Distance Education Plant Pathology Courses at the University of Georgia

Elizabeth L. Little

Department of Plant Pathology, University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602

U. S. A.


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Agriculturists, such as consultants, managers, and extension agents, often find that they need advanced degrees to keep pace with the rapid changes in their area of specialization. However, they generally cannot attend regular campus classes. The Master of Plant Protection and Pest Management (MPPPM), a non-thesis degree program at the University of Georgia (UGA), is a logical choice for many who are seeking comprehensive, multi-disciplinary training in crop production and crop protection. Therefore, the MPPPM program was targeted for conversion to a distance education format.
Two Plant Pathology courses were the first to be converted to a distance education format: 1) Introductory Plant Pathology; and 2) Diagnosis and Management of Plant Diseases. Diagnosis and Management is one of the core curricula courses for the MPPPM degree. Introductory Plant Pathology is a prerequisite for the Diagnosis and Management course. In addition, both courses would be attractive to students in the private sector and in other colleges in the Southeast who desire to learn the basic principles and applications of plant pathology. Introductory Plant Pathology was converted to a distance education format and taught in the Spring of 2000. Diagnosis and Management followed in the Fall of 2000. Students consisted mainly of county extension agents and research personnel at the experiment stations.


The distance education version of these courses was the same in credit and content as the courses taught on campus. The WebCT program, a limited-access instructional resource application, was the primary method to deliver the content for both courses. WebCT features include:

1. Path editor for delivering course material in modules
2. Bulletin board for discussions
3. Private mail for student/instructor communication
4. Glossary with links to the path editor
5. Image gallery
6. On-line quiz
7. Chat
8. Area for posting grades
An interactive video network (GSAMS), with connections to each county in the state, was used in the Introductory Plant Pathology course to supplement the course material and to provide face-to-face interaction with the students.

Hands-on laboratory sessions were an essential part of both courses. Up to five mandatory half-day lab sessions were conducted during the semester. In addition, some exercises were performed independently by the students and kits were provided to students for pathogen isolations and transfers. The distance diagnostics system, administered by the Cooperative Extension Service allowed students to send images of symptoms and signs to the instructor for consultation or to the bulletin board for sharing with the other students.

Proctored exams were either administered during lab periods or at another arranged time.


The following observations were made based on course evaluations and student comments:

1. Students were able to master the technology needed to participate in the on-line course material, although students who had limited computer skills had more difficulties initially. The greatest obstacle to the on-line delivery of information was the low capacity of the connections for transmission of information. Most students were still using analog modems to connect to the internet. Large or numerous images, as well as multiple links, do not work well under these circumstances. 

2. Students varied in the ease with which they adapted to the distance education style of learning. Distance education involves more independent learning and students must have enough self-discipline to find the time in their schedules for the course. In general, older students adapted more easily and actually preferred the flexibility. Many of the students had been exposed to agronomic problems as part of their jobs and these students were especially enthusiastic about learning the practical aspects of plant pathology and were eager to share their field experiences in bulletin board discussions. A few students never adapted well to distance education and were more comfortable with traditional classroom lectures. Active learning through mandatory discussion sessions, on-line quizzes, and a problem-solving approach was important in keeping the students engaged and learning. While these techniques are useful in all learning situations, for on-line learning they are essential. 

3. The hands-on laboratory sessions were the greatest challenge in teaching distance plant pathology courses. For the Introductory Plant Pathology course, students found that there was too much material condensed into each lab session. The Diagnosis and Management of Plant Diseases course was particularly challenging due to the extensive hands-on time students need to learn the plant disease diagnosing techniques. University extension personnel were particularly helpful in working with the students individually.

Future Directions

This first year of teaching distance education classes was as much of a learning experience for the instructor as for the students. The goal now is to incorporate the following changes in future offerings of these courses:

1. The course content as well as images of diseases and pathogen structures would be more accessible and useful to the students if incorporated into a CD that the students could use anytime without connecting to the internet.

2. Mandatory weekly discussion sessions, question sets incorporating a problem-solving approach, and quizzes would still be presented over the WebCT but would become a more frequent and dominant part of the course.

3. Independent laboratory modules for the Introductory Plant Pathology course would be developed although group lab sessions would not be entirely omitted. Satellite labs could be established with the cooperation of other institutions around the state as locations where students could use the equipment needed to perform the laboratory modules.

4. An extended and intensive field trip at the beginning of the semester would be incorporated into the Diagnosis and Management course. Students would spend several days traveling through the state collecting disease specimens, observing cropping systems, and learning the techniques for diagnosis. The students would then have the skills necessary to compile their independent disease collections as part of the course requirements.


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