Options and Strategies for Information and Communication Technologies within Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services
The term “ICT” has been around since the 1980s, when it was popularized in the United Kingdom. ICT is different from information technology (IT) because it stresses the role of communications and the integration of telecommunications networks and computer networks. The communications component is critical when designing and delivering technology that is meant to widen dissemination among communities, deepen understanding for individuals and increase democratization of information which allows more people to provide and access information. Communication is a primary human activity. In the most basic form, it can be described as sending and receiving a message. The roles and activities are a sender, a message, a receiver and feedback. Shannon (1948) is credited with providing a basic description of the elements of communication.
The complexity in the simple communications model is easy to underestimate. The message combines information and can be delivered through technology. The methods used for information and technology can be altered at any point in the process. Information and communication technology (ICT) represents an opportunity to enhance the communications process by selecting the technology that makes the information more understandable to the receiver.
Communication technology can also influence the process, especially if the sender or receivers are using different tools. This can happen when the sender is using tools that the receiver does not have access to or if the receiver is able to receive information only in a certain format. For example, the receiver is not literate or has no access to technology, including radios or phones. For extension and advisory services to utilize ICT effectively, the designers of communication must plan with the end user in mind.
This discussion paper will cover the important role of ICT in the provision of extension and advisory services (EAS). EAS have been defined as “the dissemination of expert agriculture knowledge and practices” (Toyama, 2011). The communication from extension and advisory services is complex because it comes from many sources -- government, universities, NGOs, private sector companies -- and it involves not just information but hands-on communication. Many of the farmers who need to be served in developing countries are illiterate. The information conveyed through extension consists of data (information), knowledge (simple skills), training (advanced skills and techniques) and education (where use of information requires critical thinking).
Further complications arise from the fact that the number of ICT tools is growing and tools are constantly changing. Extension agents and their organizations are faced with a myriad of ICT choices of tools, from simple to sophisticated. Many in the EAS field are requesting research and evaluation of these tools before funds are spent, perhaps unwisely -- the results of many pilot programs vary and seem less than sustainable. Given ICT’s impact in developing countries, it seems likely that funders and governments will continue to expect inclusion of ICT tools and technology as a means of improving EAS. Given the pervasiveness of technology, it becomes critical for practitioners to understand ICT so that they can align technology options and strategies to design effective communication for farmers.
The Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS) Discussion Paper series is designed to further the comparative analysis and learning from international extension efforts. The papers contain a review of extension and advisory service best practices drawn from the global body of experience in successfully reaching resource-limited farmers. The papers identify the underlying principles associated with high levels of success in reaching women and men farmers and how, in differing contexts, these core principles have been successfully adapted to fit local conditions in establishing productive, profitable and sustainable relationships with individual producers, producer groups, the private sector and associated research and education institutions.
The series, and the companion MEAS Working Papers, include papers on a wide range of topics, such as the realities of pluralistic extension provisioning, sustainable financing, human resource development, the role of farmer organizations, linking farmers to markets, the importance of gender, health and nutrition, use of information and communication technologies and climate change adaptation. The papers target policy makers, donor agency and project staff, researchers, teachers and international development practitioners. All papers are available for download from the MEAS project website, www.meas-extension.org.
Brent M. Simpson, Michigan State University, and
Paul McNamara, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign