Wetenschap - 12 juni 1997

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MSc Biotechnology on Internet
The Educational Institute of Technology and Nutrition plans to revamp its biotechnology course. The first year of the course will take the form of distance learning through the Internet. Students will only come to Wageningen in their second year
We believe there is an important role for distance learning in the MSc course that we offer, says Bert van den Ende, secretary of the Educational Institute of Technology and Nutrition. The Institute wants students who join the biotechnology course in 1999 to take the core subjects through the Internet. Students will only come to Wageningen in the second year for special subjects and their thesis research. In this way we hope to reach more students at an affordable price, continues Van den Ende. By reducing the number of contact hours between teachers and students the course will be cheaper. MSc courses are relatively expensive for us, as they attract such small numbers.
Programme director Henk van den Broek has heard about the plans, but they have not yet been fully discussed with the Programme Committee for the Biotechnology course. For that reason I can't say much. One of the difficulties I foresee with this plan is the lack of computer facilities in developing countries. Many of the students from these countries have enough difficulties finding a library, let alone a computer with access to the Internet. Van den Ende recognizes that this is a problem: Maybe the conditions for distance learning are not present everywhere, but if you look at countries in southeast Asia, for example, they are catching up very rapidly in terms of information technology and telecommunication.
Costs
According to Van den Ende, education through the Internet has advantages not only for the Institute, but also for students: Many MSc students have a family and a job, and find it difficult to come to the Netherlands for a long period of time. Making education available to them through the Internet should make the course more attractive.
Van den Broek also sees advantages to computerized distance learning: a cheaper and shorter course could well attract more students. MSc courses are very expensive for students. Tuition fees for a seventeen-month course cost 13,000 guilders for students from countries outside the European Union
If you add living costs to that you are talking about a total of 18,000 guilders. Most students can only afford to come if they are awarded a scholarship. We admit about 25 candidates to the course each year, but there are usually only grants for ten. A shorter and cheaper course would reduce both tuition fees and living costs, so that we would have more grants available.
Han Smolenaars, education advisor at the Office for Computers in Education, agrees with the Institute that distance learning can save costs for the University: If the courses are well designed then less supervision from teachers is required. According to Smolenaars, overheads will also be reduced and updating teaching material should be easier
Basics
I feel it is important that the Institute and the Programme Committee have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve through distance learning, continues Smolenaars. Distance learning is a very good way of transferring basic knowledge. It's quite easy to set up interactive lectures through the Internet, so that students can quickly become acquainted with the foundations of a subject. Testing knowledge of the basics is also fairly easy to do by computer: If the programmes are well designed there is little input required from teachers. Edwin Agbo, currently studying biotechnology, has his doubts: Many students start the course with little or no knowledge of complex subjects such as molecular biology. In order to get a good grounding you have to be able to ask questions. Maybe Internet education has a place further on in the course.
The Educational Institute for Technology and Nutrition is collaborating with the Open University for this project. The latter already has a lot of experience with distance learning. It provides correspondence courses for people who are working and want to brush up their knowledge, as well as for people who previously have had no opportunity to go to university. I am sure that the Institute will manage to set up good basic courses with the help of the Open University, says Smolenaars, But when it comes to analyzing problems or designing research, distance learning is not the most appropriate form of education. These require regular contact with both teachers and other students. It is possible to use E-mail or video conferences, but face-to-face contact works best.
Policy
Technology and Nutrition will be investing a quarter of a million guilders in the plan over the next few years. That certainly won't be enough, but we are hoping for money from other sources as well, continues Van den Ende. What's more, providing part of the MSc course in Biotechnology in the form of distance learning fits in well with our general policy. We are also trying to make regular education available to a wider target group by using distance learning. Once we have set up a Dutch course on the Internet it will be much easier to convert this into an English version for MSc students.
Although Van den Broek has no objection to a critical appraisal of the financial aspects of the MSc course, he warns that the Institute should not lose sight of other aspects by concentrating too much on costs. MSc courses are given to a very small group, and will therefore never be able to cover their own costs. But the Agricultural University promotes itself as the most international university in the Netherlands. If international education is truly important for WAU then it needs to put its money where its mouth is.
Divine tree influenced Prof's career
The transfer of the cocoa tree (Theobroma) from South America to West Africa is an illustration of what can happen when a crop is introduced into a new environment. Cocoa has not only been important for the development of several West African countries, but has also to a large extent determined the career of Dr Marius Wessel, departing professor of Tropical Crop Cultivation. Professor Wessel, also Committee Chairman of the MSc Forestry programme, delivered his farewell lecture last Friday June 5. The name Theobroma means food for the gods and is derived from a Mexican legend. The prophet Quetzalcoatl brought cocoa seeds from paradise and planted these in his garden. By eating the fruit he acquired universal knowledge and wisdom, which brought him prestige and devotion
After the conquest of South America, the Spaniards introduced cocoa to Europe, where it soon became very popular. To meet growing demand, the Spaniards expanded cultivation in the region, and after some time the Portuguese introduced cocoa to West Africa. The initial success of the crop was based on the fact that cocoa fitted well in the local farming system and ecology. Wessel sketched a bird's eye view of the technical and socio-economic developments of cocoa cultivation since that time. In order for West Africa to once again be able to meet the increasing demand for cocoa he pleads for an agroforestry approach to cocoa cultivation. This means growing cocoa together with other crops such as oil palms, timber and other fruit trees. These trees provide shade for cocoa trees and decrease the risks of pests, as well as providing extra income, thus making farmers less dependent on the fluctuating world market prices of cocoa. This approach coincides with the knowledge and means of small producers and is ecologically attractive. Whether it is also economically viable, needs further investigation concludes the departing professor

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