By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The Internet is having an impact on extension programs through a decrease in attendance at in-person seminars, and in how extension personnel connect with the public, according to various extension officials.
The Internet offers opportunities and presents challenges to Purdue University extension, said Jason Henderson, its director. “For the university, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with people in a different medium. Purdue is a first-class university and a trusted source of information they can depend on,” he said.
As for the Internet’s challenges, he added, “it’s another set of information you’re potentially competing with. You’re sometimes competing with misinformation and attempting to debunk that information.”
The Allen County extension office has seen fewer people coming to its seminars, and its director said the Internet is a factor in the decrease.
“Getting people to come in to meet face to face is a challenge,” Vickie Hadley explained. “We started to notice this change about 10 years ago. Our attendance really depends on the program. We may get five or six people for one program and 40 to 50 for the next.”
Programs on gardening, landscaping and trees are popular, but they were moved from the extension office to try to reach a larger audience, Hadley said. The programs are offered at local library branches.
“These days, to have good attendance, you often have to partner with another organization or agency,” she stated. “Marketing is important and our networking is crucial anymore. Not only can the (partner) agencies market, but they can market for us. That’s a key part.”
A workshop on estate planning slated for earlier this year in the Allen County office was the victim of marketing issues, Hadley said. The seminar was canceled because of low attendance.
“We had a problem getting the word out,” she said. “We were kind of lacking in how that was done. We don’t quite have the network in the agriculture community, but it’s definitely a program that’s of interest.” (The program, with a somewhat different format, has been rescheduled for Feb. 4, 2014, at Huntington College).
Ohio State University extension officials also look for partnerships as a way to best get information to as many people as possible, said Kenneth Martin, chair of OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences extension department.
“We look at who can we partner with and who can benefit from having a partnership with us,” he said. “It’s been a way of doing business for years. Workshops at the county level might be sponsored by an organization such as a Soil and Water Conservation District, economic development entity, the Farm Bureau or a Chamber of Commerce.”
While Martin said attendance at OSU seminars and workshops hasn’t been impacted much by the Internet, it has caused officials to look at the structure of their online offerings.
For example, OSU is in the process of hiring educational technology specialists in each of four areas – agriculture and natural resources, 4-H youth development, family and consumer sciences and community development. The specialists will work with educators on technology such as social media and online materials, Martin said.
Purdue has also examined how to get people to visit its sites for information, Henderson said. The extension staff is looking at such factors as how the pages are set up, how they’re tagged for searches and if contact information is easily accessible.
“Our role is an educational role. It’s not a (traditional) classroom,” he noted. “Our classroom is the real world. The way we connect is changing so rapidly, and remaining fresh and innovative means you’re constantly on the move.”
Attendance at Kentucky extension events is down a bit, according to Gary Palmer, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources for the University of Kentucky’s (UK) extension program. Palmer said he can’t completely blame the Internet for the drop.
“It’s tougher to get people out because of how busy they are,” he said. “They’re busier than they’ve ever been. The farm family is involved with a lot of kids’ activities. We’re at a crossroads. How do we try to figure out what we have to offer on their timetable?”
UK extension officials are turning more toward webcasts for both public and in-house information, Palmer noted. The public webcasts may be available to producers in their homes or offices, or may be offered at a nearby county office in conjunction with several other offices.
UK also started offering online training for its extension staff in the spring of 2011 and since then, about 60 agent training sessions have been online, he said.
Finding good websites a key
Directing farmers and the public to reputable sites is occasionally a challenge, said Cindy Barnett, Purdue extension director in Whitley County. “There’s so much information out there on the World Wide Web, and so many people believe what’s out there,” she said.
“We do fight that. You can’t tell people ‘that’s not a good site,’ but we recommend sites that end in ‘edu’ and ‘gov.’ I don’t like to tell people their information isn’t good; I prefer to direct them to the correct information.”
UK’s extension staff has the same concerns about how people find information online, Palmer said.
“We try to gently nudge them to the right sites and we don’t try to condemn the other sites,” he said. “It’s not in our nature to do that. But when someone has a vested interest, an economic interest, it kind of clouds what they’re going to say about something.”
For the best source of research-based information, Hadley and her colleagues recommend eXtension at http:// about.extension.org which provides up-to-date information on a variety of topics from the nation’s land grant universities.
“You can find anything on the Internet, and that’s a challenge,” Martin said. “We’re trying to respond to that as well.”
While extension officials foresee more information and seminars will be offered via the Internet, none of them expect to do away with in-person meetings.
“I don’t think we’ll get to the point of nothing (offered in-person),” Hadley said. “Maybe some programs could be put online so that people could watch 24/7, but some programs work better face-to-face. And you’re going to have to go face-to-face until everyone is connected online.”
While he also expects extension to make greater use of the Internet, Martin said he doesn’t see the personal touch going away completely. “People like to have a hands-on experience,” he said. “They’re social, and they like to interact.”