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E-learning and self-assessment tool – developing entrepreneurial skills

This section is about the tool developed within EsoF. This tool will be presented as a web-based e-learning tool for farmers, integrating self-assessments.

Presented in this section are the aims of the tool, the most important theoretical and didactic criteria, and the tool structure. The appendix contains some examples extracted from the tool.

Aims of the tool

Utilisation of the tool is intended to broaden farmers’ competencies in entrepreneurial behaviour, independently from the general conditions in agriculture. As described in chapter 4, these competencies are related to entrepreneurial skills. More precisely, the aims of this tool are:

·         To offer farmers a learning environment in which they can improve their entrepreneurial skills and their knowledge about them.

·         To support the development of farmers’ capacity for self-reflection and to enable them to engage in a realistic yet encouraging self-assessment of their own entrepreneurial skills.

·         To enable farmers to reflect on their behaviour and attitudes concerning entrepreneurial skills.

·         To enable the farmer to understand which skills are needed for farm entrepreneurship

·         To provide information about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills in farming.

The main didactic method used in this tool is to question the user about how he or she does something. This is the main distinction compared with other e-learning tools. It is not the aim of the tool to judge whether a farmer is good or bad in something, or to characterise the farmer as an entrepreneur or as anything else, but to support the learning process, knowledge acquisition and self-reflective processes. The broadening of perspectives and experiential learning are the most important factors in enhancing the development of entrepreneurial skills.

Other ESoF results that influenced the development of the tool

Which results are important for the construction of the tool in order to achieve these goals? First, the tool is based on the insight that entrepreneurial skills can be learned, and that the learning process can be supported by a broadening of perspectives. Thus, experiential learning is a good way to acquire entrepreneurial skills. Learning in groups, based on the exchange within the group, can also enhance these processes.

The second important aspect of the results are the differences and relationships between different skills, basic and entrepreneurial skills. This differentiation must be taken into account within the lessons.

The questionnaires used in the main stage and in the Finnish survey can be used for the assessment. This enables a comparison of the user with data from 775 other farmers (Finnish survey). To compare oneself with other people is always a motivating factor in assessments. According to the main stage (Vesala & Pyysiäinen 2008) , the questions are empirically valid.

Another aspect is the methodological and scientific approach towards entrepreneurial skill development. The theoretical background of the EsoF project draws on constructivist ideas. Following this approach, some important criteria for the construction of the tool emerge. The constructivist approach and further didactic ideas are presented in the next section.

Learning theories – Approach to learning

To be able to design a consistent and effective tool it is necessary to reflect on learning theories and didactic concepts. The field of ‘learning studies’ is widespread and diversified; many different concepts on different levels provide more or less useful information for the conception of the tool. The assumptions presented here provide the important theoretical background for the special requirements of the ESoF tool.

In learning theory, three ‘main’ schools of thought exist (Meier 2006, 81-85):

·         Behaviourism

·         Cognitive studies

·         Constructivism

The methodological approach in EsoF is influenced by constructivist ideas. Understanding learning as an active process that takes place in social situations could also be considered an assumption from this realm of ideas.

Constructivism requires somewhat further clarification. It is important to distinguish between different uses of the term constructivism (cf. Schnotz / Molz / Rinn 2004, 132f.). First, there is a philosophical-epistemic position which asks about the possibilities of (scientific) findings. Second, a cognitive-psychological position describes ‘perception, understanding and thinking as processes of mental constructions of inner representations through the individual’ (ibid, 132; translated by J.J.) and is sometimes also called the constructivist position. The third position, social constructivism, assumes that learning is an active process of construction that is situated in social situations.

The perspective of social constructivism focuses on the situational aspect of learning processes:

‘Learning develops from action, action takes place in social situations, thinking and cognition are hence situational. Or with the strongly worded sentences from Maturana and Varela: ‘Every doing is cognition, and every cognition is doing’’ (Schulmeister 1997, 75; translated by J.J.).

Following this position, it is important to situate learning processes within an authentic social situation; the problems contained within these learning situations should motivate learners intrinsically and enable them to solve similar problems by themselves in future (Schnotz / Molz / Rinn 2004, 133). This aspect seems to be appropriate for the aims of the tool: its intention is to motivate and enable farmers to reflect about their entrepreneurial skills, to learn new options for acting, and to be able to transfer the new ‘knowledge’ (knowledge also includes experiential knowledge) into practice.

What are the most important insights of the social constructivist perspective?

·         ‘Learning is an active process: Learning is only possible through active involvement of the learners. This implies that the learner is motivated to learn and that he is interested in or develops interest in what he does and how he does it.

·         Learning is a self-directed process: The learner assumes supervision and control processes in every learning action.

·         Learning is a constructivist process: Learning is in every case constructive. Cognitive processes in principle do not proceed without individual operating experience, knowledge background and own interpretations.

·         Learning is a situational process: Learning occurs always in specific contexts, so that every process of learning can be regarded as situational.

·         Learning is a social process: Learning always includes social components.’

So what are the consequences for the tool?

The constructivist perspective comes very close to our approach in ESoF on account of its emphasis on the situational and action-related aspects. The motivational aspects of the learners seem to be very important. The learning situation must reflect authentic social situations. And, last but not least, audio-visual elements are said to be supportive for motivation.