e-PDC: The Case for Online Permaculture Education

Would you believe that 1 in 6 married couples in the U.S. now meet online? I know what you’re thinking… the U.S. divorce rate is 1 in 2. Point taken. But, sincere connection does happen for some people over the internet.

Recently there has been a stir in the Permaculture community over Geoff Lawton’s widely publicized and highly enrolled Online PDC (Permaculture Design Course). Many opinions about the concept of an online PDC were expressed, from congratulations and support to skepticism and doubt. It really opened up the conversation, and I’d like to add my two cents, as I’ve been teaching Permaculture online for several years now, and have seen its pitfalls and successes. I don’t know the intricacies of how Geoff’s course is run, but I’d like to paint you a picture of how my course is run so you can consider the value of the online interface.

I’d like to start by saying that my experience teaching the Permaculture Design Course has been almost exclusively in the academic realm: For 10 years I taught a month-long immersion course at the experiential learning mecca, Prescott College for 3 years, a similar course at the Ecosa Institute, Oregon State University (OSU) for 5 years, as well as some weekend PDCs to the general public. Only a handful of times have I been involved as a guest in a more traditional 2-week PDC where a group of mostly strangers come together for an intensive educational and bonding experience.

So my perspective is a bit different from many PDC teachers. I am design-skills heavy, as my college student population are seeking tangible abilities to help them build their right-livlihood when they graduate, and are taking other courses simultaneously that often compliment many of the topics in the PDC (soil science, agroforestry, plant propagation, agriculture, etc.). At my current OSU location, I take attendance, give assignments, give grades, and hold high standards for the issuance of certificates, and if you don’t attend or make up every class and lab and turn in all your work at a satisfactory level, you don’t get the certificate. It’s really a different scene from the traditional PDC, hand-crafted to meet the expectations of my audience.

Now I’ve taken that curriculum and pedagogy developed over the last 12 years of teaching, learning and doing, and spent thousands of hours putting it into a well organized digital format where students get the content via the screen over 10 weeks. The students are located all over the place, and the design project starts on day one.  The work of the course is built around each student designing their site in their home bioregion.   Each successive piece builds layer upon layer of their design project, and requires the student to be very engaged with their local environment to complete each assignment. Their work is posted each week for the entire class to see, with required feedback on other student’s work. My comments and those from my co-instructor, Marisha Auerbach, are public in the class. Our comments are critical and engaging. 

Aside from reading and video content quizzes, blog, peer review and discussion board entries, here is a list of the assignments the students are required to complete sequentially. Each one of these assignments is a rather extensive project with various elements:

  1. Choose Design Project Site
  2. Create Watershed Maps: Childhood and Design Site
  3. Base Map      
  4. Elevation Map
  5. Sector Compass Map
  6. Microclimate Identification Map
  7. Current Zones of Use Map
  8. Client Questionnaire
  9. Soil Jar Testing: Clay, Sand, Silt, Organic Matter
  10. Compost Resource Assessment
  11. Soil Mapping from SCS website
  12. Rainwater Site Flow Map & Volume Calculations exercise
  13. Plant ID and Research
  14. Plant Guild Design
  15. Bioregional quiz
  16. Climate and Climatic Profiles Questionnaire
  17. Regional disaster assessment and preparedness strategies
  18. Zone 1 Microclimate Design Project
  19. Permaculture Design Course Final Project

Through this process we are getting a lot of amazing work by very talented and highly motivated students.  They need to demonstrate a clear understanding of the Permaculture design system. We have posted examples to the internet as proof of work, with links at the bottom of this article. Many students go on to implement their designs in their home communities, and Permaculture propagates.

Now is this the same thing as a face-to-face, heartfelt exchange of energy between teachers and students? No, it’s not. Are we up late in the kitchen swapping stories and falling in love? No. Are we sweaty, dirty and laughing while we build a compost pile? Nope, not that either.  

For a lot of people, their PDC experience was a pivotal social, emotional, and spiritual turning point in their lives. There’s sage teaching, song, dance, hugs, and soul empowerment. I’m totally all for that. When I teach a site-based PDC, we tour sites, do hands-on projects, sculpt our maps out of found objects, make seed balls, inoculate mushroom logs. For many people, the living experience is essential for so many reasons.

But are the social, emotional and spiritual elements of a PDC essential to embodying the core curriculum? Does the PDC need to activate the human on all those levels for them to receive the teachings and manifest Permaculture into their lives? I think for children, we have the utter responsibility to ensure that they “live-in” to the material. But adult education is something different.

Adults can choose what type of educational experience best suits them. Many of my online PDC students are already activated people, and need the theoretical comprehension of the system to bring them into manifestation. Some have taken a PDC already and are looking to go deeper.  Others are geographically isolated and for whatever personal reason can’t physically make it to a course. They have small children, unyielding work schedules, or other various reasons why they can’t travel and be away from home. Some students really don’t want a social experience in a PDC, they just want to learn the design system to apply it into their lives and communities.  Some students do not want the type or quality of PDC offered in their region, and seek out our class for its heavy focus on site assessment and design skills.

One of the biggest benefits that online Permaculture education offers to the world is the spread of the design system into populations that just wouldn’t get to a site-based course. If the Permaculture design system is like a mycelium web spreading through the collective consciousness and fruiting where two strands meet, then online education is a technique to inoculate new substrate that is currently devoid of our beneficial fungi. Permaculture information on the internet can be like a spore that has blown in from afar, right onto your desktop, where it can germinate into the fertile soil of your heart and mind.

The practical benefit for me personally in teaching online is it allows me to teach more students and offer the class at a lower cost. Because the content has been meticulously presented and recorded, the time Marisha and I spend during the course is dedicated to reviewing and giving feedback on students’ work. We get to know each design site intimately, and walk with every student through the design process based on their specific conditions and circumstances. Energetically, during the course we are mentoring each student on their design project, with the layers building each of the 10 weeks until the final design at the end. We reveal the questions that they may not have the perspective to ask about their sites and clients.

During and after the course, it is the student’s responsibility to bring the teachings into their lives, just like a face-to-face course. During the 10 weeks, they’ve been living on or near their site, yet shifting their perception one layer at a time. People are having life-changing experiences through our classes, they tell us so again and again. And then some take my Online Advanced Permaculture Design Practicum, to further actualize their design skills.

At this stage in the human saga with 7 billion souls, climate chaos, and a rapidly evolving human consciousness, we need to be poised to activate and educate the masses with the existing tools. The internet is one of those tools, and should be utilized to train high quality Permaculture practitioners. Many people want to study Permaculture online for various reasons, and I am confident that we’ve created an effective system to do so, and that others have as well.

Online education could really be your answer, or it may be the last thing that you want to do. But within the great diversity of pathways and learning styles, it can be a very effective way to educate, activate and catalyze people to take action and design the paradise we know is possible.

Links to Online Permaculture Design Course student portfolios:


  1. Thanks for posting about ePDCs. I am an instructional designer by trade (for those unfamiliar: think designer of elearning), and also a permaculture enthusiast. I’ve often thought about how to provide as much social interaction as possible in an online format, and to a degree I think discussion boards, and blogs are definitely good. Also synchronous online web meetings could help as well. However, I think for a majority of people (most of us crave the company and intellectual stimulation of other humans), we need a little more. I would guess that a blended solution (part online, part offline), would work best. Perhaps having folks meet in their local area either during the PDC for some key activities and/or right after to exchange highlights, clarify things, and share tools and resources. I would definitely be interested in helping to create something and participate in something like this. In any case, thanks for sharing Andrew. :)

  2. I’m also one of Geoff’s OPDC students. After visiting Zaytuna I really wanted to complete one. However with Full-Time work and a baby almost here, I couldn’t see how it was possible. Now I can get home, take care of home duties and jump into bed and look at an hour or two of coursework most nights.

    I feel there is also a lot to learn and get your head around and this way I can take the time, consult the Designer’s Manual, read some books, google a bit and increase my understanding on each part of the course. I hadn’t grown anything before starting this course. Already I have chickens, a worm farm, have grown pumpkins and have a large amount of tomatoes starting to ripen. The exposure to Permaculture has been a catalyst and a motivator to seek out more information.

    Obviously with online study there is a certain amount of self-motivation required. There is of course a need for practical experience. Most of us have a sunny ledge, a balcony or even a backyard where we can tinker about before we take on designs. There is also the observations we make each time we visit someone’s house, I’m thinking about design and what can be applied to make a more efficient and sustainable system.

    As I think further is the next logical step might be to have a practical mentor? Someone to help us extend our Practical Knowledge after we have completed a PDC and started applying design. Most people at the top of the game have a mentor who has helped them step it up to the next level. Someone who can develop their strengths and build up their weaknesses. Someone to expose them to different ideas, different plants, different techniques.

    Just like our skills and knowledge the places that we apply them to will be in transition and as they grow, we will too. All I know is that I’m optimistic about the world view that Permaculture is now providing me with – Abundance…


  3. Yes, I concur we need to reach as many people as possible. As the title of a great book says, ” Time is Short and the Water Rises.”. Getting the word out to many people is the name of the game.

    I must say, at moments in your piece it seems as if you are attempting to compete with Goeff. At least this is the tone I pick up. This sort of additude is so unnecessary. Geoff Lawton exudes cooperation & collaboration, along with so many other fine qualities.

    I am currently enrolled in his online course and hands down the course is incredible. This will be my second Permaculture Design Certificate. In 2010 I took a PDC in person in the Mid-West United States. Geoff makes that course seem like sandbox time.

    The benefits of the online course are too many to list. Getting to review the info is great, though I take detailed notes while Goeff is talking. Yet, the flexibility is uncomparable. I sorted the course and then had to rush to my sister’s bedside as she was dying . I have fallen behind in the course material because of this event in my life as I then needed to deal with legal papers and liquidating belongings, etc. Yet having the flexibility to now work over time to catch up is a blessing.

    Permaculture flows through Geoff’s blood so anytime he is talking about any topic or portion of design it all just ‘FLOWS’, his examples, anecdotes and analogies bring it all to life and watching him teach is a joy!

  4. Thanks Andrew for bringing this subject up. I am one of the people enrolled in Geoff’s highly enrolled online course! I have been involved in permaculture for many years taking knowledge direct from the designers manual. I insist on having my knowledge from a trusted source, that normally means following the trail from its origin and seeing where it leads. I am only now taking my first official course, incredible to think i waited 20 years or more, and that is for official certification/professional perpose. The course is good, and i can trust in my revision of the knowledge without any confusing information. Geoff has a great teaching style with clear and concise, well organised curriculum, ok good. The world surely needs that acceleration of information disemination and especially the inspiration to spread the word that it is time to start looking after the biosphere which, after all, is the only reason why we have the chance to live at all. I feel that this course does a fine job of that and congratulations to Geoff and team for the dedicated work and the larger scale promotion. Now….who is going to to make sure that my professional consulting is of the highest quality?? Still much work there

  5. Kim Hayes,
    Thanks for your feedback. I definitely did not put this piece out to compete with Geoff or create any disharmony!!! I put this out to illustrate how an online course can work for those who wonder. Geoff’s course has been the catalyst to bring the conversation of online education out into the wider permaculture world, and that is why I mention it as a springboard for my article. I have utmost respect for Geoff, PRI, and the course you are taking. I’m really glad for the course also because it brings legitimacy to the concept of online Permaculture education that only Geoff could do. I think the tone you are picking up is my feelings towards those who dismiss online Permaculture education all together before considering it’s potential for dynamic learning. This is something I have a bit of a charge about, which is partly what moved me to express myself in this article.

    I think there’s room in the world for many online courses, and I hope that others can learn from the model I’ve created, as I’d like to learn from other models.

  6. Thanks Andrew, for bringing this up.
    I am one of the people enrolled on Geoff Lawton`s online PDC.
    Imagine, 20 years plus since I first found permaculture and only now going for an official certificate. times indicate a must. The course is good and Geoff`s got his information very well in order, congratulations to the dedicated team…a much needed work, not only to teach individuals but to promote the word through inspiration to as many as we can, that it is urgent we do something to live here on the planet without hurting it further and taking us forwards to a new age …this time in a true prosperity.
    Ok good, so where are we? definitely in need of a quality assurance system…Andrew “Millison” (wow), sounds like great dedication to each student, making sure of the personal attention and that each student does actually know what they are doing! I have seen personally, students coming away from officially certified PDC courses without too much idea at all, or strange concepts or doing things aligned for a completely different climatic zone ! It is not my purpose here to point fingers, but really…this could potentially destroy the name “permaculture” before it has the chance to be a fully recognised and audited study that anyone can choose in any university across the globe. How many have I seen advertising their “own” style of permaculture teaching? with new metaphysical modules and the like appearing from advertised PDC teachers.
    So…where is the course for the “real Professional” …sorry but Dip. after my name doesnt prove that i really know what i am doing. It sounds like Andrew is already giving some of that quality testing in a short space of time.
    I guess i want to be properly tested and then i want to have a recognised title of quality assurance. I once brought a large company into ISO9004 quality assurance, something like that would be a positive structured approach.
    The internet, will just have to do for now, or it is the time and the money to go travelling around the world seeking the best teachers out there.
    Who will create the suitable examinations?
    Yours in dedication, doing what i can before I am composted myself!

  7. Bottom line is the world needs every single person with the mind and will to do something for future generations, and have a lot of fun and reward doing it, to join this incredible solutions based uplifting, doable, skill producing cause and using the mycelium running of the net is the way to get it out there to the many. I’d like someone to look into the advantages of closer ties between Geoff’s Permaculture and Rob Hopkin’s Transitional Movement.

  8. Hi Andrew:

    First of all, thank you so much for this wonderful article. I DEVOURED it. The information you put forth as well as the quality of your students’ work speaks volumes for the quality of your program.

    I, too, am in Geoff’s class. This is my 2nd PDC – the first was with Four Directions Permaculture in Phoenix. I’ve also been featured as a tour site when ECOSA students were on their way to Brad’s house in Tucson. (read: I was their lunch break – who can compete with Brad Lancaster?)

    Your outline and your students’ work comes at a time when I would like to try my own hand at teaching. Thank you so much for generously sharing this information. I feel on firmer footing because of it.

    Jen in Phoenix

  9. Thanks for all your feedback everyone. I’ve been thinking about it today and wanted to share:

    Permaculture online education is at it’s relative infancy, with the potential to explode the reach of Permaculture exponentially in the coming years, as long as a region’s power and internet grids hold up. The main concept that I’d like to insert into the conversation at this early stage is something that is required of me to provide by the university: “Measurable Student Learning Outcomes”, and “Assessment Tools” to measure student learning.

    In my conversations with other teachers in the Cascadia Permaculture Institute and others in the Pacific Northwest, it became apparent to me that many Permaculture courses don’t really require measurable outcomes from students, and presence alone at a PDC is enough to earn a certificate. I think especially when education moves online and you don’t have the face to face verification of learning, measurable student learning outcomes become that much more important. I think provable and measurable learning goals and outcomes will only raise the bar and make a PDC certificate more respected in the wider world as an affirmation of a certain level of understanding and capabilities.

    In the culture that I find at the University, I’ve had to provide proof of learning in order to move the perceptions of Permaculture to one of a respectable design field. When students bring developed tools, skills and perspectives of Permaculture in to their other classes, it shifts perspectives about our movement and field. I think this same effect happens when highly trained students spread out in to the world and interact with those around them. It heightens perceptions of Permaculture, creating a positive feedback loop, to cascade into a leap in human consciousness, and an uplifting of our species into an ecologically advanced civilization. Aho!

  10. Great article Andrew,
    Having spent my 20’s doing experiential education, I’ve been suspicious of an online permaculture but watching such paradigm shifting TED talks as these has changed my mind:

    Salman Khan of Khan Academy
    Daphne Koller (Stanford University): What we’re learning from online education

    In Sal’s TED Talk, as a result of having students learn all the material online through 10min videos, classroom time then gets flipped to be about practicing what was learned and what better classroom to practice in then a Permaculture centre, demonstration garden, etc, run by someone with experience to fulfill on the learning.

    If we’re serious about preserving a human habitable environment for the future, we need to get the working knowledge base of permaculture into the hands of billions asap. Online education looks like a good candidate to me so thanks for adding your voice to the conversation on it.

  11. I am also on Geoff’s online course and yes it is my second PDC also but I have a different slant on this whole topic.
    The information on the course is of interest and usefulness to many people who will probably not choose to be designers for other people as such but will use the information to motivate a change in their own lives and situations – every little bit counts. But one of the best outcomes is a concise holistic comprehension about life on earth – and no matter who you are or what you will do after the course this will surely help to correct misguided attitudes and actions. A permaculture course packs a solid punch with its information over such a short time so at the very least the course participants can start to know about solutions to many problems concerning sustainable living and earth stewardship. Knowing something better leads to demanding something better and action.

  12. Andrew, thanks for laying out your basic curriculum and highlighting from your perspective what makes it unique. I am taking Geoff’s online PDC and really enjoying it, and I didn’t take your comments to be disparaging of him or his team’s efforts.

    I am SUPER excited to see more and more permaculture education offerings, both online and in person, as I believe there is no limit to the ways in which we can apply permaculture principles.

    The world needs this information, applied in new ways for more and more targeted audiences. By the time my kids are school age I hope to see permaculture offerings for them locally and online!

  13. I completed my PDC via correspondence/online. It certainly has advantages with regards to time flexibility but also disadvantages with how content is delivered. I’m happy to see many people here are satisfied with their online PDCs. I think if I completed a PDC again I’d look into a two week intensive to supplement the lack of hands on training in my online course.

  14. I took a 2 week PDC course in 2010 and then took Geoff’s online course in 2013. There was no comparison in quality. Geoff’s course was a ‘bazillion’ times better, more informative, better teaching tools, the voice of experience and systematically progressed and layed out in digestible segments while continually engulfed in the whole. You’re learning something even Geoff is telling you a story about a mistake he made. Geoff lives, breathes and is the embodiment of Permaculture. He would check the topic on his laptop to verify what the session was to be about and then he never looked at his laptop again. He seaks & teaches from the heart, it all just flowed.
    My suggestion would be to take the online course from Geoff and then go intern somewhere or on your own property start experimenting to get your hands dirty. You dn’t have to take PDC hands on class. Geoff gives you all the tools & information you need. If you want to get your hands dirty do an internship somewhere and apply what you just learned.
    Good luck!

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