Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 2 - December, 2018

Editor: Lee Stivers

Floriculture College of Knowledge Online Course Series: Demographics and Impact

Lindberg, H. M., Greenhouse Extension Educator, Michigan State University Extension
Cloyd, R. A. , Professor of Entomology, Kansas State University, Department of Entomology
Runkle, E.S., Professor, Michigan State University, Department of Horticulture

ABSTRACT

The Floriculture College of Knowledge Online Course Series provides basic training to commercial greenhouse growers in Michigan, the US, and internationally in an easy-to-access and cost-effective manner. The online course series was developed based on face-to-face College of Knowledge courses that were offered from 1999 to 2011. Three non-credit online courses were offered twice yearly (summer and winter) starting in 2015. Each course offered between 2.5 and 4 hours of pre-recorded video, handouts, quizzes, and additional sources of information at a cost of $129. Participants evaluated their progress using self-assessment quizzes after completing each unit and completed pre- and post-course tests. Participants that obtained ≥80% on the final exam could download and print a personalized certificate of merit. Presently, 208, 222, 74, and 10 individuals have enrolled in the four courses: Greenhouse and Horticultural Lighting, Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers, Root Zone Management, or Spanish Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers, respectively. These 514 participants have represented at least 152 million square feet of greenhouse production worldwide. After each 3-month course session, participants took an online evaluation to assess the short-term impacts and their intention to change their current production practices. The pre- and post-course tests reveal significant improvements in knowledge and understanding of the concepts and applications; pre-course test scores averaged 68-73% while post-course test scores averaged 92-94%. Participants then received a survey 6- to 12-months after the course to determine long-term impacts including how they have implemented changes to their production practices. 


 

Introduction

The reported wholesale value of floriculture crops was worth over $4.4 billion in the US for the 15 states surveyed (USDA, 2015). Michigan ranks third in floriculture crop sales with a wholesale value of $409 million in 2015. That year, Michigan led the US in the production of annual bedding/garden plants ($209 million wholesale) and was one of largest producers of propagative floriculture materials ($83 million). Michigan also ranked second in the production of herbaceous perennials ($62 million) (USDA, 2015). In addition, local and regional production of specialty crops, such as tomato and leafy greens, in controlled environments continues to increase.

As the fourth largest agricultural sector in Michigan, there is a continual demand for personnel with knowledge on how to grow floriculture crops and other specialty crops grown in controlled environments. To help meet this need, an initial Floriculture College of Knowledge certificate program was developed by faculty, extension educators, and graduate students at Michigan State University (East Lansing). The program was delivered in Michigan and Ohio as a series of face-to-face (in-person) programs from 1999 to 2008 (Runkle et al., 2009). During the program, approximately 500 people from 30 US states and three other countries participated, and over 60 completed all 12 courses to become certified College of Knowledge Growers. In 2002, the Floriculture Team members received two awards from Michigan State University: the John Hannah Award for Program Excellence and the Excellence of Diversity Award (Runkle et al., 2009). However, the demand for the in-person program declined in 2005, at least partly because of saturating demand in the Midwest and participation costs associated with in-person delivery of the program. 

With improved technology and proven success of online, self-paced courses, an on-demand (self-paced) version of the Floriculture College of Knowledge was determind to be the appropriate next phase of the program. Other extension programming, such as Master Gardener training, have been successful in delivering an online format, and have been just as effective as in-person trainings (Jeannette and Meyer, 2002; Rost and VanDerZanden, 2002; VanDerZanden and Hilgert, 2002). In addition, the on-demand online course format broadens audience participation to those that cannot attend programs during typical work hours or are located in underserved or remote geographical areas (Langelloto-Rhodaback, 2010; VanDerZanden et al., 2002). 

Currently, more greenhouse owners are hiring employees with minimal to no greenhouse experience because of insufficient availability of trained agricultural labor. Greenhouse owners and managers have requested a convenient training program with beginner- to intermediate-level information to provide education for employees with minimal or no formal training. The goal of the Online College of Knowledge program is to provide on-demand, self-paced training resources for growers, regardless of time or geographical constraints, in a cost-effective manner. The educational objectives of the online courses were to 1) increase the knowledge of greenhouse growers and aligned professionals on the use of modern greenhouse and crop management procedures, 2) provide educational materials and resources on important topics for greenhouse growers at a basic (no greenhouse training) or intermediate (some greenhouse training) level. The long-term impact objectives of the on-line courses were to assist greenhouse growers in 1) decreasing production expenses and increasing crop production efficiency, and 2) increasing crop quality and better managing risks associated with greenhouse crop production. The courses provide fundamental educational information so that greenhouse growers can better achieve success in producing greenhouse-grown crops, and are used as a spring board for long-lasting success. 

 

Methods

The Online College of Knowledge courses were developed based on the previous Floriculture College of Knowledge program developed for face-to-face sessions (Runkle et al., 2009). The previous Floriculture College of Knowledge consisted of 12 four-hour modules. Previously-developed PowerPoint presentations were used as the basis for two of the online courses currently offered, Greenhouse and Horticultural Lighting (GHL) and Root Zone Management (RZM). However, both courses required substantial editing and updating due to technological innovations and changes within the greenhouse industry during the last twenty years. The Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (BCGG) course was developed by extension educators and faculty at Michigan State University and Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS) similar to the other online courses. The Spanish Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (SP BCGG) was translated from the initial English version by extension agents at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL). Each of the units within the courses contains voice-over PowerPoint recordings using Camtasia Software (TechSmith). All units contained closed caption subtitles for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. 

Prior to taking the online course, participants took a 32-question pre-exam. While watching the course videos, 8-question self-assessment quizzes were developed so that participants could monitor their increase in knowledge as they progressed through the units. After completing the online course, which involved watching 6 or 7 units of material and completing the self-assessment quizzes, participants took a 32-question final exam. If participants obtained ≥80% on the final exam, then they could download and print a personalized certificate of merit. Upon completing the course, the participants completed a short course evaluation to report how they plan to use the information and other short-term impacts. To measure long-term impacts of the courses, online surveys were distributed 8 to 12 months following completion of the course using either an online survey or Qualtrics software to quantify how participants used the information learned in their production practices.  

Prior to fall 2017, the courses were hosted on the national Extension website (eXtension) using the Moodle Platform, which is a free and open-source learning management system (LMS) that is used to create websites for online courses. Registration was coordinated by Michigan State University Extension’s Events Management System. Starting in the fall of 2017, all online courses were handled and processed by Michigan State University’s in-house course management system, Desire-2-Learn (D2L), and registrations were coordinated using Michigan State University’s CashNet system. During registration, participants provided personal information (address and e-mail address), professional affiliation, business size (if applicable), and could provide optional demographic information. 

The cost of participating in each course was $129. Three self-identified need-based scholarships for each course have been available to those that applied. Participants could apply for the scholarships by answering two questions associated with their financial need and how they would use the information from the course. After closure of the course enrollment period, applications were reviewed and successful candidates were issued a refund that reduced the cost of the course to $39.99. 

GHL, RZM, BCGG, and SP BCGG are non-credit, asynchronous courses offered twice yearly. Participants have three months to complete each online course. For the summer session, participants have between June and August to complete each online course. For the winter session, participants have between December and February to complete each course. During the three-month periods, the instructor monitors the progress of the participants and sends reminders weekly or biweekly to ensure that the participants complete the course sections, exams, and/or evaluations.

GHL contains 4-hours of pre-recorded lectures and video demonstrations that includes the importance of light for plant growth; light quality, intensity, and quantity; photoperiodic lighting; and photosynthetic (high-intensity) lighting with both conventional lamps and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). BCGG and SP BCGG contain 4-hours of pre-recorded lectures and video demonstrations about the fundamental concepts of insect biological control methods, including: commercially available biological control agents, using banker plants, interactions of pesticides, and examples of the application strategy and costs associated with biological control programs. RZM has 2.5-hours of pre-recorded lectures about the fundamental concepts about irrigation water, media, and their effects on plant nutrition.

To increase the number of participants completing the courses, financial incentives were offered starting in the fall of 2015. For courses offered between the fall of 2015 and 2017, each participant that completed the pre-exam, final exam, and course evaluation was eligible for a refund of $20 from the original $129 fee. This financial incentive increased participant completion rates from 40% (n=60) to 80% (n=284). However, because of internal accounting constraints, this practice was discontinued. Consequently, the financial incentive for courses after the fall of 2017 was that all participants completing the course (and were residents of the US to prevent difficulties with currency exchange) would be entered into a raffle for a $75 gift card. Since the change in the financial incentive, the completion rate of the course evaluation has decreased to 57% (n=169), which is greater than no incentive but less than the previous $20 refund.  

 

Results and Discussion

The online courses were completed between 2014 and 2017 and each course has been offered two to six times. Presently, 75, 208, 222, and 10 participants have enrolled in RZM, GHL, BCGG, and SP BCGG, respectively (Table 1).  

 

Table 1. Information associated with each online course and number of participants.

 Online Course

Initial Course Offering

Number of Sessions to Date

Number of Participants

Total Square Feet of Greenhouse Represented (millions)

 Greenhouse and   Horticultural Lighting

winter 2015

6

208

40.7

 Root Zone   Management

winter 2016

3

74

16.4

  Biological Control for   Greenhouse Growers

winter 2016

4

222

43.0 

 Spanish Biological   Control for   Greenhouse Growers

winter 2017

2

10

51.9

 Total 

 

 

514

152

 

 

Geographic and ethnic distribution of participants

The geographic distribution of the course participants varied with course topic (Figure 1). There were participants from 30 countries and 31 states in the US for the BCGG course (Table 2). For BCGG, the greatest number of participants was from the Midwest, California, and North Carolina. For RZM, participants represented 7 countries (Table 2) and 23 US states. The greatest number of participants were from Ohio and Michigan, followed by Texas, Colorado, and North Carolina. For GHL, participants represented 24 countries (Table 2) and 32 US states. Michigan had the highest number of participants enrolled in the GHL course followed by Texas, California, and North Carolina. 

 

 

1 a

1 b

1 c

 

 

Figure 1. Geographic distribution of participants associated with the College of Knowledge online courses: Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (English and Spanish) (a), Root Zone Management (b), and Greenhouse and Horticulture Lighting (c).

 

 

Table 2. Number of participants from each country who enrolled in the Floriculture College of Knowledge online courses: Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (English and Spanish), Root Zone Management, and Greenhouse and Horticulture Lighting.

Number of participants from each country

Country

2

Bosnia And Herzegovina

2

Brazil

49

Canada

5

Chile

2

Colombia

1

Costa Rica

3

El Salvador

1

Finland

2

France

2

Germany

2

India

2

Korea

14

Malta

5

Mexico

1

Nicaragua

1

Nigeria

1

Norway

1

Poland

3

Portugal

1

Russia

1

Singapore

3

South Africa

4

Sweden

1

Switzerland

1

Taiwan

1

Tanzania

3

Thailand

393

United States

2

Uruguay

1

Virgin Islands

 

The majority of the participants, between 66% and 73% (n=514), reported that they were Caucasian (Figure 2). For each of the three online courses, 19% (n=514) of registrants for each course chose not to provide demographic information. The course with the highest number of Hispanics (≥8%) was BCGG, likely because the course was available in Spanish. The percent of Hispanics enrolled in the course is likely greater than reported because the participants could have also selected "Multi-racial."

 

2 a

2 b

2 c

Figure 2. Ethnicity of participants associated with the College of Knowledge online courses: Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (English and Spanish)(a), Root Zone Management(b), and Greenhouse and Horticulture Lighting (c).

 

Impact of Online Courses

Greenhouse and Horticultural Lighting

Learning impacts

Out of the 208 participants, 85% completed the pre-exam and 69% completed the final exam (n=208). The average pre-exam score was 73% and the average post-course exam score was 92%. Fifty-five percent of participants completed the course evaluation, and of those, 71% reported that they would initiate crop production changes as a result of the course content, and 65% would initiate changes within the next 3 months. 

All participants reported a significant knowledge gain (4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) on average on the following 9 topics in the survey: 1) high-intensity lighting, 2) photoperiod and photoperiodic lighting, 3) how plants respond to light intensity, 4) how plants respond to light quality, 5) factors to consider when choosing supplemental lighting, 6) factors to consider when choosing photoperiodic lighting, 7) differences in light quality from different lamp types, 8) how to take measurements in your growing space, 9) how to estimate the daily light integral in your greenhouse. The categories with the highest self-reported knowledge gain (>4 on scale of 1 to 5) were ‘high-intensity lighting’ and ‘how to estimate daily light integral in your greenhouse.’ The category with the least self-reported knowledge gain (<4) were 'how to increase and decrease light to your crop.'

Long-term impacts

Winter 2015 Session

Of the 60 participants who took the GHL course from the fall of 2015 to summer of 2016, 18 responded to the online survey administered in October 2016 about how the course influenced their practices. These 18 respondents represented 5.3 million square feet of greenhouse production worldwide. Fifty-seven percent (n=14) of greenhouse growers reported that they made changes in their production of plants, which reportedly affected 1.8 million square feet of production area. 

Approximately 70% (n=17) of respondents reported that the course increased their confidence in understanding new lighting strategies for crop production. All lighting consultants or sales representatives (n=7) reported an increase in confidence in determining what type of light quality a client needs when selling products. Half of all respondents (n=16) reported that they changed their night interruption lighting treatments to greenhouse crops, citrus, and other tree species. 

Summer 2016 Session

Sixteen of the 43 participants took the 6-month post-course online survey. These 16 respondents represented 1.4 billion square feet of greenhouse production worldwide. Half of the greenhouse growers (n=16) initiated changes to the production of plants, which affected 6.6 million square feet of controlled-environment production. As a result of the course, 50% of the respondents reported that they altered their low-intensity lighting strategy and made changes to their lighting to increase crop quality. 

Winter 2016 Session

Seven participants answered the 8-month online survey out of the 37 participants who took the course (19%). These 7 participants reported that they manage 3.66 million square feet of greenhouse production space. According to the survey, 43% (n=7) of respondents changed their practices. All of the respondents said that they used a quantum meter to better estimate light intensity in their production spaces. In addition, one producer installed new high-intensity lighting to improve plant quality, while another producer altered both their high- and low-intensity lighting strategy to control flowering. 

As a result of the course, 83% (n=6) of respondents increased their confidence in choosing a lighting strategy while 66% (n=6) reported that they are now better informed when selling or purchasing lamps. Two lighting consultants or sales representatives reported being much more knowledgeable about the light quantity needed for plant growth and development.

 

Root Zone Management

Learning Impacts

Of the 74 participants, 92% completed the pre-exam and 73% completed the final exam (n=74). The average pre-exam score was 71% and the average post-course exam score was 92%. Only 55% (n=41) completed the course evaluation, and of those, 79% (n=52) reported that they would initiate a crop production change as a result of the course, and 74% (n=39) would make changes within the next 3 months. 

All participants who completed the evaluation (n=41) reported significant progress (4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) on 6 main topics: 1) water quality, 2) water treatment, 3) physical and chemical elements of media/substrate, 4) elements essential to plant nutrition, 5) how to choose a fertilizer, and 6) how to monitor nutrition of crops. The categories with the highest (>4 on scale of 1 to 5) self-reported knowledge gain were ‘physical and chemical properties of media/substrate’ and ‘how to choose a fertilizer.’ The two categories with the least self-reported knowledge gain (<4) were 'water sources for irrigation' and 'irrigation timing and quantity.'

Long-term impacts: Summer 2017 Session

Of the 19 participants who completed the RZM course in the summer of 2017, 9 responded to the 12-month post-course online survey. These growers represented 5.87 million square feet of greenhouse production space. All respondents initiated a change in their growing practices and reported an improvement in plant quality. Two-thirds of respondents reported that as a result of the course, they now: 1) regularly monitor electrical conductivity and pH of their crop substrates, 2) improved their overall nutrient management program or 3) altered their irrigation timing. Approximately 77% (n=9) of the participants changed their nutrient management or irrigation practices, which resulted in a cost-savings although no dollar value was provided.

 

Biological Control for Greenhouse Growers (English and Spanish)

Learning impacts

Of the 232 participants, 90% (n=208) completed the pre-exam and 83% (n=192) completed the final exam. The average pre-exam score was 68% and the average post-course exam score was 94%. Only 49% (n=232) completed the course evaluation, and of those, 90% (n=156) reported that they would initiate an immediate crop production change as a result of the course, and 73% (n=140) of those would make changes within the next 3 months. 

Ninety-nine percent (n=157) of the participants who took the evaluation reported that their understanding of the material presented significantly increased (4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) on: 1) biological control theory, 2) commercially available biological control agents, 3) banker plant theory, 4) banker plant techniques, 5) direct and indirect effects of pesticides on biological control programs, 6) factors that influence your biological control program, and 7) other available resources. The categories with the highest self-reported knowledge gain (>4 on scale of 1 to 5) were ‘commercially-available biological control agents’ and ‘banker plant theory.’ The category with the least self-reported knowledge gain was scouting techniques with a mean score of 3.4. 

Long-term impacts

Winter 2016 Session

Forty participants completed the 8-month post-course online survey out of 133 participants who completed the course (30%). These 40 participants reported that they manage 10.8 million square feet of greenhouse production space. Based on the survey results, 78% (n=40) of respondents will change their current practices. Fifty-six percent of respondents have changed or incorporated new natural enemies (e.g. parasitoids or predators) to their biological control program while 50% (n=40) reduced pesticide usage on their crops. Forty-four percent introduced natural enemies earlier in the crop cycle than they had previously. In addition, 76% (n=40) of the respondents have reduced the risk of pesticide exposure and 62% (n=40) increased crop quality as result of taking the course. Forty-five percent (n=40) indicated that they had reduced plant losses due to pest damage. Thirteen respondents indicated that their new practices resulted in an estimated cost savings of $35,500. Of those 13 respondents, 69% (n=13) of them indicated that the cost-savings were due to reducing pest control inputs and decreasing crop losses. 

Summer 2017 Session

Thirty-eight percent (n=10) of the 26 course participants completed the 12-month post-course online survey, all whom took the course in English. These 10 participants reportedly represented 6.97 million square feet of greenhouse production space. Based on the survey results, 50% of respondents have changed their practices with 80% reducing pesticide usage in their facilities and 60% (n=10) have incorporated new natural enemies into their biological control program. Furthermore, 80% reported an increase in crop quality as a result of modifying their biological control program (n=10). 

 

Conclusions and Future Directions

Presently, the Floriculture College of Knowledge Online Course Series has successfully reached 514 participants from 30 countries and 37 US states. The pre- and post-course tests reveal significant improvements in knowledge and understanding of the concepts and applications; pre-course test scores averaged 68-73% while post-course test scores averaged 92-94%. The evaluation surveys indicate that all but one person reported significant progress in understanding all of the course topics presented. In addition, participants who completed post-course surveys reported significant improvements to their production practices including changes in greenhouse lighting, improvements to nutrient and pest management, and reduced pesticide exposure.

We will continue to improve the current courses with new interactive activities the participants can do after each unit and develop those activities as the new courses are released. We will continue to expand the course series by adding Greenhouse Environmental Management (English) and GHL Course (Spanish) for winter 2018. Plant Physiology for Greenhouse Growers (English) and RZM (Spanish) will be available starting in summer 2019. For future course sessions, we will implement new marketing initiatives including: improving advertising through trade magazines, trade calendars, improved website development, and online targeted advertising through services such as Google AdWords.

 

Literature Cited

Jeannette, K.J. and Meyer, M.H. 2002. Online learning equals traditional classroom training for Master Gardeners. HortTechnology, 12(1):148-156.

Langelloto-Rhodaback, G.A. 2010. Enrollment, retention, and activity in an online Master Gardener course. J. Extension, 48:4. 

Rost, B. and VanDerZanden A.M. 2002. A case study of online learners participating in the Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener training program. J.  Applied Communications, 86(2):1. 

Runkle, E.S., Allen, S.J., Dudek, T.A., Himmelein, J.M., and Krauskopf, D.M. 2009. The Floriculture College of Knowledge: A certificate program for greenhouse growers. Acta Hort., 832:195-202. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015. Floriculture crops 2014 summary. 14 July 2015.

VanDerZanden, A.M. 2002. Basic Botany Online: A training tool for the Master Gardener program. J. Extension 40(5):n5. 

VanDerZanden, A.M. and Hilgert, C. 2002. Evaluating on-line training modules in the Oregon Master Gardener program. HortTechnology, 12(2):297-299.

 

Acknowledgements 

We gratefully acknowledge support from Michigan State University’s AgBioResearch, Project GREEEN, the Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute’s small grant program. We would like to thank Dr. Royal Heins (Professor Emeritus, MSU) for the original development of the GHL course, and Dr. Erik Runkle (Professor of Horticulture, MSU), Dr. Roberto Lopez (Assistant Professor, MSU), and Dr. Garrett Owen (Outreach Specialist, MSU) for their content and video contributions to the course. We would like to thank Dr. Raymond Cloyd (Kansas State University Extension) for providing content and videos for the BCGG. We would like to gratefully acknowledge E. Vanessa Campoverde, Francisco Rivera, and Carlos Balerdi (U of Flordia) for translating, editing, and recording the SP BCGG. We would also like to thank Dr. Kristin Getter (Academic Specialist, MSU) who designed, authored, and updated the RZMcourse, originally developed by Dr. John Biernbaum (Professor, MSU) and later revised by Dr. Dean Krauskopf (retired Educator, MSU Extension). We gratefully acknowledge Gwyn Shelle (Instructional Technology, MSU) for her assistance in the development of the learning platforms and registration management systems. Additionally, we would like to thank the support staff of Kalamazoo and Ottawa counties (Michigan), for their assistance in maintaining and updating the records for the courses.