05 Sep 2014
No. 1639


Massive Open Online Courses for Agricultural Professionals to usher in classrooms without boundaries

(L-R) Drs M Holz-Clause, K Ramesh Reddy, C Geith, WD Dar, A Kumar, G Dileepkumar, PK Sharma and DL Maheswar at the launch of the National Virtual Academy for Indian Agriculture to promote Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for Agricultural Professionals. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Opening unlimited opportunities for the less privileged in India to have access to quality agricultural education, the ‘National Virtual Academy for Indian Agriculture to promote Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for Agricultural Professionals’ was launched on 4 September at the ICRISAT global headquarters.

The MOOCs will be offered through the National Virtual Academy for Indian Agriculture, an online platform built on an open source software “Open edX,” to meet the requirements specifically of India’s agricultural education system, where available resources are scarce relative to the extremely large audience – in a country where more than 70% of the population is involved in agriculture directly or indirectly.

Advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) now enable the building of “classrooms without boundaries” in the cloud to provide sharing opportunities of courses and learning approaches among academic institutions in India, in order to reach the masses. With this platform, one course can have the potential to reach 50,000 – 150,000 learner participants at one time – particularly those who are less privileged, far from education centers, and with lesser resources.

Dr Dar addressing the participants.
Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

The launch of the National Virtual Academy for India Agriculture to promote MOOCs for Agricultural Professionals is a regional event of the new global education consortium, One Agriculture – One Science (http://www.oneagriculture.org). This consortium is a unique international partnership between ICRISAT and top agricultural universities, research organizations and other related agencies from India, Africa and the USA working towards revitalizing global agricultural education, capacity building and technology transfer to address the challenges of global food and nutritional security.

“The One Agriculture – One Science has been formed to strengthen the existing agricultural education system, bringing to fore all ideas and innovation in agriculture to tackle the problem of feeding the world’s poorest of the poor. With this initiative we seek to encourage more youth into agriculture, and to reach out to millions of farmers to embrace new technologies to progress into a dynamic sector,” said Dr William Dar, ICRISAT Director General.

“Our best hope for the future is education. We need to train researchers, educators, extension agents and farmers with more knowledge and skills to be able to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the past 10,000 years,” said Dr Jack Payne, Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida, in a video message.

“We are focusing on special theme areas and are looking to collaborate with partners to develop some new solutions based on proven principles of online learning, distance education, short courses and open universities,” said Dr Christine Geith, Assistant Provost and Executive Director of Michigan State University’s MSUglobal.

The initiative at India specifically seeks to contribute to its agricultural education system, bringing systematic changes through strategic coalition of regional, national and international partners. The MOOCs is a recent development in distance education in the country, which has now been boosted by the One Agriculture – One Science consortium through the pooling of international expertise, experience and resources.

“The strength and ultimate success of this initiative and all MOOCs rests upon the usage and usefulness of what is provided. Our MOOCs are focusing on applied science that can readily be helpful to our audiences that log on. We are actively engaging partners that can bring this approach to the MOOC agricultural community,” said Dr Mary Holz-Clause, Dean, College of Agriculture at California Polytechnical University in southern California.

Offering free online agricultural courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the internet, MOOCs will have traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, as well as interactive user forums to help build a community for learners (students, professors and teaching assistants) within India.

“In the words of our honorable Prime Minister, bringing the best of education to the remotest areas could be difficult, but using technology will make it possible. Our Government has listed online education as a priority and will be launching India’s open online platform six months from now. Next year at least 50 centrally funded universities will be operating courses online,” said Mr Praveen Prakash, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development and Mission Director, National Mission in Education through ICT, India.

“ICT in agriculture has given us exciting results. It helped us reach millions of farmers. The era of ICT is the golden era in agriculture. We should advance ICT-related activities like the MOOCs for better results in agriculture,” said Dr Arvind Kumar, Deputy Director General (Education), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

“Addressing the necessary changes and adaptations in agricultural education is critical today to ensure food security and sustainable agricultural production in developing countries. The One Agriculture – One Science initiative hopes to support agriculture with the latest advancements in technology and knowledge flow strategies,” said Dr Dileepkumar Guntuku, Global Leader, Knowledge Sharing and Innovation, ICRISAT. “This new global partnership seeks to bring various disciplines in agricultural education such as crop, livestock, fisheries, natural resource management, etc. under one roof by providing a common platform to address pressing global food security, accessibility and affordability challenges,” he added.

The launch of the ‘National Virtual Academy for India Agriculture to promote MOOCs for Agricultural Professionals’ under the One Agriculture – One Science initiative was attended by select experts from India’s National Academy of Agricultural Research and Management (NAARM) and MANAGE, ICRISAT’s key national partners; University of Florida (UF) and Michigan State University (MSU); leaders in the Indian agricultural education system; Vice Chancellors of five selected universities; CEOs of private organizations and foundations; and senior officials/staff of ICRISAT. It was witnessed by about 80 senior officials from national and international organizations.

Releasing the information leaflet. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

back to top Back to top

Forging new partnerships

During the MoU signing. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

ICRISAT and the MSUglobal at Michigan State University have agreed to collaborate on several activities to promote international academic cooperation. The partnership will encourage:

  • Exchange of materials in education and research; publications and academic information;

  • Exchange of faculty and research scholars;

  • Joint research and meetings for education and research;

  • Jointly explore external funding opportunities through project proposal development;

  • Technical assistance; and

  • Creation and marketing of electronic instruction media, including, credit and non-credit courses; these could be made available through variety of means including material for third party licensing, direct involvement or for sale.

  • A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between ICRISAT and the Michigan State University at the ICRISAT-India on 1 September.

back to top Back to top

Third ICRISAT Gender Forum
Feminization of technology should lead to welfare rather than profit

Dr Rekha Pande sharing her thoughts on “Technology and Gender Disparities”. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Technology is not gender-neutral and there is a need to break gender stereotypes regarding technology. Feminization of technology should lead to welfare rather than profit, while the question remains as to what extent new technologies have improved women’s lives, lessened their workload, increased employment opportunities or enhanced their authority.

These were some of the ideas discussed at the third ICRISAT Gender Forum titled “Technology and Gender Disparities” held at ICRISAT-India on 28 August. Dr Rekha Pande, Professor and Head, Department of History, Joint Faculty, Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad was the speaker at this event. ICRISAT is celebrating 2014 as ICRISAT Year of Gender. (www.icrisat.org/icrisat-gender-approach.htm)

Dr Pande, who champions the cause of gender in education and women and child rights, spoke on  understanding the concept of technology and gender disparity; examining the two views of technology; and also focused on gender disparity in sectors like information technology, agriculture and dairying, with examples from India. She underlined the need for initiatives that would encourage women to acquire more skills, rework the curriculum (from an educationist’s point of view) and combat stereotypes.

ICRISAT staff interacting with local farmers. Photo: ICRISAT

The speaker adopted a feminist theory style of discussion to reveal to researchers how feminist theory can also be used to inform agricultural research for development, given its similarities to gender research. Feminist theorizing is a broader strategy of diversity mainstreaming which can more efficiently capture, articulate and reveal the relationship between interlocking forms of domination that include, but are not limited to gender.

Dr Pande referred to the high enrolment rates of girls in schools which starts tapering as we move to university level education till only a small percentage take up a career in science, technology, medical or engineering. This is due to family responsibilities which women are expected to bear further contributing to the gender disparity in science and engineering professions.

Dr Cynthia Bantilan, Research Program Director, Markets, Institutions and Policy (MIP), ICRISAT, welcomed the speaker and all the participants. Apart from in-person participation by researchers from India, the event also had researchers from ICRISAT’s Nairobi, Niger and Mali centers participating virtually.

Dr R Padmaja, Scientist (Gender Research) elaborated on the Gender Forum’s three Ws – ‘What works, Why it works and Why it doesn’t’. “The focus from mainstreaming gender to integration of gender in all research activities enables us to move towards bringing about a transformational change and identify barriers and constraints which women face and how technology (in particular ICT) can empower men and women,” she said.

The key takeaways from the discussion were:
  • A feminist viewpoint can enhance the effectiveness and equity of interventions (including ICT)  meant to empower smallholder women and men

  • It can enhance the local understanding of empowerment and what it means to rural women and men

  • Given the constraints/barriers women face in rural/urban areas and that these will take time to be eradicated, it is important to widen the choices available to them within a given system(s)

  • There is a variety of choice providing access to new technology, knowledge or information, which leads to self-actualization by women and men. The key lies in understanding how the constraints they face can be removed and identify alternate pathways to empower women.

  • The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session. The forum ended on an encouraging note with Dr Pande stressing on IT as an enabling factor in mobilizing group opinion (like Facebook) and changes occurring in technology that could benefit women.

back to top Back to top

ICRISAT-Niger Seminar Series
Pearl millet breeding and agroforestry

Participants during a session. Photo: ICRISAT

At the second seminar in the series planned by ICRISAT-Niger, scientists discussed the fact that pearl millet improvement was challenging in its center of origin.

“The goal of pearl millet breeding efforts in this region is effective and efficient systems for development and testing of genetically diverse, productive, resilient and nutritious farmer- and market-preferred pearl millet cultivars for Sahelian and Sudano-Sahelian agro-ecologies,” reported Dr C Tom Hash, Principal Scientist (Millet Breeding), ICRISAT Dryland Cereals Program.

He drew attention to the fact that in its center of origin, pearl millet improvement is particularly challenging. Hence, adoption levels of improved cultivars in most countries remain low. “We are now attempting to integrate the use of new genomic tools (primarily marker-assisted selection) with previously used conventional and participatory approaches. This will help us exploit the strengths of each to cost-effectively generate improved pearl millet cultivars that are more likely to be adopted by the target farm communities,” he said.

Opportunities and challenges were presented to initiate a broader discussion on how pearl millet breeding can move forward in this region.

Dr Patrice Savadogo, Joint Agroforestry System scientist ICRAF/ICRISAT discussed the role of agroforestry in making the links between food security and agricultural sustainability in West African Sahel and dry Savanna regions.

The presentations were followed by discussions on issues like water distribution, mechanization, farm management system, traditional resource conservation approaches, Faidherbia albida halo effect, challenges constraining adoption of improved millet varieties and related technologies, challenges in pearl millet improvement for WCA, and gender implications in food processing issues.

Dr Jupiter Ndjeunga, Principal Scientist (Markets, Institutions and Policies) and Chair of the seminar committee, welcomed the participants and shared the objective of the meeting – “to share knowledge related to our own research.” The seminar was conducted 29 August and the next seminar will be held in September.

back to top Back to top

Brainstorming with partners on future strategies for pigeonpea research in India

At a recent event ‘Brainstorming Session on Pigeonpea Research – Current Status & Future Strategies for India,’ held at ICRISAT-India, partner institutes like the Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), Kanpur and other collaborating  institutes  came together to discuss the future strategy for pigeonpea research in India.

During the inaugural session, Dr CLL Gowda, Deputy Director General-Research, ICRISAT, shared that the modernization of pigeonpea breeding, using tools of Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), will soon be made available to national partners. Further, he requested continued support from IIPR and the Indian Government.

Appreciating the efforts of ICRISAT during the last 40 years in the field of pigeonpea improvement, Dr NP Singh, Director IIPR, said, “Although we have pigeonpea hybrids available, research on both fronts - varietal improvement as well as improvement of the parental lines of hybrid is the need of the hour.”

Dr Singh emphasized on the need for developing superior pigeonpea varieties as well as on maintenance breeding. He suggested intensifying efforts towards utilizing genome sequence for pigeonpea improvement.

Dr Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director, Grain Legumes, ICRISAT emphasized on the need to modernize and digitize pigeonpea breeding. He highlighted the importance of developing and deploying ‘battery of markers’ associated with the trait of interest in pigeonpea research.

“ICAR, in general, and IIPR in particular, together with state agricultural universities have for four decades partnered with ICRISAT in improving pigeonpea. Therefore, it is important for us to work with our stakeholders to assess their needs and prospects. Based on discussions with our partners as well as discussions during the Asia in-house review meeting of Research Program-Grain Legumes, we decided to organize this brainstorming session. I am very happy to note that we have a better ideas now to move ahead along with our partners in the area of pigeonpea research,” said Dr Varshney. 

Based on the discussions the following Action plan was developed:
Early maturing varieties: It was decided that extra early (120-125 days) and medium duration (140-150 days) varieties/hybrids with high yield and disease resistance needs to be developed for different zones of the country.

Heterosis in hybrids: The current level of heterosis in hybrids needs to be enhanced through systematic hybrid breeding.

Fusarium Wilt and Sterility Mosaic Disease resistance: It was emphasized that development of Fusarium Wilt and Sterility Mosaic Disease resistance varieties and hybrids are a pre-requisite for enhancing productivity of pigeonpea. Therefore, development of such breeding and parental lines through molecular breeding is an urgent need.

Photo insensitivity: Development of photo-insensitive breeding lines is required to grow pigeonpea in different agro-climatic zone with minimum yield reduction.

This activity was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes.

Participants of the brainstorming session. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

back to top Back to top

ICRISAT @ Global/National Events

Dr Pooran Gaur, ICRISAT

ICRISAT participated in the celebrations of Dr Norman Borlaug’s birth centenary organized by the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran (ABRII). This ceremony was held on 26 August along with the  13th Iranian Crop Science Congress and 3rd Iranian Seed Science and Technology Conference.

Dr. Pooran Gaur, Assistant Research Program Director – Grain Legumes represented ICRISAT. Several dignitaries including Mr Mahmoud Hojjati, Minister of Agriculture, Islamic Republic of Iran and Dr Kenneth M Quinn, President of World Food Prize were present. The CGIAR institutes represented included ICRISAT, ICARDA, IRRI and CIMMYT.

Mr Aravazhi Selvaraj, ICRISAT

At the sixth edition of ‘Agri Tech India 2014’, Mr Aravazhi Selvaraj, Chief Operating Officer, ICRISAT Agribusiness and Innovation Platform (AIP), emphasized the crucial role of entrepreneurship and innovations in agriculture. He elaborated on the role of ICRISAT in bringing different stakeholders together to accelerate the development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources, services and technology commercialization through public-private partnership. The event showcased the use of latest technologies in post-harvest management, value addition in food processing, and packaging. It also provided an opportunity for growers, wholesalers, importers, exporters and other stakeholders from various segments of agriculture and allied sectors, to expand and diversify their activities.

back to top Back to top

Machine harvestable and herbicide tolerant chickpea lines identified

At the first review meeting of the project “Developing Chickpea Cultivars suited to Mechanical Harvesting and Tolerant to Herbicides” the most promising chickpea lines suitable for mechanical harvesting and tolerant to herbicides were presented.

Dr Pooran Gaur, Assistant Research Program Director – Grain Legumes, and Project Coordinator, presented highlights of the progress made during 2013-14. The project team identified promising breeding lines which were at par or superior to the best chickpea cultivar at each target location while also being suitable for machine harvesting. In addition, sources of herbicide tolerance were identified by screening large number of chickpea genotypes at each location.

On the recommendation of the project team, an Initial Varietal Trial (IVT) on Machine Harvestable Chickpea was introduced in AICRP trials. This trial will facilitate release of machine harvestable chickpea varieties through the Central Variety Release Committee. The project team contributed eight entries to this trial.

The review meeting was held in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India on 29 August and attended by project partners, ICRISAT, the Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), Kanpur, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya (RVSKVV), and Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU).

back to top Back to top

Readers’ comments

Recently, I have started receiving ‘ICRISAT Happenings’. My colleagues and I find it very informative and useful. – Dr Prem Nath, Former Asst. Director General, Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Chairman, PN Agricultural Science Foundation.

Thank you again for sharing your remarkable initiatives with our University (Benguet State University). I am convinced that when I similarly spread this refreshing knowledge on to the new partners of ICRISAT, our University shall certainly stand to benefit along our research for development activities. – Dr Gilda Victoria B Jacalan, Director, University Public Affairs Office.

back to top Back to top