Agricolleges International | Customer Success | D2L Europe
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Agricolleges International

Agricolleges International grows fresh hope for South African agriculture with D2L’s Brightspace platform

At a glance

Client: Agricolleges International
Industry: Higher Education—Agriculture Studies
Interviewee: Wynand Espach, Chief Operating Office, Educational Technologist and Founder

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  • To tackle the challenges prevalent in traditional brick-and-mortar agricultural colleges: poor infrastructure, lack of funding and limited scalability
  • To keep costs low enough to make enrolment for students from poorer backgrounds affordable
  • To provide easy access and remote cloud-based learning
  • Computer literacy is relatively low amongst the student-base, Agricolleges International required a platform that was simple and easy to use


  • D2L’s Brightspace platform provided intuitive, mobile-friendly learning platform that supports rich content
  • Key elements of the course are performed remotely, as theory is complemented by a two week on-site practical
Agricolleges International Logo


Founded in 2015 by long-term colleagues and lifelong farmers Howard Blight and Wynand Espach, Agricolleges International’s mission is to offer affordable hope and opportunity to students in South Africa, Africa and across the globe through cloud-based and shared e-learning of agricultural content that promotes the principles of sustainable production to further food security around the world.

The Challenge

In 2015, Blight was invited to the World Avocado Congress in Peru to present Espach and his work in establishing successful avocado farms in Mozambique, a venture that employed around 350 people and took a whole Mozambican village out of absolute poverty. It was during this trip, whilst chatting with other farmers from across the globe, that they were inspired to start their own agricultural college.

However, upon their return to South Africa, it quickly dawned on them that their new venture would have to take a very different form to traditional bricks and mortar agricultural colleges in South Africa.

The traditional government-funded agricultural college system, is in disarray. “There is not enough funding and lecturers, and the facilities and buildings are not being maintained. If we followed the same model as these colleges we would come up against similar problems that agricultural colleges are facing across the world” said Espach.

In South Africa, many of the problems faced by traditional agricultural colleges, were the result of poor infrastructure. Agricultural colleges could not expand past a certain size, due to limits in availability of electricity, water supplies and the capital cost of investing in bricks and mortar.

The question they faced, was how to keep fees low enough to make enrolment for students from poorer backgrounds possible, yet still have the money to maintain facilities and expand over time without hitting the limits imposed by a lack of infrastructure.

The answer was something rarely attempted in agricultural education—cloud-based online learning.

AgriColleges International was born!

"When it comes to the implementation, D2L was brilliant. We would never have achieved our goals to that point as quickly, without their help. Whenever we had a problem, it would be resolved within 24 hours. I cannot say enough about how grateful we are to their team."

Wynand Espach, Chief Operating Officer, AgriColleges

Why D2L?

Espach and Blight had no experience with online learning platforms of any kind, so they began investigating several education technology providers.

“We were not happy with what we could do with the various platforms we had spoken to thus far. We felt we needed a platform that could facilitate the practical elements we envisioned (it being agri-based) and a company willing to work with us to develop those practical elements. A friend knew that we had not spoken to D2L yet and said we should not make any decisions without first doing so. That is how the introduction to D2L was made,” said Espach.

D2L had recently partnered with Visions Consulting in South Africa to extend its services into Africa, so the timing was perfect.

What attracted Espach and Blight to D2L was the ease of use. The pair felt that the other solutions they had enquired about were too complicated for the African environment and the market place that Agricolleges International was going to cater to. With computer literacy so low amongst the student-base, this ease of use was essential.

For the demographic that Blight and Espach were targeting, only 5 percent have access to a laptop or PC, whilst 70 percent have access to a smartphone, so the Brightspace platform’s mobile functionality, was also key to fulfilling Espach and Blight’s vision for Agricolleges International.

When it came to implementation of the Brightspace platform, Espach explains the important role that D2L played in helping them get up and running:

“When it comes to the implementation, D2L was brilliant. We would never have achieved our goals to that point as quickly, without their help. Whenever we had a problem, it would be resolved within 24 hours. I cannot say enough about how grateful we are to their team,” he said.

man holding tablet in field

The Courses

Agricolleges International now runs eight courses on the Brightspace platform, which are split into short courses and one year certificates.

The first one year course Agricolleges International has deployed is the National Certificate in General Agriculture, which launched in April 2018. It is comprised of six modules consisting of either six or eight units.

In order to overcome the infrastructure and funding limitations that have dogged traditional agricultural colleges, key practical elements of the course are performed remotely.

“Students are given the theory and a task on the platform, like taking a soil sample. They then have to perform the task within the area around them. This can be in their own back garden. They do not need to go to a farm or a practical destination. They then record a video or take photos of the steps they took in performing the task which they upload to Brightspace. This is called a Remote Practical,” explained Espach.

This remote practical is complemented by a two-week on-site practical, in which students travel to one of Agricolleges International’s practical destinations to learn a number of skills, such as servicing farming machinery, working with animals and visiting nurseries. They see everything they have learned in theory, translated into practice.

The short courses offered by Agricolleges International are split into three different bands: introductory, fundamentals, and applications.

The introductory courses cover the basics of agribusiness, animal production, and crop production. Fundamentals courses are crop or product-specific, such as dairy production or avocado farming. Applications is the practical element, where students attend a farm for a week-long practical course.

“The nice thing about Brightspace is that we have been able to write our remote practical courses in a way that is easy for our students to understand what they need to submit and when. This has been life-changing for agricultural education in South Africa” said Espach.

“Even the accreditation body AgriSETA, when they came for the first inspection of our facility, said ‘but you can never teach agriculture online’. When we showed them a demo of how using ePortfolios we can make a video clip and submit it on the platform, and in seconds the two are matched, they could not believe the functionality. They had never seen anything like it,” Espach continued.

"The nice thing about Brightspace is that we have been able to write our remote practical courses in a way that is easy for our students to understand what they need to submit and when. This has been life-changing for agricultural education in South Africa."

Wynand Espach, Chief Operating Officer, AgriColleges

The Results

When Agricolleges International rolled out their first short course in 2018, they ran into issues common with engaging students through online learning.

“To begin with there were challenges. At first, we did not really have anything to cover engagement metrics. We saw students log in and read materials, but very quickly disappear for a week or two. We realised that this had to change and we would have to engage them all the time,” explained Espach.

Now, all of the students are linked to a course consultant online who speaks with them daily. This has proved to be a lot of work for these consultants, and very recently D2L has helped Agricolleges International deploy intelligent agents to automate many of the student engagement tasks.

These intelligent agents are automated emails that seemingly come from the course consultant, reminding students of upcoming deadlines. It saves course consultants a great deal of time and allows them to focus on helping students who are struggling.

Agricolleges International also increased engagement by using Brightspace’s discussion forums and rolling these into the course grading criteria. Course consultants raise 10 topics online throughout the course, and students are graded on their participation.

Over their inaugural year in 2018, Agricolleges International had more than 300 students logging into the platform, with 140 of these students having completed their courses to date. “What we are achieving here is important because every year in Africa there are 50 million school leavers and only 5 million university or college places. That is 45 million people who cannot get tertiary education. As we expand we are hoping to provide even more people with the skills needed to thrive in the farming industry,” continued Espach.

agriculture business papers

The Future

Agricolleges International is currently in the process of being officially accredited as a higher education institute and is hopeful to become accredited in the coming months.

“With our current accreditation we offer NQF4 courses, which is equivalent to a school leaver qualification. We have a database of 18,000 students looking to study an NQF5 course in agriculture, which we will be able to provide once the government approves it and we become accredited. It is very important for our expansion plans that we become accredited,” said Espach. The first NQF 5 course has been completed and awaits accreditation soon.

To further extend the philanthropic elements of their work, Blight and Espach are working with the Universities in Gauteng to teach residents in Soweto to plant vegetable gardens so that these communities might become more self-sufficient. They have also established a non-profit company called Educate To Grow NPC. This company is independent and is the channel through which funds flow for the thousands of students that cannot afford further education. All funds are controlled and audited by independent directors and 100% of the funds are used for students.

closeup of farming

Going Global

The courses however, are not only limited to engaging students within South Africa. Students from 16 different countries have completed Agricolleges International short courses so far.

Blight and Espach are also working on creating partnerships outside of the African continent, with India as one of the first targets.

“It is amazing how far we have come in just a few years. We were just farmers who knew nothing about educational technology, but now we are teaching farming, not only to students across South Africa, but across Africa. We are using Brightspace to provide valuable life-skills and give people a better chance in life. It has been a very exciting few years for us.” – Wynand Espach, Chief Operating Officer, AgriColleges

Agricolleges International now offers hope to the millions of young people who have and will continue to complete their matric (Grade 12) between the ages of 17 and 21. For students far from city universities or colleges, the Agricolleges International platform offers study opportunities at a quarter of the price of the standard institutions that can be accessed anywhere and anytime.

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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.