Programmed Learning Model

Programmed Learning is essentially about formal or ‘packaged’ education opportunities that are positioned beyond informal learning that is often based on existing knowledge and experiences of individuals or bounded within a certain group.  (Coutts et al., 2005).  Programmed learning can be a formal qualification delivered by a Registered Training Organisation or packaged information that can come from learnings from other group processes or research.  This research can be sourced from professional researchers at a research institute or from collaborative research projects carried out on-farm or at community research sites.

‘Programmed’ refers to a learning event that has a specific set of curriculum or learning objectives, based on research outcomes; as compared to more open and emergent learning experiences that occur in processes such as the Group Facilitation/Empowerment model.

A Roberts and others (2005) review found that extension participants were seeking accreditation for learning undertaken and building towards formal qualifications, such as certificates and diplomas.  Programmed learning as formal learning is a top-down approach to extension, in that participants rarely have the opportunity to shape the occurrence of the learning event, content and process.  However, participation in formal learning indicates a need to fill a knowledge gap that maybe driven by market research, industry/community demand or personal motivation.

Programmed learning has developed from the work of B.F. Skinner in the 1950s who was a behavioural psychologist who found that learning is often best accomplished by breaking teaching into small, incremental steps with an immediate reinforcement or reward after each step for the learner.  A short overview on his thinking is provided in the video below.

Programmed learning can also be achieved within a project structure as a series of workshops that are delivered based on adult learning principles and experiential learning e.g. The Building Rural Leaders Foundation Programs,

The rationale for developing a project around programmed learning is:

  • That workshops and courses can be delivered across regions and states and be applicable to a large number of diverse stakeholders
  • There is a perceived need to have an impact on awareness and knowledge across a sector or geographical area
  • There is a clear demand from industry, community, groups and individuals for training and learning in a specific area

Common characteristics of a Programmed Learning Model:

  • It is based on extensive market research or user demand
  • It  has up-to-date information accessed from the full range of potential sources and integrated into a cohesive ‘package’
  • The learning is developed and delivered as incremental steps
  • A transparent and defendable quality control mechanism is in place in the development and implementation of the project
  • A facilitator’s guide is developed that can easily be used by qualified presenters who have not developed the course itself
  • The course material is aligned to competencies under training packages in the VET system and effectively linked to the National Training Framework
  • There is clear explanation of the VET pathways to allow presenters and participants to understand how the package can contribute towards formal qualifications
  • Learners are provided with participant booklets that allow them to easily follow learning activities and will serve as refreshers after the course/programmed learning
  • Training is gender sensitive in terms of timing, content and recommended facilities
  • A range of media channels are used to cater for different styles of learning and to make the learning experience more interesting
  • Pilots are undertaken and rigorously assessed
  • Adult and experiential learning principles are incorporated into the program
  • Participant feedback is provided for and made available to funders
  • Provision is made to support participants between workshops and/or at completion
  • Local examples and fieldtrips are typically incorporated into the content
  • Distance or self-directed learning packages are available for those who cannot participate in a learning project/group training
  • The level of numeracy and literacy skills of participants is not  assumed
  • Direct opportunities for a learner to relate education content to their own situation are included

A key example are the Tocal skills training (previously known as PROfarm courses).  Click here.

Tocal skills training is a comprehensive training program developed by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) to meet the needs of the primary industries sector.  Courses are delivered locally by highly skilled and respected presenters.  Many of the courses are subsidised to reflect the public benefits provided by the adoption of more sustainable farming practices.  Courses can be searched under the topics of :

  • Agricultural Resource Management
  • Farm Skills
  • Horticulture
  • Irrigation
  • Livestock
  • Monitoring and Evaluation
  • Online Course
  • Pastures, Cropping and Fodder Production
  • Rural Business Management
  • SMARTtrain Chemical Accreditation
  • Safety
  • Training, Learning and Assessment
  • Weeds

Another key example is the Meat and Livestock Australia EDGEnetwork® program.  (

This program offers courses to help producers gain knowledge and develop the skills necessary to improve their livestock enterprises.  The courses use an educational and informative format which aims to encourage producers to expand their current expertise, learn new skills, be motivated by other producers and access the latest information.  Participants work in groups that are large enough to encourage group learning but small enough that they can receive personalised service.

Content Sources and further information
Coutts, J., and Roberts, K., (2003).  ‘Extension Models and Best Practice in Extension.’ presented at the APEN National Forum, 26-28 November 2003, Hobart.  Website 

Coutts, J., Roberts, K., Frost, F. and Coutts, A. (2005).  The role of extension in building capacity:  What works and why.  Barton, A.C.T.:  Rural Industries and Development Corporation:  Cooperative Venture for Capacity Buildin