Ag grads need digital literacy

Food Agility's David Lamb: Education for the future farm


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SMART FARM: Food Agility, chief scientist and University of New England, precision agriculture research group, Professor David Lamb.

SMART FARM: Food Agility, chief scientist and University of New England, precision agriculture research group, Professor David Lamb.

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Food Agility chief scientist David Lamb says ag education needs to update

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SMART FARMING and digital agriculture are challenging agricultural educators to prepare students for a disrupted workforce.

Food Agility chief scientist and University of New England precision agriculture researcher, Professor David Lamb said students need to be prepared for the future. 

“Digital agriculture is everywhere in the agricultural food sector,” he said. 

“Students need more technical confidence, digital literacy and they have to be more numerate.”

Prof Lamb said because digital agriculture was such a fast moving space, teaching digital literacy and laying down the foundations for life long learning was fundamentally important. 

“The challenge we educators face is how to train  the next generation of farmers and food producers how to learn and adapt in a very rapidly changing sector when these very cohort of students are keener than ever to get qualified and get out into the marketplace sooner.

“The tendency is to squeeze stuff in, as after all we need to inject more digital agriculture, but we can’t throw out the fundamentals of agronomy, soil management and animal science, they still have to know the systems they are running.”

Prof Lamb said the traditional response is that students either needed to do longer initial degrees, or continue with post graduate studies. But there is an alternative where we develop and make available new ways of learning that suits the agile nature of their industry.

“On its own, the old three year agriculture degree is going to be dead in the water, because you simply can’t be exposed to enough in three years,” he said.

“Foundation skills are really important, we need more room in our degrees.

On its own, the old three year agriculture degree is going to be dead in the water, because you simply can’t be exposed to enough in three years - Dave Lamb

“They are graduating and then coming back for certificates or masters degrees or they are completing ‘bespoke courses to pick up a couple of extra units. But the notion of micro credentials is something to look more closely at.

Prof Lamb said at the University of New England enrolments in agriculture were increasing, however there needed to be a continual push to attract the best and brightest into agriculture. 

“What is happening now, has shone a spotlight on the way we educate,” he said. 

“We have to be more proactive in offering our science students, our non-agriculture students, more access to agricultural content, so we can cross-fertilise between sectors.

“We need to start working harder at the high school level to get the best and brightest engaged in agriculture.”

Prof Lamb said Australia’s Research Development Corporations (RDCs), such as MLA, AWI and the GRDC, had a role play in reaching back to primary and secondary schools to interest and educate a larger pool of students.

“This is where the real opportunity is for our RDCs to step up, they retain an unprecedented network of industry contacts and influence,” he said. 

Prof Lamb also said old ideas such as continual professional learning accreditation schemes were back on the table, albeit in a new format. “We need to do more in micro-credentials so people can pick up short bursts of essential new knowledge to get up to speed."

“Its almost like we need a credential for a certified practising food producer based around continual renewal of skills and knowledge”

However, Prof Lamb acknowledged pushes for professional certification in agriculture-related areas such as agronomy had not gained significant traction over the years due to the relatively small workforce and other competitive influences. But said, “Maybe times are changing.”

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