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Edinburgh Tech-supported learning environments virtual farm case

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 4 months ago

Edinburgh Tech-supported Learning Environments - The Virtual Farm


David Dewhurst


Authors: Kay Aitchison, Michael Begg, David Dewhurst (photo), Susan Rhind



This case concerns a collection of technology based resources (a mixture of bespoke and commercial) that are collectively known as 'The Virtual Farm'; a learning and teaching resource embedded within 'The Virtual Veterinary Practice', an online resource delivered via a bespoke VLE (EEVeC) developed to support the Edinburgh BVM&S programme.




1. Why did you use this e-learning approach?


The Virtual farm project arose out of the desire to enhance the learning experience of veterinary students specifically relating to the two (dairy and sheep) working University farms and to utilise technology to provide genuine ‘added-value’. The project has been designed in support of the 5 year BVM&S undergraduate programme. The location of the farms and the time pressures on students can mean that they have relatively limited access to them during the five year programme and they do not make full use of the resources available to them. The 'Virtual Farm' project aims to provide readily accessible stimulating and challenging electronic learning resources designed to encourage students to increase their knowledge, understanding and confidence sufficiently to optimize the use of the real-life educational farm resources (animals, agricultural practice and records).




2. What was the context in which you used this e-learning approach?


Veterinary students require a good knowledge and understanding of farming practices to advise on the health, welfare, productivity and economic performance of farm animals and on the quality and safety of the food produced.

In broad terms, the focus is very much towards the ‘learning’ aspect of the resource with facilities for group work, analysis of individual real-life animal data, on-line discussions with the farm manager and input into topical and current farm issues. In time it is also envisaged that in addition to all students on the BVM&S programme, elements will also available to prospective students in advance of them strating the course.

It is anticipated that the virtual farm will emphasise and further integrate the immensely valuable resource of the farms and provide an ‘electronic showcase’. The new educational materials being generated are not dependent on the time of day or time of year or the activities taking place at the time of a student visit to the farms, but will be available to students at a time of their choice.



3. What technologies and/or e-tools were available to you?


The virtual farm is a discrete project which has been developed and made available through the established virtual learning environment ‘EEVeC’ Edinburgh Electronic Veterinary Curriculum, a bespoke virtual learning environment.

In addition to specifically designed areas within EEVeC containing discussion boards, general information and web-cams providing 24h surveillance of specific locations on the farms, the project has involved integration and embedding of 3 electronic farm management systems (Uniform-Agri Dairy Manager, Denkavit Automatic Calf Feeding System, Shearwell Sheep Management System). Information and reports from these programs can be captured in PDF or Excel format and made available to the students via EEVeC either for general interest or for specific teaching purposes. Data is also obtained from the herd management software and delivered into the EEVeC database as personalised returns to the students’ "adopted animals" page. The dairy and sheep programs will also be available on all vet student lab PCs to enable students to access the ‘live’ data. Not only does this give them direct access to the records from the University farms but also enables them to become familiar with the types of programs which their future clients are likely to be using.

Additional tools which have become central to the developments as the project has evolved are wikis and blogs.



4. What was the design?


The Virtual Farm is an area within EEVeC containing numerous resources relating to the farms. General informational on locations and personnel and ’farm tours’ are available as are regular newsfeeds and web cams streaming live images from 2 separate farm sites on the entry pages. We now have 3 electronic farm management systems up and running.

Students are also given ‘adopted’ farm animals (cows and sheep) which appear on their individual pages and they can access relevant management and veterinary data on these animals. The allocation of specific animals to individual students has greatly increased the level of engagement of the students with the activities of the farm.

Further within the system, data from electronic recording systems allows

• electronic identification and recording of all milking cows by means of an electronic neck transponder. Individual health, production and movement records for every cow.

• electronic identification of calves allowing them to be fed a predetermined amount of milk via a computer controlled feeding system. Automated concentrate feeding and an electronic weighing facility is also available in one group of calves.

• automatic identification and recording of all health, production and movement records for sheep via electronic ear tags


5. How did you implement and embed this e-learning approach?


First year students were introduced to the Virtual Farm at the Animal Husbandry Introductory lecture at the start of the course. They were given a demonstration of where to find it and of the major features. Later in Semester 1, as part of a farm based tutorial session, students were asked in advance to collect information about their own adopted animals which then formed the basis of a wider discussion of farm animal husbandry.

Training in the use of wikis and help with video editing and uploading of data is provided by the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine Learning Technology Section

Students are alerted to monthly farm newsletters via the EEVeC noticeboard which directs them to the Virtual Farm where there is also a RSS newsfeed. Both of these features now use direct links to the Animal Husbandry wikis to take the student to more detailed information about current husbandry issues and events on the farms. This not only allows the student to learn more about these topics but also helps them to develop an understanding of animal husbandry in the context of the farming year.

Text, picture and video demonstrations of farm animal handling skills are now available to reinforce and revise the skills taught in practical classes.

Data from the dairy herd is now extracted electronically and used on the statistics course which has the double benefit of demonstrating the relevance of the subject and at the same time helps the students become familiar with this type of data.



6. What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?


Informal student and staff feedback has been extremely positive and confirms that the Virtual Farm offers a unique and engaging learning experience . Although formal discrete evaluation is not yet complete, the general impression, based on informal discussions with students and anecdotal feedback, is that students are now more aware of the activities and learning opportunities provided by the teaching farms and that having personalised relationships with subsets of herd data (through their adopted animals) allows this interest in the well-being of individual animals to scale up to a richer appreciation of herd/ flock health and performance generally.

The principle is engaging and has led to several ’spin-off’ projects investigating the embedding of real time information and the use of web 2.0 technologies in other areas of the curriculum – e.g. the virtual veterinary practice and virtual post mortem room. This suggests that the Virtual Farm can be viewed as a subportal within the VLE allowing selected content and resources to be surfaced in a new context – one that can be directly related to physical/ professional practice.

The core team involved in the project have as a requirement of continued evolution of the virtual farm become much more engaged with its ongoing development – in particular the next phase is making significant use of web 2.0 technologies such as wiki’s and blogs. This engagement with creating and integrating new content using innovative methods is viewed as positive in terms of staff development.

Students learn new skills particularly data handling and statistical skills but they have greater exposure, albeit in a virtual environment, to practices and procedures on working farms. The virtual sitting alongside opportunities for real-world experience on the farms will enable the program to manage increasing numbers of students. Although savings in terms of costs, time and resources are difficult to quantify, we consider that there are real benefits in terms of quality enhancement and optimisation of teaching resources. Certainly students, as evidenced through informal analysis of the blogs, are much more engaged with farm activities than they were previously.

As more teachers become aware of the data that is being gathered, it is possible to collect and archive this growing quantity of data and repurpose it for specific course related activities. For instance, there is, currently in development, a system for carrying out statistical analysis of specially contrived groups of animals which are derived directly from the virtual farm and used for specific teaching purposes. This effectively allows the virtual farm to become a real-time teaching and learning aid in lectures and tutorials.

Through the use of discussion boards (although to a much lesser degree the Virtual Farm blog also serves this purpose) the facility to have open discussions between students, teaching staff and farm workers (again, potentially!) provides good transparency of practice and promotes dialogue where previously there could be a great deal of isolation.




7. Did implementation of this e-learning approach have any disadvantages or drawbacks?


The Virtual Farm requires weekly input of information, news and data in order to keep it current and active. The current development of the animal husbandry wikis has required significant staff time but will provide a valuable teaching resource and help ensure long term sustainability and ‘ownership’ by staff involved in the day to day teaching and management of the relevant course.

One of the most contentious issues has been the installation of web cams in work areas. Farm staff have concerns about being ‘watched’ while at work and there are also concerns about possible misinterpretation of incidents viewed. This has largely been resolved by careful siting of the web cams and although the concerns remain, to date there have been no issues raised.

There was an issue regarding the transfer of data from the farm management software to EEVeC which was caused by the format in which the software presents the animal data in and MS Excel spreadsheet. This has been resolved in the cattle software program by requesting the commercial company who supply that software to change its design. The sheep software program does require additional spreadsheet manipulation prior to transferring to EEVeC.



8. How did this e-learning approach accord with or differ from any relevant departmental and/or institutional strategies?


There is a strong history and culture of embracing e-learning within the Veterinary School and the Institution and funding for this initiative was obtained though a competetive bidding process for seedcorn money from a University-wide fund made available to support e-learning. This project was considered the most innovative of a number of priojects ongoing in the Veterinary School at the time it was initiated and has been 'leading the way' in terms of web 2.0 implementation/ embedding. The high profile nature of the project now within the Institution and the spin off/ related projects illustrate that we are in a transition phase towards what we anticipate will be much wider use of similar technologies in other courses throughout the BVM&S programme.



9. Summary and Reflection


The ‘Virtual Farm’ is a model examplar of how the creative use of technology can enable learners to actively engage via the virtual learning environment with real-time animal data and the resources of the two working University farms. The VLE thus becomes more than a passive information delivery system and future developments will be aimed at enhancing the learning activities facilitated by development of this resource. No equivalent project has been identified either within or outside the University.

Over coming months, we will build on what we consider to have been a pedagogically sound project through the expansion of existing activities and introduction of new ones including the development of welfare and clinical cases. This will involve embedded videos and protocols of procedures and practices of relevance to farm animal husbandry, welfare, health plans and clinical practice.

Linked to this will be the creation of a digital bank of streamed video and other relevant resources which will be catalogued for future use as Re-usable Learning Objects.

Much has been learned from this project and will be of benefit to related projects in future and to the further evolution of the virtual farm. The project has engaged and excited academic staff both internally and externally and provided a learning experience for students which they appreciate.

For future practice, designing and embedding more solid evaluation mechanisms into the project would be recommended and we will also look to embedding of formative assessments in association with relevant courses. An additional crucial point is to ensure that adequate resource is directed to allow maintenance and further development of the system as part of the School's ‘core business’.

Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 12:51 am on Jul 11, 2007

Very interesting. Can you say a little about the underlying pedagogy in section 4? Do you have any graphics e.g. screen shots?

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