July 1983 // Volume 21 // Number 4 // Forum

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Let's Not Forget the People: Extension and Computers.


Dan E. Moore
Associate Professor
Rural Sociology
The PennsylvaniaState University-University Park

Recent developments in computers and telecommunication technologies are exciting, but to the majority of us, they can be overwhelming. Before Green Thumb, AGNET, COMNET, BYTE, and FACTS (among many others) can save us, we may drown in alphabet soup!

A first step in making sense of the current situation is to take time to clarify the issues and identify the relevant audiences. One of my concerns is that we may become so infatuated with computers that we forget that our business is serving people and helping them solve problems. Computers are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

In sorting out the varieties of possible computer applications, I find it useful to consider the relationship between the audience to be served and the opportunity or problem to be addressed. For this discussion, audience can be separated into Extension staff and Extension clientele. Opportunities or activities can be divided between management/ administration and subject-matter information/program delivery.

As seen in Figure 1, enough opportunities exist to use computers in each county office, Cell 1, to more than justify having them. The efficiencies of word processing and mailing list preparation will convince both secretaries and agents of their value. With computerized records, any staff could monitor programs instead of waiting for a major state or national study that may have limited general izabi I ity to a particular county. For example, mach i ne-read able 4-H member records would make it possibte to compare characteristics of dropouts with those who continue. Already collected, such information is too often accessible only by hand sorting.

Considerable attention regarding the delivery of educational programs and information is focused on clientelefarmers, consumers, and others. However, Extension staff is an important audience, too (Cell 2). We'll continue to deliver most of our programs through county staff. However, these staff will be better able to respond if they can interact not only with specialists at the university, but also with an information base that is nationwide, even worldwide. Therefore, we must have Extension staff who are conversant not only with subject-matter areas, but with computer and telecommunication systems as well. Staff training will be a continuing, time-consuming activity.

Opportunities for computer application divided between management/ administration and subject-matter information/program delivery

Many organizations with which Extension cooperates benefit from using computers in management and administration as well, Cell 3. We should be able to help them adopt systems. In turn, they can provide Extension and our clients with more timely information. The farm enterprise itself fits into this category. Also, the farmer as a decision maker relies on rapid, timely information delivery, Cell 4-also a part of Extension's mission. Several evolving systems, such as videotext, will help in that role.1

However, Extension does more than just deliver information. It helps people make decisions based on information through an interactive process, whether that be one-on-one, in group meetings, or through other cooperators. This process helps not only the user clarify information and decision-making strategies, but also provides a mechanism for feedback to researchers and others that further research is needed or that a user-developed adaptation has helped expand the knowledge base. The interactive capacity of computers is one of its most exciting dimensions.2

The challenge is to use this technology creatively. Although it's said our clientele are demanding computers, I really don't believe this is the complete picture. Rather, they're demanding help in decision making. Computers may provide this help. Our task in Extension is to understand this dilemma and obtain information that will help them gain the confidence to make intelligent decisions, perhaps using computers. After all, Extension is about helping people and really not about technology. Let's not forget the people!


  1. PauI D. Warner and Frank Clearfield, "Green Thumb: Extension's Videotext," Journal of Extension, XX (November/December, 1982), 24.
  2. Specific examples of client-oriented applications are discussed in an electronic technology special issue of Extension Review, Ull (Summer, 1982).