Summer 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA7

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Keeping Current Via Teleconferencing

An effective and efficient way "to stay in touch".

Jan Bjorklund
Associate Program Director, Extension Home Economics
University of Missouri - Columbia

Joanne Fredmeyer
Assistant Professor and Meeting Planner, University Extension Division
University of Missouri - Columbia

"Teleconferencing is so rational, it will never succeed,"says futurist Naisbitt in his best-selling book Megatrends.1 "Not true," say the Extension home economists in Missouri.

In a state with 114 counties covering over 69,000 square miles, it's often too costly in terms of time and money for Extension personnel to travel for face-to-face meetings. Yet many tasks require interaction among participants in "real time" to be effective. The U.S. mail, electronic mail, and regular telephone calls are limited in the quality, quantity, and speed of work that can be done through their use. On the other hand, audio-teleconferencing permits rapid communication, with less travel.2 Studies indicate that audio-teleconferencing is particularly satisfactory for communication tasks that stress information exchange and problem solving.3

Although the telephone certainly isn't a new technology, its use for education has been virtually overlooked for the more glamorous media.4 In the early 1970's, Missouri Cooperative Extension developed a bridge to link together regular telephone lines and supplied the counties with amplified telephone units. This teleconferencing system was replaced in 1980 with a new 20-line, audio-teleconference bridging system and new Darome 610 Conveners (amplified telephone units) that allow a group of people to participate at each of the designated state locations.

This article presents two examples of how this Educational Teleconference System has been used to achieve program objectives in home economics that might not otherwise have been possible.

Keeping Current in Subject Matter

Extension professionals have a real challenge keeping current with the ever-increasing amount of new information. "The volume of words flowing through such media as broadcasting, publishing, the mails and telecommunications . . . is generally called the information explosion."5 Staying up to date is especially challenging for 10 county-based Extension home economists in Missouri. These 10 serve as generalists rather than specializing in one subject-matter area, as do the other 83 county-based home economists. As a result of reduced funding, in-service conferences on campus for all county-based home economists are held only twice a year. During these conferences, sessions in the five subject-matter areas are held simultaneously. Thus, the generalists must choose just one of the five subject-matter sessions offered in home economics.

Teleconferencing seemed to be an ideal solution to the double dilemma of a greater need for information and fewer opportunities to participate in traditional in-service conferences. Extension home economics administrators and state subject-matter specialists used the Educational Teleconference System to provide these generalists with the training they'd missed while on campus.

Planning helped assure that all the generalists had the opportunity to participate in this method of in-service training. General information was sent out several weeks before the beginning of the teleconferences. State specialists also mailed program materials to each of the participants in their subject-matter sessions.

The generalists reviewed the materials and prepared questions they wanted to ask during the teleconference. An informal welcome and roll call were used at the beginning of each session to greet the participants and help establish rapport. State subject-matter specialists gave an overview of the program content during the first part of the teleconference. Sessions concluded with questions and answers and sharing of program ideas.

The generalists' response to these teleconferences has been extremely positive according to the follow-up evaluations. They've indicated that teleconferencing has been a great way to keep up in subject matter. These generalists have also appreciated the opportunity to receive this type of training without having to leave their offices. This, however, caused a minor problem in a small county office with only one telephone line.

The need to keep in touch has become even more important in today's fast-paced society. Peters and Waterman in In Search of Excellence frequently refe to a "technology of keeping in touch" that was apparent in the companies that were doing an outstanding job. Networks of open and informal communication are considered key factors in the stories of successful companies.6 Maintaining communication linkage is also very important for the continued success of Extension.

Advisory Committee Forums

Four food and nutrition advisory committee forums met via audio-teleconferencing during November, 1983, so their state advisory committee representatives could truly represent them at the state program planning meeting held in December. total of 28 county-based food and nutrition specialists are geographically dispersed over the state of Missouri and are divided into 4 regions. Each regional group covered the same agenda, and each individual was given an opportunity to express her opinions, criticisms, and concerns. Most participants stayed in their offices and used a Darome 610 Convener. Some, however, chose to hold the handset of the telephone for the two-hour conference. One mother of an ill child was able to participate from her home.

In early October, 1983, a state food and nutrition specialist and the chairperson of the state advisory committee (a county-based specialist) developed and mailed to all participants the agenda and logistical information for the teleconferences. This allowed participants almost a month to prepare for the conferences.

The six to eight locations in each regional conference were joined together through Missouri Extension's audio-teleconference bridging equipment located in Columbia. Each conference was chaired by that region's representative on the state committee. Because the groups were small and consisted only of peers, everyone was allowed, indeed encouraged, to respond in full to each agenda item. This format allowed misconceptions to be cleared up, gripes to be aired, and priorities to be set based on group consensus. Research indicates that audio-teleconferencing is adequate for a number of communication tasks and is particularly satisfactory for problem solving.7

When the state food and nutrition advisory committee (comprised of five county-based specialists, three state-based subject-matter specialists, and two administrators) met in December, 1983, their program planning task was made much easier because many minor items had been cleared up during the teleconferences. County-based staff were better-satisfied because they had a part in the decision making. Extension administrators were well-satisfied because they knew programs planned by staff were going to be more effectively carried out and more nearly reflected the real needs of the clientele; and, best of all, the cost in time and money spent was small.

Cost Comparison

The following tables give a cost comparison of holding home economics subject-matter training via audio-teleconferences and transporting field staff to the Columbia campus for similar training sessions. The cost of travel, meals, and lodging versus telephone calls is the most obvious place to think of savings (see Table 1).

Table 1. Actual teleconference costs.
Operator charges:
8 3/4 hours at $5.00/hour
  $ 43.75
Total telephone charges from
participating sites to
Columbia (2,829 minutes)
Estimated postage for program
mailings: 30 mailings at $.32
Total teleconference
charges (5 sessions)

However, a frequently overlooked cost savings is the unproductive travel time avoided by teleconferencing (see Table 2). In addition, it's hard to put a dollar amount on the convenience of staying in your own office and, immediately after a meeting, returning to other business-but, it's an important consideration.

Table 2. Estimated face-to-face meeting costs.
Mileage charges:
4,217 miles at $.20/mile
  $ 843.40
Meal expense:
10 out-of-town participants
for 2 days at $25.00/day
11 state specialists
for 2 days (lunch) at $7.50/day
Lodging expense:
5 doubles at $44.00/night
Unproductive travel time:
84.33 hours at $11.82/hour
Total estimated meeting charges   $2,725.18


Teleconferencing in Missouri Extension home economics has been used very successfully for several quite different purposes. Two have been described in this article. County-based home economists have received subject-matter updates and food and nutrition specialists have been able to conduct advisory committee meetings.

Even though funding has been reduced and travel is limited, Extension home economists have been able to "stay in touch" through teleconferencing. The follow-up evaluations and costs analyses have indicated that using this method is both efficient and effective. Gail Imig, state leader for home economics, is an advocate of teleconferencing. "The more we use teleconferencing, the more possibilities we see for its use in the future, alone and combined with other technologies. We're fortunate in Missouri to have the system in place with full administrative support for its use."

Flexibility and adaptation to change have been instrumental in Extension's successful history. One-to-one telephone communication has been available for along time. By expanding the use of this very traditional technology, Missouri Extension developed a statewide network of communication through the Educational Teleconference System. The technical support is available to continue to accomplish Extension's very necessary work albeit in a modified manner.


  1. John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1982), p. 46.

  2. Robert Johansen, Jacques Vallee, and Kathleen Spangler, Electronic Meetings: Technical Alternatives and Social Choices (Menlow Park, California: AddisonWesley Publishing Company, 1979), p. 157.

  3. Ibid., p. 155.

  4. Lorne A. Parker, The Status of the Telephone in Education (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1976).

  5. Ithiel do Sola Pool, "Tracking the Flow of Information," Science, CCXXI (August 12, 1983), 609.

  6. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's BestRun Companies (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1982), p. 123.

  7. Johansen, Vallee, and Spangler, Electronic Meetings.