September 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA3

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Microcomputers...for Better Listening

We can use this technology to extend our listening to people's problems, to available research, and to our co-workers.

James S. Long
Staff Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension
Washington State University - PuIlman

Barbara D. Long
Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics
Pullman, Washington

With one ear to the ground, we listen to people's problems. With the other, we listen for research that matches these problems. And with our "third ear," we sometimes take time to listen to our colleagues in Extension who have made the match.

Listening to Researchers

On our sabbatical in West Virginia and during the interviews in a dozen other states, we met a number of Extension professionals who use microcomputers (micros) to find bibliographical research cited in computerized databases. These include AGRICOLA, the "electronic memory" of USDA's National Agricultural Library,1 FNIC (Foodand Nutrition Information Center, a part of AGRICOLA), NPIRS (National Pesticide Information Retrieval System, based at Purdue University), BIOSIS, and ENVIROLINE.

One estimate2 is that there are now over 1,200 computer readable databases, including subjects related to most Extension projects, like forest regeneration, organic pesticides, adolescent nutrition, water quality, funding community radio.

The staff of each database is trained in the disciplines represented by that database. They review hundreds of periodicals and other sources of research information; they select studies that fit its domain, prepare a citation, and, sometimes, an abstract; they index the study according to a set of key words. And that's the key-the key words, those words Extension staff use to instruct the computer to locate all the study titles/abstracts containing those key wordsbut only those studies.

Having quickly found titles, authors, and sources, and perhaps having read their abstracts, the Extension professional can get selected references from the local university library, through an interlibrary loan system, or as a last resort for AGRICOLA citations, at the National Agricultural Library (NAL). NAL also offers "hunting" and duplicating services for Extension.

What equipment does it take to search a database? A common set of hardware includes: the microcomputer (or a printer terminal, or a communicating word processor); a modem (the box that translates computer signals into phone signals, and vice versa); a printer (to type the desired citations/abstracts); a telephone and phone communications, by wire, microwave, or satellite. This communicating ability of the microcomputer enables the user from anywhere there's a micro and a phone to reach the computer that searches the database-often up to 20 hours a day. Frequently, a commercial vendor, such as Dialog3 or BRSM4 makes available to subscribers a "menu" of databases. Their fees vary and are based on phone charges, the database searched, and computer search time. In addition, phone networks, such as TYMNET, TELENET, or UNINET, place long distance calls at local rates, usually at much lower costs during "off hours." So, in effect, the microcomputer-and our friendly phone-help us listen to researchers anywhere in the world who have published studies important to us in Extension and cited in one of hundreds of computerized databases. Whereas before, we may have asked a library to run a search for us, we observed that Extension staff, perhaps with an assistant, are beginning to use micros to search databases interactively, incrementally. Listening to Clientele

Also, we met Extension staff who use computers to listen effectively to clientele. Here are several examples. First, two "Answer Lines" in Iowa enable clients anywhere in the state to call toll free to ask questions about home economics and gardening. This saves county agents' time in answeringroutine questions because knowledgeable listeners on campus have some answers to anticipated questions in their computers.5

Second, they used computer decision aids. A computer decision aid supplied, for example, by Nebraska's AGNET6 or Indiana's FACTS,7 identifies a whole set of "if ... thens...." The "if ... then . . ."relationship has been established by research and built into a formula. The decision aid prompts the Extension professional to ask the decision maker for information about the objective (to reduce heat loss, to plan a balanced diet, to minimize soil erosion) and about available resources. It identifies the information that the decision maker-now a "co-searcher"-needs to supply and it provides a research-based framework to interpret that information.

A third development is the potential of using optical scanning to directly enter, say, survey data into computers for summarizing and analysis. Here's an example. Through a program called C D-Dial,8 Extension in Iowa helps neighborhood leaders size up their community. The Extension faculty member helps the leaders:

  • Decide what information they need to get from residents.
  • Collect it, perhaps, on optical scanning cards.
  • Process the data quickly.
  • Interpret the data.

Similardata from other communities may establish ranges within which the leaders of a given community can interpret local data, for example, public expenditures for emergency medical care.

Fourth, the microcomputer, with its growing storage capacity, is a repository for experience-based knowledge, the experiences of our clientele. We believe a neat example of this ability comes from the EPA-supported National Small Wastewater Flows Clearinghouse9 at West Virginia University. The clearinghouse helps users access research information related to the technology of treating water in small communities. But, more than that, it collects experiences of consultants and communities that have tried the alternative technologies. This clearinghouse, then, collects both research- and experience-based knowledge.

In short, microcomputers enable us to listen more carefully to busy clientele who need a quick tip, individual decision makers, leaders struggling to set community goals appropriate to preferences of its residents, and practitioners who can contribute experience-based knowledge.

Listening to Colleagues

One of the most complex tasks is to match research findings to people problems. When a colleague succeeds, or at least gives it a "good college try," we'd like to know about it! Through microcomputers, we, in Extension, can now better listen to each other in all 50 states and territories. We contribute and enjoy ready access to yet another set of experience-based information -- the reports in the National Accomplishment Reporting System (NARS), made available by Extension Service, USDA.10

Extension staff who access NARS by microcomputer find reports useful throughout the program development process:

  • Identifying appropriate audience mixes.
  • Designing needs assessment techniques.
  • Identifying technical research-and researchers.
  • Clarifying significant, workable objectives.
  • Developing effective teaching methods.
  • Using unusual-but fitting-indicators of success and evaluation techniques.

And, we also observed computer conf erenci ng -electronic mail addressed to colleagues who have micros and with whom the Extension worker may want to interact quickly to draft a cooperative grant proposal, prepare a workshop agenda, or solicit association news.

We have a newer listening tool-the microcomputer. It can help us listen to researchers comprehensively, efficiently, purposefully. It can help us listen to clientele with more insight and with more power to integrate timely research with their goals and resources. It can help us listen to colleagues who have experimented and reported their experiences.


"Matchmakers." That's us. It's tough matching useful kernels from the ever-widening spectrum of research to the ever-changing problems of people. It requires a lot of listening. We have a newer listening tool-the microcomputer. It can help us listen to researchers comprehensively, efficiently,,purposefully. It can help us listen to clientele with more insight and with more power to integrate timely research with their goals and resources. It can help us listen to colleagues who have experimented and reported their experiences.

Extension is not so old that it needs a hearing aid to amplify the signal! But it does face the challenge of using a newer tool to listen more sensitively to people's problems, researchand experience-based alternatives, and co-workers. We can extend our power to hear if through microcomputers we choose to extend our listening.


  1. AGRICOLA (pronounced: a-gric'-o-la) stands for Agriculture On line Access. A contact is Educational Resources Division, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland 20705.
  2. Martha E. Williams and others, Computer-Readable Databases (White Plains, New York: Knowledge Industry Publications, Inc., 1982) and James L. Hall and Marjorie J. Brown, Online Bibliographic Databases: A Directory and Sourcebook (London: Aslib, 1983). (Distributed in United States by Gale Research Co, Detroit, Michigan.]
  3. Dialog Information Services, 3460 Hiliview Ave., Palo Alto,California 94304.
  4. BRS stands for Bibliographical Retrieval Services, 1200 Route 7, Latham, New York 12110. BRS denotes AGRICOLA as "CAIN."
  5. The coordinator of the home economics "Answer Line" is Mary Jo Williams, Curtiss Hall, B-1, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011.
  6. AGNET is short for Agricultural Computer Network. Alfred L. Stark is AGNET supervisor, 105 Miller Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583.
  7. FACTS stands for Fast Agricultural Communications Terminal System. Phil Beetley is operations manager: Ag Communication Service, Smith Hall 105, Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47007.
  8. C D-Dial stands for Community Development Data, /nformation and Analysis Laboratory. Vern Ryan is director, 317 East Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011. Steve Padgitt, Extension sociologist at ISU, has been experimenting with machine-readable survey forms.
  9. Steve Dix is director of the National Small Wastewater Flows Clearinghouse, 258 Stewart St., West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia 26506.
  10. For NARS, a contact is Tom Tate, program analyst, Management Systems, Program Development, Evaluation and Management Systems, ES/USDA, Washington, D.C.