Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Forum // 1FRM1

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Information Technology: Extension's Future


Kirk A. Astroth
4-H Specialist
Montana State University-Bozeman

To help Extension move confidently into the next decade, we should begin by expanding on one of our strengths: information communication. Extension's key resource (information) isn't only renewable, but self-generating. For example:

  • Between 6,000 and 7,000 scientific articles are written each day.
  • Scientific and technical information now increases 13% per year, which means it doubles every 5.5 years.
  • But, the rate will soon jump, to perhaps 40% per year because of new, more powerful information systems and an increasing population of scientists. That means that the data will double every 20 months.1

Little wonder that Naisbitt says we are "drowning in information, but starved for knowledge."2 The Extension Service must be able to provide information that makes a difference.

We need to adopt technologies that will enhance our delivery system and bring us gracefully into the next century as a critical and valued partner with other information providers. We can do this in a variety of ways.

At a minimum, we need administrators who will foster an institutional culture with a strong commitment to advanced communications technology. Such support is critical to making progress at the county level. If this is indeed the information age and one of Extension's main roles is to facilitate information transfer, how can we successfully compete if we use outdated technologies?

What steps can counties take? First, every county must have a computer. As copy machines were to mimeographs, computers are the wave of the future for modern offices and information management.

Much good computer software is available to provide what our clientele want and need. A good example is the garden planning program that was developed at the University of Kentucky. This program has been well-received by clientele in Kansas counties and is a visible example of how Extension can help people with modern technology. Using this garden program, the Crawford County Extension booth was the busiest location at a recent Lawn and Garden Show, helping more than 1,000 people plan their summer gardens.

Second, county staff-agents as well as secretaries - have to acquire the necessary skills to run computer programs with clientele. All staff must be computer literate. Training is essential. It will take time, but it will be time well-spent. Because of the importance of computer communications, training can't be handled adequately by the staff development office. Each university will need to establish a separate computer support office to provide training, develop original programs, and serve as a network with other computer groups around the nation.

Third, each county office must have a telephone modem to link with the wide variety of electronic bulletin boards and mail systems to help each office keep in touch with the latest information.

Instate e-mail systems are a good starting point to facilitate rapid communications. Examples included DIALCOM, CoSy (Arizona), ILLINET (Illinois), EXNET (Iowa), EXTEND (Minnesota), and Sunflower Dispatch (Kansas). The North Central Computer Institute (NCCI) has a free electronic bulletin board (called a BBS) available to those in the 12 North Central states. Since others can subscribe for only $25 a year, you'll find a lot of ES staff and other state staff listed as users of this system.

The NCCI e-mail system is a real jewel for networking with staff in other states, and many are only beginning to realize its potential. For example, the 4-H Connect section recently hosted a computer conference featuring William Lofquist. This conference allowed 4-H staff from around the county to converse daily with one of the country's foremost authorities on prevention education.

Another nationwide bulletin board that requires a bit of financial investment is the CompuServe network in Ohio. You must purchase a registration kit and then you're charged for your time on this bulletin board. Yet, this is the most comprehensive bulletin board in the country, with well over 100 different forums and conferences you can join.

The future holds a tremendous potential for Extension. Using advanced technology to communicate information and tying into other networks could help identify the Extension office as a source of practical information. As a long-time, unbiased source of useful information, the next decade for Extension could be one of its best. By becoming more advanced in information communications, we can be an educational force in the 21st century.


1. John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1982), p. 16.

2. Ibid., p. 17.