Summer 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Reaping the Benefits of Computers

Factors encouraging and discouraging computer use.

Jerry McClelland
Assistant Professor
Home Economics Education
Division of Home Education
University of Minnesota - St. Paul

When a new computer arrives at an Extension office, it brings many concerns with it: How does it work? What keys make it print? Why won't it work? When many of the staff learn the technical operation, a new set of questions arise: Can it be used to teach clients? Can a program simulate local conditions? How are fact sheets updated? Whatever the question, many people agree that more needs to be learned about computers.

Study Focus

The commitment to reaping the benefits of computers is shown by a midwestern state that developed an extensive computer system linking the county and state Extension offices with microcomputers and a mainframe computer. As staff became familiar with the computers, some were interested in exploring the potential of computers to support their instructional programs.

Thirteen agents enrolled in a graduate class on educational applications, which included assignments to: (1) implement computer-assisted instruction, (2) develop educational materials from files on a mainframe computer and from microcomputer data bases, and (3) demonstrate the integration of computers into their yearly Plans of Work. These agents, six of whom didn't have computers in their offices when the course began, were the focus of a study about the educational uses of computers in Extension. They worked in rural and urban counties, in 4-H, home economics, and agricultural program areas.

The purpose of the study was to determine the factors that agents perceived as encouraging and discouraging successful instructional applications in Extension programming. Three months after the agents completed the course, they were interviewed by phone. Their responses are related below.

How Agents Used Computers

Three of the 13 agents hadn't used computers for instructional purposes, but others had used them as often as twice weekly. Some of the more common ways they used the computer in their educational programs were: (1) analysis of clients' data, (2) computer-assisted instruction, and (3) production of educational materials.

A home study course developed by a home economist showed the usefulness for analyzing clients' data. Clients completed household expenditure forms, which a volunteer keyed into a financial analysis computer program. The clients then received an analysis of the spending patterns of their own households compared with the expenditures of other, similar families.

Computer-assisted instruction was exemplified b one 4-H agent's work. She developed an individual learning packet for 4-Hers on gardening that included a computer program, Extension bulletins, and materials she wrote.

An example of educational materials produced was a news article developed by loading information on housing insulation from the mainframe computer at the state university into a county office computer. A word processing program was used to insert some local features, and the article was sent to the local newspaper.

Factors Encouraging Use

The factors encouraging instructional application fell into three categories: conditions within Extension, conditions outside of Extension, and the influence of individuals. The state Extension structure was perceived as encouraging the use of computers by planning the computer system, helping to purchase county computers, giving financial support for innovative teaching strategies, and providing training and technical support.

Outside Extension, agents noted that widespread use of computers in schools and the rest of society, the graduate class they'd completed, and their clientele encouraged them to use computers.

But, the factor having the most influence was that of individuals, particularly other agents. As one agent said, "Somebody that's used the program is the best place to go for help." To a lesser extent, individuals in the state computer support unit and the subject-matter specialists also encouraged agents to use instructional applications.

Factors Discouraging Use

The factors that inhibited agents' instructional applications were hardware and software. The county offices had only one computer each, and that was used by secretaries and agents for management functions. Agents who wanted to use computers for developing materials or for analyzing clients' data indicated that management functions took priority and left little time for instructional applications. Regarding the use of computer-assisted instruction, one agent said, "There's 1 computer, 700 4-H members, and 200 leaders. There's no way they're going to have hands-on contact with the computer."

Software was identified as an inhibitor in several ways. A lack of software was reflected in this agent's comment: "Well, in my area there's no software (provided by the state). Not any." Not knowing about software availability was discouraging to some: "I called a contact in Washington who said my state specialist had a copy (of a program).

When I called, the specialist said it hadn't been developed yet. However, later the Washington contact called to ask if I'd received the software he'd sent me. I said no. And, I still haven't seen this software." Agents varied in their assessment of the quality of software in the state Extension inventory.

They also mentioned that there wasn't enough time to use the computer to prepare for instruction. And, to a lesser extent, they lacked skill in using the computer and ideas on how to use software in their programs.

These experiences occurred at an early stage of using instructional applications. When resources are more plentiful and agents' skills increase, the factors encouraging and discouraging instructional applications will no doubt change. However, the experiences of these early adopters are applicable to many agents today.

Recommendations for Improving Conditions

Most of the agents' suggestions for improving the conditions for using computers in their instructional programs were focused on Extension at the state level. Nearly all said more software should be developed and half said a clearinghouse was needed to provide information about software. Most suggested that the state staff should continue to provide advanced training on technical skills, and some agents thought more guidance should be provided on the use of software in instructional programs.

Nearly all the agents suggested they needed to spend more time on improving their computing skills and in planning for using the computer in their instruction. They saw this as their responsibility.

What's an Agent To Do?

The experiences of these agents suggest action for those who want to use computers in their instructional programs. Agents can identify the conditions that encourage and discourage successful application of computers. They can develop strategies to encourage success and overcome barriers that inhibit use. The facilitators, inhibitors, and strategies for dealing with barriers are similar to those experienced when trying to use other instructional strategies.

Agents can work within the formal Extension structure to develop computing skills and strategies for using instructional applications, and to acquire hardware and software. Informal networks might be used to do what isn't readily done in the formal structure, such as find out who the experts are in instructional applications and get their advice. Whenever possible, agents should learn from and teach peers.

The lack of hardware challenges agents to rethink some methods of teaching. Perhaps some clients will be served differently. Borrowing or bartering resources might make it possible for clients to have access to a substantial pool of computers in a community, and flexible scheduling might extend computer resources. Use of county office computers might require flexible work hours for staff and volunteers.

Experimentation with instructional applications of computers helps agents expand their repertoire in instructional methods. They must expect to allocate time to developing both technical and pedagogic skills for using computers.

In addition to action to be taken by agents, there are policy decisions about hardware, software, and training that agents can help determine. Key questions in setting such policies are: What resources should be allocated for computer applications? How are computer applications to be prioritized? Who will be allowed to use the computers?

Integration of computers into a Plan of Work requires some creativity and willingness to try and to err. As is often true, immediate payoff for the investment may not be obvious. But the long-term benefits will be in serving different clients, serving clients differently, and serving clients better.