posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Knowledge in the field
The International Rice Research Institute plays a vital role in rolling out scientific breakthroughs made in the lab to those who will benefit most by learning from and applying these advances at the ground level. Albert Dean Atkinson describes the impetus behind the IRRI’s decision to create the Rice Knowledge Bank, as well as outlining the key features of what has become an invaluable information and educational resource to all those involved in rice research and production.
The fast and effective transfer of technologies from the research laboratory to the farmer’s field has always been one of the biggest challenges facing those in agricultural development. All too often, new technologies are successfully developed only to fail in reaching those who need them most because of inadequate or underdeveloped government extension services. This unfortunate situation is made worse when new technologies are neglected and forgotten because they are not used. Non-governmental organisations (NGO) have started to play an important role in the area of extension, but most do not have the resources to develop their own technologies and must rely on access to institutions like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to provide what they need.
Into this yawning gap between research and impact has stepped the Rice Knowledge Bank. Not only is it one of the world’s first digital extension services for those who provide information and support for farmers (such as NGOs), it is also the first comprehensive, digital rice-production library containing an ever-increasing wealth of information on training and rice production.
More importantly, it provides this service using a breakthrough format that sets a new standard for knowledge and information access within the agricultural-development community. Taking the very latest and best ideas from the private sector’s work in this area, the Rice Knowledge Bank is providing government extension officers, NGOs and other interested parties with unprecedented access to rice knowledge and training information.
The impetus behind the RKB
First and foremost, the IRRI is a rice science and research institute. However, IRRI’s founders knew that in order to get science and research out of the laboratory and into the farmers’ fields, there had to be an educational component. This belief is presented on the bronze plaque in front of the headquarters building, which reads, ‘IRRI... An educational and research institute.’ Education and training is seen as the conduit through which IRRI’s science becomes practice; the kind of practice that ensures that farmers can continue to grow more rice on less land, with fewer chemical inputs, and that the world’s rice-consuming poor will continue to have an adequate food supply.
Over the past 40 years, IRRI training has pushed a variety of instructional methodologies and technologies through this conduit. Printed materials, photographic slides, audio tape modules, instructional videos, early attempts at computer-aided instruction, video conferencing and information presented on standalone CD-Rom have supported face-to-face classroom instruction, in-country and in-field (hands-on) training, and scholar and partnership development.
Now, IRRI training is developing and adding another set of tools to its training toolbox: those that are collectively known as information and communication technologies (ICT), which include distance learning and internet access. The Rice Knowledge Bank is the physical manifestation of this development and, since its official launch in September 2002 at the International Rice Congress in Beijing, China, it has received critical acclaim and provided thought leadership to the entire Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) regarding the use of ICT.
For the IRRI’s internal audience at the institute level, scientists are using the Knowledge Bank to prepare materials for traditional courses. Rather than re-inventing the wheel each time a course is offered, they can search the Knowledge Bank for their topic, see what has already been written or developed, then make any adjustments required to customise the material to their instructional context. When the course is complete, the material is then uploaded to the Training Course Materials area for use during the next training. This effort saves hours of preparation time for future courses and ensures that training messages are delivered consistently.
In this regard, numerous contributions to the Training Course Materials area are being made by IRRI scientists, their partners and co-operating agencies, such as CAB International, the University of Queensland and the Royal Agricultural College of Cirencester. In the Rice Grain Quality course section, students’ feedback and input, and instructors’ comments concerning Rice Grain Quality are captured and stored, allowing them to be searched and accessed. The collection and transformation of this tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is another first step for IRRI and the CGIAR with regard to true knowledge management.
For the IRRI’s external audience, a concept that has grown out of the Rice Knowledge Bank is DigitalExtension. DigitalExtension workshops are offered at the IRRI for NGOs, farmers and IRRI partners, among others. The workshops focus on how to use the Rice Knowledge Bank to build rice knowledge capacity to allow participants to make more informed rice-production decisions for themselves or their constituents. According to Anita V. Antonio of the Philippine Rice Research Institute, “The Rice Knowledge Bank will be a big help to our organisation because it is very informative and will readily assist our extension workers in the field who are attending to the different problems of the rice farmers, especially in the area of principles and practices of farm management.”
As a vital component of the Rice Knowledge Bank’s external audience, partners assist with disseminating Rice Knowledge Bank information by hosting in-country training opportunities, providing translation services for Rice Knowledge Bank content and sharing resources through collaborative projects.
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in India has traditionally been a testing ground for IRRI innovations and the Knowledge Bank was no exception. As the its first partner, TNAU facilitated delivery of the Knowledge Bank’s first e-learning course, Rice Grain Quality. For another partner, Angiang University – located in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam – the Rice Knowledge Bank’s ability to be delivered via CD-Rom is ideal, as Angiang University boasts a state-of-the-art internal computer network but lacks good internet connectivity. By placing the Knowledge Bank CD-Rom on the university’s internal network, students can access the content as if they were directly connected to the Knowledge Bank via the internet.
With regard to CD-Rom delivery, over 200 copies of the Knowledge Bank have been distributed in 11 different countries. Since the Knowledge Bank will always be a work in progress with new content being added every day, any time a CD-Rom version is requested, an up-to-date version is produced using the Knowledge Bank’s single-source publishing methodology. This ensures that partners using the CD-ROM version have the most current information possible.
From atoms to bits: society’s transition
The best way to appreciate the merits and consequences of being digital is to reflect on the difference between bits and atoms. While we are undoubtedly in an information age, most information is delivered to us in the form of atoms: videotape, newspapers, magazines and books.
The information superhighway, on the other hand, is about the global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light. To get onto the superhighway, we must either produce content from the start in a bit-based digital form, or convert legacy atom-based content into zeros and ones by using optical scanning and analogue-to-digital conversion devices.
In Negroponte’s words, “The rendering of information and media in digital form, combined with personal-computing power and networks in everything from PCs to home appliances, allows computers to become full and active participants in all aspects of our lives... The move from atoms to bits in the classroom will be a move from passivity to active participation and exploration.”
He continues, “As one industry after another looks at itself in the mirror and asks about its future in a digital world, that future is driven almost 100 per cent by the ability of that company’s product or services to be rendered in digital form. If you make cashmere sweaters or Chinese food, it will be a long time before we can convert them to bits. Until then you will have to rely on FedEx, bicycles, and sneakers to get your atoms from one place to another. This is not to say that digital technologies will be of no help in design, manufacturing, marketing and management of atom-based businesses. I am only saying that the core business won’t change and your product won’t have bits standing in for atoms.
“In the information and entertainment industries, bits and atoms are often confused. Is the publisher of a book in the information-delivery business (bits) or in the manufacturing business (atoms)? The historical answer is both, but that will change rapidly as information appliances become more ubiquitous and user friendly. Right now it is hard, but not impossible, to compete with the qualities of a printed book.
“A book has a high-contrast display, is lightweight, easy to thumb through and not very expensive. But getting it to you includes shipping and inventory. In the case of textbooks, 45 per cent of the cost is inventory, shipping and returns.” 
Atom-based instructional technologies at the IRRI
As a science and research institute, the IRRI is keen to adopt relevant information technologies, provided of course that they increase the dissemination of its rice-related literature. To this end, the training centre at the IRRI has produced over 250 course titles in a variety of formats. From the beginning, paper-based sources – supported by lecture-style instruction and hands-on activities – provided the basis for all of the IRRI’s training. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 80s, the IRRI began experimenting with self-learning modules that included a set of photographic slides, audiotape and workbook. The training centre found success with this approach and produced approximately 35 modules, each with an average of 75-80 slides. Combine these 3,000 images with the IRRI’s 300 or so publications, along with several hundred hours of videotape courses and a few web-based training, computer-assisted instruction and CD-Rom materials, and you have a wealth of knowledge lying trapped in incompatible information technologies.
Atoms versus bits
The Rice Knowledge Bank is more than just a way to deliver instructional content using ICT, however. For IRRI Training, the Knowledge Bank is changing the very nature by which training materials are collected, organised, managed, published and delivered. The best way to conceptualise this shift is to consider the nature of instructional materials as either atom-based or bit-based. Atom-based instructional materials are those comprised of incompatible atoms, while bit-based materials are comprised of compatible bits: the zeros and ones that form the basis of internet-enabled ICT.
For example, print materials are the product of the atoms and compounds that create ink and paper while photographs and video are the product of the atoms that create film. These formats are fine but limited due to their atom-based structure. It is impossible to link a location within a printed document to a place in a videotape. Likewise, to find a piece of information within a set of printed documents requires an exhaustive search of the documents’ indexes and tables of contents. These problems are compounded if one audience requires a printed version of the content, while another audience wants to access the material via the internet. In this case, conventional wisdom would suggest the creation of two separate versions.
By contrast, bit-based instructional technologies are all comprised of zeros and ones. When legacy instructional materials are converted to bits and new materials are created in a digital format, the ability to link and cross-reference materials – whether they are video, print or graphical – becomes a reality.
Conversion to bits
At the IRRI, the shift from atoms to bits is spearheaded by its Communications and Publications Services (CPS). Today’s standard of scanners and their accompanying software, both graphical and character recognising, enables CPS to digitally capture photos, negatives and slides, along with the ability to read scanned text using optical character-recognition software. For the IRRI’s print publications, CPS is using the cluster edition of Adobe Acrobat Capture to read and convert print content that is later uploaded to the Media Asset Library indexing system, based on Canto Cumulus.
Over the past 25 months, CPS has digitised 340 publications (approximately 70,550 pages), audited and classified over 135,000 graphical images, and scanned and digitised more than 4,000 photographs and slides. Using the fruits of CPS’s efforts, the Rice Knowledge Bank adds value to the digitised bits by brokering them into e-learning courses, reference materials, decision-support tools and databases.
Since the future for the IRRI’s instructional materials is bit-based, delivery via the internet is a given. But what if a user does not have access to the internet? This is where the power of bit-based instructional materials is most apparent. All content within the Rice Knowledge Bank is built on a concept known as single-source publishing. Single-source publishing allows content to be generated as HTML and delivered over the web, burnt onto CD-Rom or compiled to print, all from the same master file. Simply put, single-source publishing allows the Knowledge Bank’s content to be generated in whatever form is required by the audience requesting its materials.
In other words, if a user has a computer but no internet connectivity, the Knowledge Bank’s content can be easily delivered via CD-Rom. If a user has no computer whatsoever, content can be printed from the digital source and delivered via mail. The point is, rather than having multiple versions of the same content in several delivery formats, all content is generated from a single source. This ensures that the information is always consistent and eases the task of updating content.
For a training organisation, it’s not enough to digitise and index materials. Granted, the process serves as an audit that lightens the load on the storage-room shelves, but of what value is the content if it’s just sitting on a hard drive? Except for saving space and assisting with sorting through ‘keepers’ and ‘throwers’, the books, manuals, papers and slides might as well stay in their original form if there is not a plan for using their digital offspring.
The table in figure 1 describes the Rice Knowledge Bank’s six main content areas that are designed to bring value to the instructional materials that have been converted from atoms to bits. Within each category, content is structured as re-usable learning and information objects, which means that objects contained within one category can be cross-referenced and shared with items from other categories. For example, while the Rice Grain Quality course is located within the e-learning category, it re-uses multiple objects from the bank including the field-practices and diagnosis tool, TropRice, in addition to various reference materials.
Figure 1 – the main content areas of the Rice Knowledge Bank
Look and feel: the user interface
Within the context of private-sector corporations, branding is a way to give products or services a personality. By establishing a brand identity, consumers can immediately recognise products associated with the corporation. Branding includes logos, slogans, individual product names, theme songs and anything else that suggests the company’s business objectives.
For e-learning, branding plays another role. By developing and using a consistent colour palette, navigation scheme and lesson architecture, users of your content will not have to re-learn the skills necessary just to manipulate your materials. This becomes especially important if your e-learning system hosts multiple courses.
To provide consistency and ease of use, all assets within the Knowledge Bank share a common navigation structure and colour scheme. The colours chosen for the Rice Knowledge Bank are based on the four biodiversity colours of yellow, orange, green and blue. These colours correspond to sun, earth, plant life and water respectively. Since the IRRI is an organisation dedicated to preserving the earth’s natural resources, while at the same time growing more food on limited land and using less water and less chemical inputs, the four biodiversity colours and their respective shades are a good basis for the Knowledge Bank’s colour scheme, and are seen throughout the entire repository.
E-learning courses present structured content to the learner in a linear sequence and on a specific topic. For example, the e-learning course, Rice Grain Quality, takes learners from basic knowledge and comprehension to higher levels of synthesis and application through the duration of its 42 lessons, which are divided into seven separate learning modules. The IRRI’s e-learning courses have a theoretical basis in Robert Gagne’s The Conditions of Learningand mirror best-in-class models used by leading private-sector e-learning providers.
In his book, Gagne identified the mental conditions for learning. These were based on the information-processing model of the mental events that occur when adults are presented with various stimuli. Gagne created a three-phase process called the events of instruction, which correlate to and address the conditions of learning. The table in figure 2 shows each these instructional events (phases) in the left column and the associated mental processes on the right.
Figure 2 – the three instructional events and their associated mental processes
Field practices and diagnosis tools
Just as the category’s name implies, this group of tools provides decision support to farmers and extension workers by offering decision trees for diagnosis, such as that found in RiceDoctor, or field practices, such as that found in TropRice. These tools are discussed more thoroughly below:
- TropRice – a decision-support tool to help farmers make more informed, practical decisions related to tropical rice production. It was developed in response to the recognition that many farmers do not have access to information on how to grow their rice. TropRice contains a collection of best practices designed to provide practical field-level guides for rice crop management;
- RiceDoctor – a field diagnostic tool for identifying factors that limit rice crop growth in the tropics. It diagnoses and describes processes, symptoms and crop factors using a series of questions and statements in an intuitive decision-tree format.
A KnowledgeByte describes a specific topic in a concise manner using a popular perspective. For example, the KnowledgeByte ‘Golden Rice’ allows the user a quick overview of golden rice without overloading them with details.
Using a book-chapter-page metaphor that is enhanced with search and index capabilities, Knowledge Bank reference materials are typically focused on a single subject and are designed to provide factual information concerning a specific topic within the subject. Reference guides are more informational than instructional, meaning their content has not been structured to support sequenced learning and that they are not intended to be read from start to finish. Rather, they are designed to allow the user to search for specific information by using the search field, or by navigating the books, chapters and pages that are displayed in the reference guide’s navigation window.
Rice biological databases and GIS maps
This category launches the International Rice Information System Database, which is the rice implementation of the International Crop Information System, a database system that provides integrated management of global information on genetic resources and crop cultivars. This includes germplasm pedigrees, field evaluations, genetic (QTL) maps, structural and functional genomic data (including links to external plant databases) and environmental (GIS) data. The GIS Maps link in this category provides access to various maps produced by the IRRI’s GIS department.
The training-materials category is the largest in the entire Knowledge Bank. Containing over 450 files in 34 separate topic areas, the training-materials section is a staging and collection area for all instructional materials used conventional face-to-face instruction. PowerPoint presentations, hand-outs, brochures and lesson plans make-up the majority of the assets stored in this category. The content within each category is easily navigated using a search feature.
As with any innovation, the Knowledge Bank’s continued success depends on its early adopters and a steady stream of content provided by its contributors. In its brief history, the Knowledge Bank has:
- Grown to include 20 reference guides, two decision-support tools, two e-learning courses, five KnowledgeBytes and over 450 raw training course materials;
- Experienced over a million hits on its internet site;
- Successfully trained and graduated 25 participants from the CGIAR and various partners using the Knowledge Bank’s two e-learning courses;
- Established the concept and physically trained 14 participants regarding the Knowledge Bank in the institute’s first-ever DigitalExtension workshop.
The Knowledge Bank’s future will be one where:
- The Knowledge Bank will become a co-ordinated effort on a CG-wide scale;
- Partnerships will continue to be strengthened and established to disseminate the Knowledge Bank’s content and to ensure its development is demand, rather than supply, driven;
- Assets are continuing to be built while expanding on other distance-learning methodologies to bring a 360-degree learning capacity (learning anytime, anywhere and regardless of users’ technological limitations) to IRRI training.
1. Negroponte, N., ‘The new engines of learning’ in Executive Educator (Vol 17, Iss 1)
2. Gagne, R., The Conditions of Learning (1965)
Albert Dean Atkinson is an e-learning specialist and concept developer for the Rice Knowledge Bank at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org