BSPP Presidential Meeting 1996

Unlocking the Future: Information Technology in Plant Pathology

Parallel session 5A: Passing on information in education and training

Electronic teaching aids for students and practitioners
Gail L Schumann
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA.

This paper examines some of the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of newly emerging teaching technologies. Probably the greatest benefit from the use of instructional technologies for plant pathology students is access to quantities of high quality images. An important first step in the study of plant pathology is to develop mental images of the microscopic pathogens and typical disease symptoms referred to in most of the scientific literature. The limited photographs in textbooks and the brief exposure to photographs in the classroom impair the ability to quickly visualize the basics of plant pathology. Examples of the current technologies discussed are videodisc, CD- ROM, Web pages, and simulations for decision-making, with their relative advantages and disadvantages.

Some of the limitations of teaching technology are technological. These include student access, hardware and software incompatibilities, and technical support for faculty in the time-consuming and rapidly changing formats for instructional technology. More important problems are probably associated with possible misinterpretations of how technology may or may not help students learn. Instructional technology is so new that the instantaneous gasp at how beautifully images can be presented and interact in a three-dimensional cyber-environment must now give way to an analysis of the quality of the material presented. There is no doubt that technology can improve a student's ability to quickly become familiar with some important aspects of plant pathology, but the "point and click" superficiality of "screen literacy" is no substitute for laboratory experience with diseased plants and their pathogens. It is also no substitute for an in-depth consideration of the concepts and theory of plant pathology which may mature into the ability to critically evaluate the science behind the flashy images. We must find a way to integrate the full range of intellectual skills for the education of future plant pathologists. 

Making books interactive: an electronic experiment
Pierce Jones
Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department, University of Florida, PO Box 110570, Rogers Hall, Gainesville, Florida, 32611 USA.

In the modern world, it is not unusual for people to have a paradoxical attitude toward information. On the one hand, daily life’s complex interactions seem to require ever increasing access to specific, accurate information. On the other hand, there seems to be an expanding overabundance of information. From their inception, computers were touted for their capacity to manipulate, store and retrieve information (data). This paper describes two electronic publishing projects with the stated goal of improving access to information.

NASD'95, the 1995 edition of the National Ag Safety Database, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), provides an extensive compendium of educational and information resources targeted to support programs in county Cooperative Extension Service (CES) offices. NASD'95 was publicly released on CD-ROM at the 1995 National Institute for Farm Safety Summer Meeting in Saratoga, New York. In November 1995 the database was reformated in HTML and served up on the World Wide Web. Since its inception, activity on the database was monitored. Between November 1995 and July 1996, total visits grew from 1,053 to 16,705. More sophisticated tracking tools are being implemented to better understand activity on the National Ag Safety Database.

HazCom Interactive delivers information on hazardous chemicals on personal computers. The project is based on the International Chemical Safety Card (ICSC) database developed by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). The ICSC uses standard phrases in multiple languages to describe the characteristics of ~1,200 hazardous chemicals. Pictographs were created that correspond to many of the standard phrases. Text and associated pictographs are displayed in combination both on the computer monitor and auxiliary printed posters and labels. Audio files can be activated to "read" the textual descriptions of the chemicals. HazCom Interactive provides specific, high quality information and training on hazardous chemicals that can be delivered on construction sites where personal computers are present.

Both projects intend to improve access to targeted sets of information. Both are designed to achieve this goal through paying careful attention to storage and retrieval issues, developing a critical mass of materials in the targeted area, ensuring version control, and maximizing the interconnectivity of the information in the collections. Examples are given.

Crop protection: Information Technology and ecosystem health
Department of Plant Protection, College of Plant Science and Technology, The China Agricultural University, Beijing 100094, China.

The Strategy of Precaution Priority and Integrated Management has been implemented for 20 years in China and today proves more convincingly to be wise in the trend towards sustainable development in agriculture. Historical facts demonstrate that this Strategy cannot achieve complete sustainability without ample information on ecosystem health. This is concerned with crops, insect pests, plant diseases, weeds, other harmful organisms, their natural enemies, so-called "resource biota", components of the physical environment, and structures connecting and relating all of them in food webs and biogeographical cycles. In addition, history reveals that to realize sustainable success by this Strategy the scale of the ecosystem that is monitored, diagnosed, and taken to precaution or protection should be substantial. It should be enlarged from the level of physiological ecology, individuals, populations, communities, and fields, to the level of farms and even whole regions. Information Technology will play a more and more important role in the scaling-up, and will be used in more diverse and advanced ways. To demonstrate how the Strategy can be used in the context of the information revolution, case studies from China will be presented.

Having collected data and experiences from vegetable production and pest control practices for many years in the Beijing region, the author's laboratory is conducting a project to develop a software system, BJ-CABBAGIS, for vegetable production information management and decision support. It is designed to be GIS-based and consists of four subsystems: social and natural information management, vegetable production information management, vegetable protection information management, and pest diagnosis and IPM decision support.

Another case is the development and use of a multi-media system, PQ-INFORMIS, from which information on plant quarantine insects (58 species) can be retrieved and managed. The information includes text for many items such as English and Latin names, host plants, geographical distribution (countries), quarantine treatments, and also images of identifying morphological characteristics. It offers a Prolog program to help quarantine staff to distinguish similar species. The software is proving popular at about 70 importing port quarantine stations throughout China.

These two cases illustrate successful application of information technology to plant protection. An important component of the methodology is the participatory approach which unites university researchers, government administrators, plant protection practitioners at quarantine stations and farms, and information experts.

Computer games and other tricks to train field pathologists
Terry Stewart
Department of Plant Science, Massey University, Private Bag, New Zealand.

Problem-solving exercises are recognized as having a high educational value. Incorporating such exercises into plant pathology courses is important, as the diagnosis and management of plant diseases requires such skills. Of these learning aids, well- designed computer-based games, used properly, can be ideal training tools.

Diagnosis for Crop Protection is an example of a problem-based training aid, that came about as a solution to a teaching problem. The problem was how to allow students to acquire the "art" of disease diagnosis as distinct from simply being able to identify a pathogen. In Diagnosis, students are placed in an "adventure game"-type simulation where they must actively seek clues and interpret observations on the cause of plant problems. Unlike an expert system, it is assumed the expertise lies with the student. In this way, they are challenged to use their knowledge and any resources available, to come up with a justifiable diagnosis and recommendation. The plant problem simulations, or "scenarios", can be tailored to the student, both in the level of interpretation offered, and the crops and pathogens encountered. The programme can monitor student progress and provide feedback. Games such as Diagnosis are useful integrating tools, forcing students to take a holistic view of cropping systems and giving them practice at solving real-world problems. 

Where from here? The need to rebuild our university educational systems on an Information Technology basis
Peter H Schalk
ETI, University of Amsterdam, Mauritskade 61, 1092 AD Amsterdam, Netherlands. Tel: +31 20 5257239. Fax: +31 20 5257238.

Financial cut-backs have severely affected the capacity and quality of university educational systems, especially in the "developed countries". Traditional classroom situations with a teacher vocally repeating printed information is out of date as well as inefficient. Moreover, the computer-"savvy" new generation of students expect more from their education than is presently offered. Self study will (and should) become more and more important for the students of the future.

The so-called "new media" and other developments in Information Technology offer wonderful opportunities to modernize and revitalize our university educational systems. Interactive multimedia software tools, reference works on compact disc, in combination with links to continuously updated information on the Internet, can be used to increase both the efficiency and quality of education at the university and high school level.

In this "Where from here?" paper I would like to make a strong plea for applying the new media in the educational system. This would not only improve the quality of education at our universities, but it would also create an entirely new "export product" allowing students in other (developing) countries to tap into our educational resources and to benefit from them.

Parallel session 5B: Computer-based species identification: Applications II

Computerized insect identification: a comparison of differing approaches and problems
Ian M White and Graham R Sandlant
International Institute of Entomology, 56 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5JR, UK.

The advantages and disadvantages of computerized dichotomous and multiple entry keys are discussed. While both approaches allow pictorial presentation and space for explanation of terms, the multiple entry key also has better retention of information, greater user efficiency, and the power to allow users some control of the path to an identification. A theoretical comparison was made of how well each approach represents an information space (a data matrix of taxa by characters); multiple entry keys can represent the entire information space; conversely, a dichotomous key could in some cases contain under 10% of that information. For example, a dichotomous key to mosquito genera was found to contain only 17% of the possible information that the author would have had to consider in some way during the construction of that key. Multiple entry keys also have greater user efficiency in terms of the mean number of questions that have to be answered to achieve an identification.

An experiment compared dichotomous and multiple entry keys to 120 species of tephritid fruit flies. A selection of 20 pest species was run through each key and it was found that 179 decisions were required to use the multiple entry key compared to 244 with the dichotomous key, an increase of 36%. In general the multiple entry key approach is to be preferred, both for its greater information content and user efficiency. However, in some circumstances there may be good reason to simply convert an existing printed dichotomous key into computerized form in order to gain the advantages of improved presentation and links to other information. Furthermore, multiple entry keys can be difficult to apply in some circumstances, in particular where the taxa are of genus level or above. For example, some mosquito genera appear to be unnatural groups of species and some questions have to contain combinations of two or more characters.

A subjective comparison of the application of the multiple entry key approach to species (fruit flies), genera (mosquitoes) and families (beetles) suggests that this technique gets increasingly more difficult to use with increasing taxonomic level.

GENCOMEX: a computerized key to identify the genera of Asteraceae of Mexico in the PC-Windows environment
Miguel Murgua
Asociacioacuten de Bilogos Amigos de la Computacin, A. C. Av. San Jernimo 507, Col. San Jernimo Ldice, 10200 Mxico D.F., Mxico.
Jos L Villaseor
Instituto de Biologa, U.N.A.M. Department of Botany, Apartado Postal 70-367, 04510 Mxico D.F., Mxico. 

The Asteraceae is a family of flowering plants distributed worldwide, and is the richest in number of genera and species. In Mexico the family has found one of its main centers for its diversification, and the country stands as one with the richest Asteracean floras in the world.

Because of the large number of genera present in any flora and the kinds of characters used under traditional methods, identification of members of the Asteraceae has always been a difficult task. However, it is highly necessary, because any flora has the Asteraceae as one of its most important elements.

Written in Turbo-Pascal for Windows, an interactive key was developed for identifying the genera of Asteraceae occurring in Mexico. The program uses a data matrix of 343 genera and 100 character states, these latter ranging from vegetative to reproductive characters, as well as patterns of distribution of the genera among the political states into which Mexico is divided.

The program was developed following a theoretical model we call "Dynamic Identification". It consists in the traditional character-taxon selection, where a positive matching between the character shown by the specimen under identification is scored; thus, taxa are eliminated each time the character selection is done. However, additional taxon-character selection is also possible. It consists in selecting a possible hypothesis (a taxon that one suspects the specimen belongs to), and once the program displays the characters that distinguish this taxon, we can corroborate our hypothesis or, if it is rejected (the specimen does not belong to the taxon selected), the identification process can continue until a possible identification is reached. By playing with different colors in the screen, the two different processes can be distinguished and easily understood.

The program can display a dictionary (glossary) that explains all the technical terms used in the key. It also includes a set of drawings (iconothec) that helps the user to understand better different structures that are important for the proper identification of the genera of Asteraceae.

The use of this key during the last six months has proved its efficiency. This led us to conclude it is an important resource that will be useful to people interested in the identification of the flora of Mexico. The program thus developed is now being used in the process of generating computerized identification keys for other Mexican groups of plants. For example, a key to identify the families of flowering plants occurring in the country is in the final stages of completion.

The BEG Expert System - A multimedia identification system for arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
J C Dodd* and S Rosendahl**
*International Institute of Biotechnology / Department of Biosciences, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7YW, UK.
**Department of Mycology, University of Copenhagen, ster Farimagsgade 2D, DK-1353 Copenhagen K, Denmark.

Knowledge of the biodiversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi is limited and keys for identifying them are not in a user-friendly format for the non-expert. An Expert System, linked to the BEG (Banque Europenne des Glomales), has been developed on a CD-ROM to produce a multimedia identification system for these fungi with this aim in mind. An Expert System has been defined in many ways but D A Waterman (cited Edwards & Morse, 1995) proposed sophisticated computer programs that manipulate knowledge to solve problems efficiently and effectively in a narrow problem area. The BEG Expert System was done to show the potential of such a system with a limited number of well-defined species of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. The system was put together using Linnaeus II software (Expert Centre for Taxonomic Identification, ETI, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands) which has been developed for biodiversity documentation and species identification. It includes much unpublished data and photographic images on a CD-ROM suitable for computers with Windows or Macintosh platforms. The CD-ROM can be run on a Macintosh/PowerMac platform running System 7.0 or higher with a minimum 4 Mb RAM. The Windows version requires system 3.1 or 95 and 4 Mb RAM.

Our initial philosophy was to make descriptions of the different species consistent in their presentation on the CD-ROM and so we have made several alterations to the published taxonomic descriptions. A consistent taxonomy is necessary for creating the identification system which is based on ETI's 'IdentifyItTM' multiple-entry taxonomic key. This software is based on a character and state matrix and we have input the characters considered most important for identification of AMF across the five genera used on the CD-ROM. There is a different 'card' for each character which allows the selection of states to include or exclude in the search pattern. Images and clarification of terminology accompany these cards to aid the user. This still requires the user to view spores under a stereomicroscope for some information and slide mounts on a compound microscope to select the correct character states! Having identified as many character states as possible applicable to the specimen or isolate, 'IdentifyItTM' will perform a search on the selected states for the closest resembling AMF species, with results indicated as successful hit percentages next to the species names.

The aim of this venture has been to stimulate renewed interest in the accurate collection of ecological information on the global diversity of these fungi by simplifying the identification procedure. It is a positive attempt to move the taxonomy forward and is open to suggestions from any user.

In trials with colleagues in COST Action 8.21, there has also been considerable enthusiasm for its potential use in teaching. Copies are still available (free) for people wishing to test the CD-ROM and requests should be sent to either author at the two above addresses or via e-mail ( or

More details are provided in the following article:
DODD, J.C. & ROSENDAHL, S. (1996) The BEG Expert System - A multi media identification system for arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhiza 6, 275-278.

The BEG WWW site is at