29 November 2012

An Online Garden History Course, Review'd

My first encounter with online learning programs was while I was at Longwood. During a meeting to go over the online platform and how to use it, the instructor asked us what other platforms we'd used in the past. My answer: a chalkboard. I didn't see how an online learning program would fit into the program we were doing given the fact that all of us sat in the same classroom together each day. Why chat via web when we could simply lean over the desk and pester our classmates in person?

As first experiences go, that one left me with a bad taste in my mouth for online learning, so when garden historian Dr. Toby Musgrave asked me to review his online garden history course, I was slightly more than skeptical that it would be as good as a live classroom. I'm pleased to report my skepticism was unnecessary. is a UK website developed by Elspeth Briscoe and Duncan Heather, both garden designers, marketing professionals, teachers, and Internet geniuses. Their goals: "to bring more high quality online training in gardening, prompted by the digital revolution, and to re-energise revenue streams for published gardening authors due to falling book sales."

Oh, this digital revolution. Lucky for those authors, I'd still rather hold a real book in my hands!

Registration is simple, as is setting up a profile and logging in to your course. You are also introduced to your classmates via their profiles and comments. Students in my class came from Canada, UK, Australia, and various points in the US. Most were enthusiasts and at least one fellow student is also a garden historian. And to prove what a small, small world it really is, a fellow Longwood student was enrolled in the course! Once the course starts - generally they run every 4 weeks - each week's lesson is available on the Saturday morning as a video lecture so you see and hear your learned instructor each week. Here's a wee taste for you:

Included in the video are photographs highlighting the lecture topic. Oh, to travel to the gardens illustrated in those weekly lessons! Actually, come to think of it, I have and there is an option on the lesson screen which allows you and your classmates to upload your own photos for bragging and sharing. There is also the opportunity to exchange messages, ideas, and ask for help on unruly technical issues via the discussion forums for each lecture. Virtually like being in a classroom but passing notes under the desk results in a pile of folded sheets at your feet.

Along with each video lesson, which can be viewed at any time during the course should you feel the need for a refresher, there's a save-able and printable transcript so you can refer back and, if you share with me an undying love of paper, highlight specific points and make your own notes. I've printed all the lesson transcripts and kept them for future reference.

But lest this online learning business seem like fun and games, there is a weekly assignment, too. I found the assignments a bit vague, but perhaps that's because I just finished quite a rigorous academic program with very particular parameters. The assignments aren't graded, per se, but the instructor does send you valuable feedback and more points to ponder. What I did like was being able to read my classmate's assignments as others always pick up things you may have missed and have different view points, experiences, and knowledge that can be shared. We encountered a few technical glitches that the site designers are working on as far as the format of files allowed for submission, and the staff have been very attentive and welcomed our suggestions for making things a bit more user friendly. Likewise, Toby is very responsive to questions, discussions, and offering suggestions for further reading, as any good instructor should be.

The lesson content is clear and well illustrated by the images. Toby's lectures are thorough given the 30 minutes - give or take - allotted and cover all the essential points, styles, and players of garden history but there is, to me, one major problem: the course is too short! Four weeks just isn't enough time to cover 3,000 years of garden history in any real depth. What can I say? I'm greedy!

If you're a professional gardener or just a garden enthusiast and want to learn more about the history of this great occupation and it's influence on culture and society but don't have time to read the volumes of garden history books out there and don't have access to a college course - and trust me, there are pitifully few garden history courses out there, an educational shortcoming I mean to tackle in the near future - and want the flexibility of studying at your own pace, on your own timetable, then this is a fantastic course to take. You will be learning with like-minded people all over the globe without the worry of embarrassment if you show up to class in your jammies.

With Christmas fast approaching, why not give yourself or a loved one the gift of learning? The next round of classes starts on Saturday!

For more information, click here or visit

Special thanks to Dr. Toby Musgrave for inviting me to review the course. I've just put a couple of his books on my Christmas wish list!