Feed the Future
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The Difference Between Agricultural Education and Extension, and Why It Matters

In the agricultural development world, when we talk about “agricultural education and training” (AET) most people think of extension activities—experts helping farmers in the field on specific skills. However, AET is much broader than extension. Extension is part of a nation’s AET system. To make sustainable improvements to the agricultural value chain, including an individual farmer’s output, we must address the whole system.

The education and training needs of an agriculture sector within a specific country are often quite broad. There are typically workforce development needs to prepare workers prior to entering the workforce (pre-entry) and there are needs to provide supplemental training for workers once they are actively working in the field (inservice). The methods for delivering both pre-entry and inservice training can take many forms ranging from formal training programs to independent self study. Educational terminology is not always universally used, so let’s begin with defining a few terms (based on Etling, 1993):  

  • Formal education – planned educational experiences typically structured through an educational institution where learning as graded and credit awarded.
  • Nonformal education – planned and systematic educational experiences that occur outside a formal educational institution. Learning may or may not be graded and credit may or may not be awarded. Nonformal education is typically much less structured than formal education.
  • Informal education – everyday learning and self-guided learning. This kind of learning is not graded and credit is not awarded. Informal education is the least structured form of learning.

The terms nonformal and informal are frequently used interchangeably, but based on the definitions above they are not the same thing. Care should be used in which term is selected and then it should be used consistently.

Based on the above discussion, when trying to differentiate education from extension several distinctions can be made.

Agricultural Education and Training System Chart

Education is typically referring to formal education institutions delivering systematic instruction which leads to graduation and the awarding of some kind of certificate, diploma, or degree. Education typically occurs before entering the workforce. Based on UNESCO (2011) definitions, educational levels include:

  • Level 1 – primary
  • Level 2 – lower secondary
  • Level 3 – secondary
  • Level 4 – post-secondary (non-tertiary)
  • Level 5 – short cycle tertiary
  • Level 6 – bachelor’s or equivalent
  • Level 7 – master’s or equivalent
  • Level 8 ­– doctoral or equivalent.

Educational institutions are typically required to follow a curriculum or standards mandated form the government, most typically through the Ministry of Education, although some workforce or vocational programs may be coordinated through a different ministry. Management of individual schools can be from the government, churches, NGOs, or other entities.

Extension is usually referring to nonformal education and typically occurs after someone has entered the workforce (inservice). The term extension is pretty prevalent worldwide, but agricultural/rural advisory services and agricultural development are used interchangeably with extension (Swanson, Bentz, & Sofranko, 1997). The administration of extension systems varies greatly around the world. In the U.S., extension is largely administered through the land grant universities, although the USDA does have some extension-like programs. In other countries, extension is typically administered through the ministry of agriculture, through a privatized system, or through a pluralistic system. Extension programming is typically demand-driven to meet the needs of individuals seeking knowledge.

So, what is the difference between education and extension?

Education is usually referring to formal education institutions delivering a planned curriculum leading to a degree or diploma before entering the workforce. Extension is usually referring to planned educational programs designed to meet the needs of people in the workforce. They are both part of the AET system.

 So, why does this difference matter?

We cannot just think about extension. You can see in the chart that if we only address extension, we are only addressing one part of the system. Sustainable, transformative change in agriculture requires both human and institutional capacity development in the whole AET system.

About the Author: Dr. T. Grady Roberts is a Professor at University of Florida and a partner with the Feed the Future Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education (InnovATE).


Etling, A. (1993). What is nonformal education? Journal of Agricultural Education, 34(4), 72-76. doi: 10.5032/jae.1993.04072

Swanson, B. E., Bentz, R. P., Sofranko, A. J. (1997). Improving agricultural extension: A reference manual. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/W5830E/w5830e00.htm

UNESCO. (2011). International standard classification of education: ISCED 2011. Montreal, Canada: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Documents/isced-2011-en.pdf