Spring 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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More Computer Application Ideas

A part of the lives of clients and Extensioin professionals.

Phyllis E. Worden
Program Leader, Home Economics
Colorado State University - Fort Collins

It's no revelation that computers have a great influence on each of us every day. Grocery store computers scan the bar code on purchases to give total charges, while at the same time giving the store an accurate record of all sales and an instant inventory of remaining stock. Banks have programs that allow us to withdraw money using bank cards without the traditional paper withdrawal slip. The charges are immediately recorded via computer against an existing account. Newer models of cars have many functions controlled by a microcomputer chip. Computers are with us and here to stay. As more and more families purchase their own home computers, we in Extension must change our methods of delivering Extension programs, materials, workshops, and ideas to clientele.

Acquiring a Home Computer

Let's look at some of the recent changes, especially in regard to home computer acquisitions. In Infoworld, it was estimated that there were currently 473,000 home computer owners.1 In addition, many microcomputers have been sold to small businesses and many school systems. Any reported census probably underreports current numbers of microcomputer owners.

In today's computer world, the microcomputer represents the end of the third generation of computers. The five generations of computers as we know them today are:

  1. Vacuum tube computer.
  2. Transistorized computers.
  3. Integrated circuit computers.
  4. VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) computers.
  5. KIPS (Knowledge Information Processing System).

The fourth generation of computers are sometimes called macros. They're larger than the home microcomputer of today; main frame computers are in this fourth generation. The fifth generation of computers of KIPS, which are presently being researched, are based on reason rather than on calculations . . . their real power won't be in their processing speeds, but in their capacity to reason.2

Congressman Robert Edgar, chair of the Congressional Clearinghouse of the Future, predicts, based on the study of computing by his committee, that "in ten years, there will be few people in our society who will have a job that is not in some way computerrelated." He also has predicted that in 5 to 10 years, all new TV sets will come with computers built in as standard equipment.3

Home computers seem to be catching on quite fast, especially among parents who want to help their children by supplementing their educational experiences with a home computer. By 1990, Future Computing predicts two-thirds of USA households and 40% of office workers will use personal computers.4

Acquiring a microcomputer has been likened to other technological advances, such as the telephone. There were early telephone adopters, but as they became cheaper, people leased or purchased one for their own home. Today, we often see more than one telephone per household. As the prices for home microcomputers drop and as more people realize how a computer can help them, more and more families will consider purchasing one for home use.

Perceived Problems

Unfortunately, very little research is available on home computer use. Jensen, an Extension specialist for computers in Idaho, found four problems relating to computer use:

  1. The length of time required to learn how to use one's computer varied greatly.
  2. Family members didn't adapt to using the computer at the same rate of time.
  3. A lack of useful, quality software programs for home use.
  4. A lack of family management skills.5

These four perceived problems can give us some clues for reaching and teaching clientele who own a home computer. These problems also can give us ideas for Extension in-service training possibilities as we prepare to work more with computers in Extension in the future.

Adapting Traditional Methods

In light of these technological changes and the increasing numbers of clientele with computers, how might we in Extension change or adapt traditional methods to reach these early computer owners? I'm suggesting some ways that are technically possible now, and which we may want to consider in future Extension program development and evaluation. Perhaps you can think of some additional ways of communicating and reaching clientele in the future via computers.

Bulletins and Fact Sheets

Using databases like "The Source" or "Compuserve" for bulletin or fact sheet storage will save time and money for state Extension Services. For example, there's now a 20,000-word novel on "The Source." Readers subscribing to "The Source" can either read the book directly or "download" it onto their own computer using a telephone modem. Revisions of Extension pamphlets and bulletins in such a database can easily be made.

Users will pay only for telephone and database service charges for the specific information they wish to receive. Each Extension Service in the long-run will save dollars by not printing as many bulletins. Once outdated, a bulletin will be eliminated from the database without destroying large numbers of publications as we now are sometimes forced to do.


Newsletters will be transmitted electronically. "Newsheet" is a commercial program that has over 100 electronic editions of newsletters, as well as current wire services. Information for newsletters will be written for specific audience groups with one or more versions to meet the needs of clientele with computers in a whole state or in the nation. Again, interested clientele will read a newsletter directly or "download" onto their own home computer.

Home Study Courses

Non-credit home study courses will be offered via computer. The National Education Corporation has over 110,000 students currently enrolled in credit courses via home computer. Through Extension in Colorado, we currently have a non-credit microwave correspondence course, for which clientele pay a $10 enrollment fee. If such a course were in the computer system, the consumer would spend the money on telephone and computer time rather than on the printed materials and postage. Correct answers would be programmed for immediate feedback to the enrollee. Another advantage would be the use of materials across state lines instead of duplication of materials by each state.


Do you need information based on the latest university research? With the information in a database, a client will call up the information bank for an immediate response rather than waiting until the local Extension office opens the next morning. This service will be especially helpful with the large number of food preservation questions Extension agents/specialists receive each year. With such information in a nationally accessible database, not only clientele with their own computers will have access to it, but so will agents through the local Extension office's computer and modem. As new research is completed, the results can easily be added by Extension specialists or researchers to the database for immediate dissemination to clientele.

In-Service Training

How about in-service training via computer? An agent who wants to learn more about new advances in nutrition or energy conservation ideas will call up and receive any updated material on such topics without coming to campus or waiting to receive materials in the mail. Agents/specialists across the country can help by training each other via computer.

Program Materials

Extension homemaker materials, 4-H project manuals, or other program support materials can be shared via computer. People with their own computers will have access to all the materials from states in one location in narrative form. Teaching ideas, exercises, and activities might be suggested and probably for less cost than the printing of traditional materials as we know them today.


How about a county Extension activity calendar? Instead of calling the county Extension office or depending on the mail to bring a letter that sometimes arrives two days late, you can hook up your computer and get a complete updated county activity calendar of meetings or other information on a local computer "bulletin board." A state "master" calendar can also be stored for easy access by Extension personnel.


Need a new publication or membership brochure? Call up the previously written publications . . . rearrange or rewrite some material and send it via computer and modem to be typeset and have a new brochure/publication ready for printing in less than a day.

Budgeting and Forecasting

With a spreadsheet package, a county will be able to more easily keep office budgets, expenditures, and a variety of other records. With a spreadsheet, forecasting for the future can easily be done using "what-if" statements. Forecasting can be helpful in long-term program development processes.


A database program will allow records of volunteer training, with the names and addresses of the volunteers for future use. Copies of lesson outlines on various topics can also be stored and later updated with current information, eliminating much of the staff preparation time.

Personnel Matters

Listing of Extension vacancy announcements, through a national database such as "The Source" or "Compuserve," will help personnel staff as well as those looking for Extension positions.

Planning Events

Planning and conducting major events such as the county fair and workshops will be helped in the future by the use of an office computer.


Hopefully, this has only started your thinking of how we will use computers in the future to reach more of our clientele in new and creative ways. Extension Services must allow employees at all levels the time and financial support to become computer "literate" to help them:

  1. Understand how to use the specific computer model in their own office and/or home.
  2. Become comfortable and experiment with ways of using a computer themselves in their work.
  3. Feel comfortable enough in computer usage to be able to show other Extension professionals/ clientele how to use a computer.
  4. Experiment and be creative with other uses of a microcomputer in planning, implementing, documenting, and reporting Extension educational programs.


  1. "Infolink," Infoworld,V and VI (December 26, 1983/January 2, 1984), 75.
  2. For more information on fifth generation computers, see Edward Feigenbaum and Pam McCorduck, The Fifth Generation (Reading, Massachusetts: AddisonWesley, 1983).
  3. Family Computing, I (November, 1983), 82.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jacie Whitmore Jensen, Family Perceptions of an Adaptation to the Home Computer (Master's thesis, Washington State University, Pullman, 1983), p. 82.