How Online Learning and Networking Can (And Should) Be a Part of the New Normal

Online Education at Michigan State UniversityWhen AmericanHort announced earlier this year that Cultivate’20 would become a virtual event, it marked perhaps the most significant change yet in the education process for growers and their teams. Rather than sitting in meetings rooms and interacting in-person with industry experts, Cultivate’20 Virtual attendees will go online this year to participate in Zoom presentations and other digital formats.

While this new approach to education might seem like a challenge, it bears consideration as to whether it will become part of what everyone keeps calling the new normal. Fortunately, those experienced in online education argue that it very well should be.


For example, employee turnover means that growers are constantly training new staff. Paul Fisher from the University of Florida (UF) and Roberto Lopez from Michigan State University (MSU) say we will find most of our future leaders already working in the horticulture industry, given the limited number of students graduating with university degrees. There is no better return on investment than upskilling staff who have already shown dedication and promise, Fisher says, and especially in 2020, we are all turning to the internet for solutions.

Both UF and MSU have offered online training programs for greenhouse growers for years. The Greenhouse Training Online program hosted by UF offers eight four-week online courses in English and Spanish, including a new course in 2020 on Hydroponic Vegetable Production. The training program also has a new YouTube channel that offers bite-sized videos. In the last two years alone, more than a thousand growers took courses. Fisher says that every hour of instruction takes the UF team about 80 hours to prepare, and that online training is more than just canned PowerPoints.

“Initially, we really missed the face-to-face interactions, but we now require every grower to participate in discussions, and our instructors are available to answer specific questions,” Fisher says. “We can go into more depth and discussion than is possible in a one-hour conference presentation.”

The MSU Floriculture College of Knowledge (CoK) is a greenhouse grower career development program that was originally developed in the late 1990s. MSU now offers pre-recorded non-credit online courses twice a year in English and Spanish. The courses cover lighting, temperature, and root-zone management, abiotic disorders, and biological control.  Registrants have three months to complete the self-paced courses. Students in the course take a pre-test and a final exam to gauge their learning on the topics. Registrants also can complete the optional self-assessment quizzes to engage with the material throughout the course.

Grower feedback has been very positive for both the UF and MSU courses, and the online format is not a major barrier. As one grower participant noted, “the course really gave me background for why our procedures are set up as they are, and a basis for working through trouble shooting when needed.”

“We all miss going out to visit growers, and the opportunity to network at trade shows, but give online training a try – I am really glad we have this option!” Fisher says.