Understanding Modern Agriculture: objectives and implementation strategy


Drafts of the lectures are always posted and updated at this link. The course will be complete by the fall semester of 2014. We should begin advertising it on D2L’s Open Courses.


  • To take the student on a historic tour of agriculture from the sixteenth century to today, so that they understand how market forces, policy, and technological innovation have shaped agriculture. They will gain an appreciation of the bounty of food that mechanization, science, and industry allows, as well as the challenges they pose. A history of food culture is also provided.
  • To take the student on a series of virtual tours to demonstrate how modern agriculture works, including tours of a beef, swine, and dairy farm; crop breeding and fertilization experiments; a grocery store and a farmers market; and a number of scientific laboratories, including a soil testing lab.
  • To take the student on a tour of modern agricultural controversies, instilling in them an appreciation for why equally smart and kind people can form radically different notions about food, and to help students form their own educated views. Such topics include water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, antibiotic use, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms.

Implementation and target audience

Understanding Modern Agriculture is built to be versatile for OSU and accommodating to the public. It is versatile in the sense that it can be offered as a traditional internet-based course, or, with a provider such as Desire2Learn’s Open Courses, administered as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Also, the content can be accessed through webpages and YouTube videos, and thus can be used as supplementary materials to other courses at OSU (perhaps even high schools).

The course is accommodating to students in that it is accessible to a diverse audience. The material is presented assuming little prior knowledge of, and no actual experience in, agriculture. Yet, it should be enlightening even to those with advanced agricultural degrees. The course takes a panoramic view of agriculture, explaining how conventional farms raise livestock and crops, how markets connect today’s grocery stores with farmers across the world, how advanced chemistry and physics are employed in soil testing labs, and why ground-breaking epigenetic research in biochemistry is destined to revolutionize agriculture.

The public is also accommodated in the sense that they may take (a) part of the course for free and without credit (b) part of the course for college credit or (c) the entire course for college credit.


Those taking the course for free are not required to demonstrate their participation or learning. The course is, however, designed to award college credit for those who learn the material. The assessment philosophy is to make high grades easy to earn if the student “attends” the lectures, but to cover enough material that attending all lectures consumes a considerable amount of time. Note: “attending” a lecture entails reading an article, watching a video, or listening to an audio recording).

Assessment will be conducted using two strategies. The first strategy employs standard quizzes which can be conducted on platforms like D2L’s quiz software, which are graded automatically and can be taken at any time. So long as the student covers the material there should be no problem answering all answers correctly. These questions will be ordered so that students can answer them as they attend lectures.

A second assessment strategy allows interaction between the instructor and students, and requires participation only. That is, they are required to contribute, but are not graded on what they contribute. Forums will be used for discussion, and perhaps I will conduct surveys of students’ perceptions and attitudes on certain topics. Other times I will ask students to share something from their life that is related to a lecture. For instance, they may post an anecdote about a food custom from their family, a picture of their local farmers market, or information from an external source. After giving virtual tours of the beef, dairy, and swine farm, I will ask students if they have any questions. They will be answered in videos described as “office hours”, which might involve me simply answering questions, or brief interviews with farm managers or scientists. The idea is to allow the course to go beyond my expertise, if the students wish.

Course Organization

Each lecture consists of both an article and a video (in a few cases audio is used instead of video), both containing the same basic material. There is considerable variety in the style of videos. Some are standard lectures using slides (filmed at ITLE); other lectures display multiple videos, pictures, and notes simultaneously; and others are virtual tours of farms, labs, and food providers. There is even a lecture told through short fiction.

A draft of the contents and lectures can be viewed here. I welcome all comments.