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:
- Choose Design Project Site
- Create Watershed Maps: Childhood and Design Site
- Base Map
- Elevation Map
- Sector Compass Map
- Microclimate Identification Map
- Current Zones of Use Map
- Client Questionnaire
- Soil Jar Testing: Clay, Sand, Silt, Organic Matter
- Compost Resource Assessment
- Soil Mapping from SCS website
- Rainwater Site Flow Map & Volume Calculations exercise
- Plant ID and Research
- Plant Guild Design
- Bioregional quiz
- Climate and Climatic Profiles Questionnaire
- Regional disaster assessment and preparedness strategies
- Zone 1 Microclimate Design Project
- 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: