Online vs. Onsite Permaculture Courses: Which is Better?

When deciding which permaculture course to take, the question at the forefront of it is whether to go with an online and onsite (in-person) version. Like so many things in the world (and permaculture design), the answer to this is variable, dependent on individual circumstances, abilities, and goals.

In short, either one could be great (and we are happy to have you on the permaculture team); however, your first assignment will be figuring out which format works best for you, your learning style, your tendencies, your needs…your mental climate so to speak. So, rather than deciding outright which is better, this article will be looking at how each works so that perspective students might choose for themselves.

Whilst doing this, we’ll work under the assumption that PDC students usually take the course with at the very least a cursory knowledge of permaculture—some sort of sustainable living thing that has to do with growing food in seemingly unconventional ways—and want to learn further what permaculture is and, more so, how to use it themselves.

With that in mind, it’s important that courses cover the basics of the practice, providing the history of, the motivation behind, and the basic theories within permaculture. From there, students would ideally want to take on the practices of permaculture and begin applying them to their own lives at their own homes. After all, the point of permaculture is put into action these things that we have observed and learned about the world.



What to Expect from an Online Course

On the whole, online PDC courses, despite being cheaper, are much more in-depth than onsite courses. They tend to last for months and cover a broad range of subjects, including climates from all around the world. The course material is generally presented via recorded videos (not livestream) with small assignments sprinkled in to demonstrate or self-confirm a basic understanding of the material. Good courses will have various forms of question-and-answer opportunities that, despite not being live, allow students to sort out issues of confusion. At the end, students will use their new knowledge to design a permaculture site and should be able to explain the choices within the design.

The fact that students don’t have to be housed, feed, and hosted allows teachers to spend more time on curriculum. In the same vein, the course material can be accumulated and refined over time, adding in up-to-date information that becomes pertinent and picking the presentations that best illustrate ideas, or reimagining those that don’t. It also allows teachers to easily share outside videos, article links, and important websites (e.g. Google Earth, weather/climate sites, Permaculture News, etc.) as well as instruct students on how to utilise them to design. Because the courses are video collections, rewinding and re-watching is also a possibility.

For most students, the main draw to the online course is convenience. First of all, there isn’t a strict schedule, allowing students to watch lectures when they can and complete assignments within large windows of time. Secondly, the courses can be taken from anywhere. For many, it can be difficult to find a PDC course within a daily commute, so it helps to have access to top permaculture experts without having to fly across the country or abroad. In many cases, this convenience is the indisputable deciding factor: Most of us have lives in motion that we can’t simply leave behind all at once.



What to Expect from an Onsite Courses

Onsite PDC courses tend to be notably shorter than online courses. They are usually around two weeks and are intensive study. Officially, PDC courses are supposed to have a minimum 72-hour curriculum, which means several hours a day of coursework. Students are likely to stay on site during the course, with the host providing meals and accommodation options, ranging from tent sites to private rooms. This obviously adds to the cost of tuition. In the end, students should be required to complete a permaculture site design as a final project.

Because their whole life temporarily centres on the curriculum, from what they are eating to the construction of their accommodation, students at in-person courses often devote themselves more to the course. They also benefit from the hands-on experience of participating in workshops, seeing permaculture systems function, and having immediate access to instructors. The practical application of permaculture resonates much more, with students performing tasks like making compost piles, harvesting vegetables, tending animals, and so on.

Students at in-person course have generally taken time off from work or a backpacking vacation (or both) to engage with permaculture in a deep way. Onsite courses facilitate this by immediately inserting students into the inner-workings of a permaculture site and letting them witness what the day-to-day nature of the practice is like. It also instills a greater sense of the reality behind it all: that it can really be done, that it is lifestyle much more than a hobby, and that it isn’t a magic system but rather mental and physical work.



The Other Side…

In true permaculture fashion, rather than looking at the “negatives” of each type of course, it might help to view them more constructively. Online courses might have some attributes that are very well suited to certain environments (students) but are not so conducive to others. The same can be said for onsite courses. The trick is choosing the right course for the right student. We wouldn’t plant bananas in Minnesota and expect them to thrive; similarly, we shouldn’t put the wrong type of person in wrong type of course and project great results. Instead, we have to analyse who we are working with and use what we know to make a good match. Maybe apples and cherries would work better in Minneapolis, right?


of Online Courses

To the point, there are some things to consider when signing up for online courses, some characteristics that certain students might find challenging while other will relish.

  • Online courses are largely student-guided. For students who don’t need much prodding to get going, this works out great. In fact, they often breeze through course material and seek out additional info. However, some students work better under direct tutelage, with teachers pushing them and tight deadlines to meet.
  • Online courses are long. A few months doesn’t seem all that long, but how often does a diet make it that long? How many exercise routines get abandoned in such a time span? For some, the extra time provides plenty of space for exploring new ideas. For others, the motivation begins to wane as month two goes to three and four and…
  • Online courses, while convenient, are also conveniently forgotten when life gets in the way. Some students know they want a permaculture-based future, and the convenience of online courses might be the only way to make this possible. Other students are juggling so much that dropping the permaculture ball is inevitable in such a situation.


of Onsite Courses

Onsite courses may be quicker and more focused, but that’s not to say they don’t come with their own challenges, some of which may inspire certain students while deterring others.

  • Onsite courses often require roughing-it a little, with communal spaces, modest accommodations, and limited meal choices. This can be an appealing way to get into the permaculture spirit for students, or it can be a huge distraction for others who might be introverts, have particular dietary requirements, or aren’t used to living the lifestyle.
  • Onsite courses require devoting a solid chunk of time to this permaculture pursuit. Many students don’t have two weeks to disappear into coursework and compost turning. They have children and jobs and mortgages to think about. On the other hand, many students find escaping these things for two weeks to be totally necessary.
  • Onsite courses often focus primarily on the surrounding environment and climate much more than others. Hands-on experience, after all, means working with what’s on hand. This can be great when courses are conducted near home, but traveling to Costa Rica to learn how to build a permaculture site in England might not be the most sensible choice.



The PDC Course

There is actually a huge amount to choose from out there, both online and onsite courses, and that’s an encouraging thing. It’s also worth noting that the increase has had the effect of sometimes watering down the quality of courses on offer, sort of like having too many branches on apple tree: the production can actually go down. So, it’s important to do some background research into the experts and institutions signing off on your PDC. After all, the certification isn’t going to be worth all that much to you if you pass the course without knowing what you need to know to put your permaculture design into practice.


Special offer for Permaculture News Readers

If you would like to sign up for Geoff Lawton’s new online course then make sure you enter “PRI100” when enrolling to receive a $100 tuition discount.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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