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In touch with nature

Janet Murray finds that computers can be environmentally friendly

Imagine a world where we could transform our own property or garden into a healthy, productive ecosystem; a beautiful landscape that could also provide us with an abundance of healthy, fresh food and even medicines.

Permaculture - the system behind this green revolution - can turn imaginings into reality.

Permaculture - a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture" - is a practical design system for sustainable living and community development that stresses working with nature, rather than against it. While permaculture is concerned with the design of ecological landscapes that produce food, it entails much more than food production.

Energy-efficient buildings, waste-water treatment, recycling, and land stewardship are other important components.

"It's all about using money and resources ethically, in a way that fits your lifestyle," explains George Sobol, project co-ordinator for the permaculture course at The Workers' Educational Association (WEA), the UK's largest voluntary provider of adult education.

The course combines traditional face-to-face contact with online study.

"Running courses in the South-west, there weren't always enough students to allow courses to run," Mr Sobol explains. "We wanted to find a way of attracting students from a wider area and also those in hard-to-reach groups such as carers, single parents, people with mobility difficulties and those in rural settings."

Funded by a Technology to Enhance Adult and Community Learning (TrEACL) grant of pound;5,000, WEA South-west worked closely with the Permaculture Education Project (PEP) to pilot a blended learning approach for the introductory permaculture course in February this year. Students attended two face-to-face days, one covering the basics of permaculture, the other spent on the land, submitting permaculture designs.

Mr Sobol says: "We start with basic activities like collecting rainwater, measuring rainfall, looking at changes in climate. This gets learners tuned into how the natural world operates."

The pilot course lasted for a month, but after feedback from students, the second course, which finished at the end of October, was extended to two months, to allow those with demanding careers and families to devote more time to study.

Learners come from a variety of backgrounds. Medical personal assistant and mother-of-four Claire Russell took part in the first pilot study. She says:

"The online format really worked for me, as I could fit the activities in with family life. I started by observing my own garden. By looking at your immediate environment, and how you can change that, you can plan to change the big things."

Environmental worker Charlie Linton says: "Sharing on the course was foremost. The 'offers and requests' page on the website involved a bartering system, swapping a plant for an organic recipe, a poem for spiritual healing. We could pool our knowledge as well as bond as a community should. Who says web communication is insular?"

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