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Reaching across the miles

U. of Md. agriculture professors helping to establishdistance learning center for vets, farmers in Russia

U. of Md. agriculture professors helping to establishdistance learning center for vets, farmers in Russia

January 30, 2007

An American veterinary scientist in New York lectured to Russian veterinarians on the symptoms and issues of leukosis in dairy cattle.

She showed photos of healthy cow livers compared to diseased organs and fielded questions on preventing the spread of the deadly disease.

What made last month's class noteworthy was that the 70 Russian vets were learning - in Russia - from one of the world's leading experts on leucosis without her ever leaving her university campus.

This groundbreaking video-teleconference was organized by University of Maryland agriculture professors Mark Varner and Robert Hill as the kick-off of a project funded by Higher Education for Development and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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Varner and Hill are working with colleagues from five Russian agricultural and veterinary colleges to establish a regional distance learning center in southern Russia.

"The center will be at Stavropol State Agrarian University in an area with few opportunities for continuing education for vets or for small agri-business owners," the University of Maryland said in a news release.

Based on this first video-teleconference, such a center will be well received, university officials said.

In addition to the veterinarians, more than 30 animal science faculty, advanced students and representatives of the Stavropol Ministry of Agriculture were in attendance. The ministry is responsible for government and large farm veterinarians.

The Stavropol ministers have since offered to help promote the program and identify topics for training.

Varner, Hill, and Dale Johnson, a farm business management instructor and educator with the Western Maryland Research and Education Center near Keedysville, welcome such support.

They have been traveling to Moscow since 1999 to train faculty on the use of Web-based technologies, the university said. It said they are committed to expanding the benefits of these technologies to vets and small agricultural business owners in rural areas.

"Russian universities, particularly those in rural areas, rely on textbooks and correspondence courses for instruction and generally do not use slide presentations or Web-based technologies," Varner said.

"Few professional journals exist and the Internet is not widely available outside of the cities.

"All in all, once Russian vets graduate from school, they may have limited access to the latest developments in their field," Varner said.

"The result can be devastating to farmers: deadly viruses left to spread because of a lack of vets trained in newer clinical practices."

While the distance learning center is a key part of the project, it is not the only element.

The Maryland team also will assist their Russian colleagues with modernizing the agricultural curriculum in Russian universities.

Johnson is to travel to Stavropol this year to begin training Russian faculty in small business management, including the use of computer software to improve business efficiency. He and his Maryland colleagues also plan to start a program in which small agri-business owners work toward a certificate in business management.

"As with many international efforts, one of the anticipated long-term benefits is increased understanding of and appreciation for each other's culture and problems," the university said.

"Through the use of advanced Internet-based communication technology, Hill, Varner and Johnson hope to bring the best of the world to the veterinarians of southern Russia."

The school said they also anticipate using the technology to bring the expertise and experiences of Russian veterinarians with pathogenic avian influenza back to the United States, "where it could be critically important to the economic well-being of agriculture in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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