Key issues in developing and maintaining multi-media training and decision support products for crop protection

Geoff Norton and Merv Cooper

Centre for Pest Information Technology and Transfer,
The University of Queensland
Brisbane 4072, Australia
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Introduction

Recent developments in Information Technology (IT) provide new opportunities for creating and delivering multi-media tools for education, training and decision support in plant pathology and other crop protection disciplines. The development of multi-media author-ware products and greater access to Internet and CD ROM technology are just some of the developments that have created this opportunity. Other papers in this Symposium give some indication of the extent to which this potential is being realised for plant pathology. 

However, despite the successes, there are many situations where the opportunities and potential offered to plant pathologists by IT have not been realised. In some cases, potential IT projects in crop protection do not even start, due to a lack of resources, particularly lack of time, funding, software expertise, good images/video and copyright clearance relating to multi-media content. In other cases, where IT projects do get off the starting blocks, they either do not reach the delivery stage or, if they do, they are not maintained and do not survive for long.

This paper addresses some of the important issues that determine the success or failure of software products for education and training in crop protection. Experience at The University of Queensland Centre for Pest Information Technology and Transfer (CPITT) is used to illustrate some of the ways in which we have attempted to address these issues.

What's the problem?

A few years ago, Norton (1997) suggested several reasons why the dramatic increase in the capability of IT had not resulted in a matching impact on practical pest management. Generally, the problem with software products in crop protection is that they have been predominantly -
  • research driven or a by-product of research, rather than being designed to meet specified user needs

  • constructed by biologists with computing ability rather than by specialist programmers

  • developed de novo, with the “software wheel” often being reinvented

  • produced with short-term funding, and lacking resources for up-grading and help services

  • seen as competing with, rather than complementing, existing research and extension effort 

As a Centre almost entirely devoted to developing software for education, training and decision support in agricultural and related fields, the Centre for Pest Information Technology and Transfer (CPITT) has had to address these issues.  To achieve its educational objectives, CPITT (consisting of contract staff and having the aim of achieving full cost recovery) has developed a strategy that attempts to combine the involvement of high quality professional staff with producing an income stream that will enable us to maintain and upgrade our products.  To maximise this income stream we place major emphasis on meeting user needs, collaboration, generic software, and developing and implementing a business plan.  Let's look in more detail at how we have addressed these critical success factors.

Our Strategy

1. Involving high quality professional staff

The CPITT team consists of two computer scientists, two programmers, two biologists/taxonomists, a business manager, commercial manager and a Director.  This core staff (not all full-time), which provides professional software and business competence to CPITT activities, is complemented by numerous collaborators in Australia and elsewhere who work with us as content providers, beta testers and product evaluators.

2. Meeting user needs

To meet our educational and training objectives and to be successful in selling products and getting return contracts, we need to focus on user needs.  We do this in various ways.  For instance, in designing a CD product - OzPest - for urban pest control operators in Australia - we employed a social science student to survey members of the industry to assess their needs and used recently developed Federal competency standards.  In developing the RiceIPM CD together with several countries in SE Asia and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), we held a three-day workshop at the beginning of the project to help identify needs.

Fig.1 Front screen of OzPest - A CD product for urban pest control operators

Fig.2 Drop down menu showing the key IPM issues that the RiceIPM CD addresses

3. Collaboration

As already indicated, collaboration is an integral part of our strategy, allowing us to effectively extend our team to other disciplines and expertise.  We are currently collaborating with colleagues in the public and private sector, with research scientists and extension scientists, with various departments within the University of Queensland and with various individuals and agencies throughout Australia and the world.  This also includes collaboration with commercial agencies in distributing our products.

4. Generic software

One of the major reasons why educational and training software products often have only a very brief life is that they have been developed as one-off products for restricted use and funding to maintain and upgrade them is difficult to justify.  Wherever possible, our strategy is to develop generic software products that can be used for a variety of purposes and therefore have a much wider "market" that can support future development.  Both Lucid - an interactive identification and diagnostic system - and Diagnosis for Crop Problems  - have a builder module that allows teachers to build keys or scenarios (respectively) that students can access through a player module. 

We have also developed generic software (WebGIST) for in-house use that enables us to develop a customised browser - operating on Internet Explorer or NetScape - for different CPITT products.  OzPest and RiceIPM - mentioned above - have already been developed using this software, as has BugMatch Cotton (Version 3) - recently released - and BugMatch Grapes (Version 2) - about to be released.  Lucid and WebGIST have both been developed with language files as an integral part of their construction, allowing us to easily produce multi-lingual products, such as Grain Store Tutor, which increases our "market" even further a field and provides economy-of-scale benefits to us as well as our clients and collaborators.

Fig.3 BugMatch Cotton 3: A CD product for growers and advisors

5. Developing and implementing a business plan

Another important component of our strategy is the development of a business plan to resource our activities from a range of different sources.  Currently, we receive income from product sales and licence fees, contract work and competitive grants.  Our commercial products (Lucid, Diagnosis and OzPest) and some contract products (e.g. BugMatch series) have already been mentioned.  CPITT has also been successful in obtained funding from competitive granting agencies, particularly the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).  Two recent ACIAR projects are to develop diagnostic keys for rice and sweetpotatoes.  Both keys will be developed using Lucid and will be distributed internationally, involving IRRI and the International Potato Centre (CIP) respectively.

Fig.4 Some of the Lucid keys "published" on CD ROM and the internet

Meeting teaching needs

While CPITT is not directly involved in using software in the classroom, all the products described above have a direct or indirect role to play in conventional or flexible learning activities.  A number of Lucid keys are already being used for taxonomic teaching and, with the development of Lucid diagnostic keys, there will be a further role for Lucid in contributing to the teaching of crop diagnosis, alongside Diagnosis for Crop Problems.  Similarly, crop-based training and decision support CDs, developed primarily for extension officers, farmers and researchers, also provide a valuable resource for classroom or flexible learning. The "spin-off use" of products in this way makes it much more feasible to have high quality products available for teaching activities.

Reference

Norton, G.A. (1997). Multi-media tools for diagnosing and managing pest and disease problems. In Information Technology, Plant Pathology and Biodiversity. Ed. by P. Bridge, P. Jeffries, D.R.Morse and P.R.Scott). CAB International, Wallingford, UK pp 151-158.

End


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