approach that the Business of Food uses to explain agriculture. It is also a fun way to learn, and the interactive nature of an online program appeals to this generation of students,” said Matthews.
BOF is currently used by AgScape to train new, under-employed, and retired Ontario Certified Teachers to become AgScape Teacher Ambassadors. A cornerstone of AgScape’s agricultural education, the Teacher Ambassador Program, deploys teachers into Grades seven to 12 classrooms across Ontario to deliver free agriculture and food lessons.
“AgScape envisioned BOF to be a broad-based training tool to accommodate the education sector and to be made available to faculties of education for new teacher certification,” said Mercedes Unwin, program manager.
In addition to the BOF online training, Matthews explained that in-class discussion was also vital to the course.
To support this initiative, Matthews reached out to Farm and Food Care Ontario (FFCO) to review the course outline and to provide information about potential guest speakers and farmer interviewees, which ultimately included a grain farmer, a pickling cucumber grower, and a chicken farmer.
“We connected Matthews with producers, who have demonstrated an interest in building public trust in food and farming either through their own activities or as part of FFCO initiatives,” said Madeline Rodrigue, communications co-ordinator at Farm & Food Care Ontario. “There are conversations happening about food and farming in post-secondary classrooms all over Ontario with little consultation with farmers or agriculture professionals. When Dr. Matthews reached out and expressed how important she felt it was to include us in the conversation and “get it right” – we were happy to participate,” she added.
Rodrigue says that the agriculture course is particularly relevant for Brescia’s Food & Nutritional Sciences program. Registered Dietitians are often asked a wide range of questions about aspects of farming and not all are equipped with the education, research, or life experience to answer accurately.
A survey completed by the first class reported that 88 per cent agreed that using the BOF e-learning tool changed their perceptions about agriculture and food. One survey respondent commented, “It has opened my mind to different types of farming and how/why farmers make decisions. There is no right or wrong and each farm is unique. I feel like the things I have learned will help me objectively present facts to clients, and give them the knowledge to make decisions.”
The opportunity to direct students to credible sources of information, to challenge their misconceptions, and to provide them with new perspectives about agriculture and food is precisely what Matthews was hoping to achieve through her innovative and relevant new course at Brescia.
“I want them to know that as future health care professionals, they must accurately present information on all sides of an issue. Whether they are obtaining informed consent for an intervention in clinical practice or describing various methods of food production to the public, they must respectfully provide objective, unbiased information so that their patients and the public can make medical and food decisions based on facts,” said Matthews.
“I am really thankful that the course is now part of the curricula for our Foods and Nutrition programs and that it is providing a balanced perspective on the food system. I am also thankful for the people who have so graciously offered to be part of it. These people are experts in their fields. I am just facilitating this wonderful teaching and learning opportunity.”