Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA4

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Computer Anxiety Among Extension Agents


Myra N. Smith
New Orleans, Louisiana

Joe W. Kotrlik
Associate Professor
Agricultural and Extension Education
School of Vocational Education
Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge

Microcomputers have revolutionized the processing and transmission of information. Although the Cooperative Extension System was initially slow in adopting computer technology for its educational programs, rapid strides have been made in the last decade.

The dramatic increase in the number and use of microcomputers during the 1980s in county Extension offices in the Southern region1 and the fact that computer technology could be an invaluable asset to our educational programs raises a question: Are Extension agents anxious about the advent and use of computers? If so, they may not accept and use computers in their work. Then, administrators could be faced with the problem of overcoming employee resistance.

Computer-anxious people are those who fear using computers or become afraid at the prospect of using them.2 Consequently, they can choose not to learn at all, their ability to learn could be affected,3 or they may have extreme negative feelings, akin to phobia.4 Computer anxiety is related to math anxiety,5 and computer-anxious people will avoid interaction with computers.6

In a national study of computer attitudes, Worden found that three-fourths of home economics professionals weren't comfortable around computers, and suggested that Extension employees must be allowed time and financial support to become computer literate.7 Baker surveyed Maine Extension personnel and developed a computer attitude index.8 No studies have been done to show whether Extension agents are computer-anxious.


We used a computer anxiety scale, COMPAS, developed by Oetting,9 to determine computer anxiety levels of Extension agents in the Southern region. This scale is reliable and has high content validity. It contains 48 five-point Likert-type items grouped into seven subscales. The overall computer anxiety scale ranges from four to 200. Ranges for subscales are four to 20. We also used a questionnaire to determine agents' computer use, skill levels, training, and perceptions of administrative support for computer use, and the availability and use of an office computer.

Eleven of the 13 states cooperated in the study. We drew a random pro-rata sample of 544 county agents and mailed them the COMPAS instrument and our questionnaire. After two mailings and two post card follow-ups, 532 questionnaires (98%) were received. Of these, 522 (96%) were usable. We didn't do the planned telephone follow-up of nonrespondents because of the high response rate.

Analysis and Findings

We ran means of agents' computer anxiety scores (overall and subscales) to compare with Oetting's classification of anxiety scores (see Table 1).

Table 1. Oetting classification of computer anxiety.

Rank of scores
Computer anxiety level Overall Subscale
Very anxious 150-200 15-20
Anxious/tense 130-149 13-14
Mild anxiety 105-129 11-12
Relaxed/comfortable 80-104 9-10
Very relaxed/confident 40-79 4-8

We also did stepwise regression analysis to find out how much of the variance in agents' computer anxiety scores was influenced by selected agent characteristics.

When we compared agents' computer anxiety scores (Table 2) with the Oetting classification, we found that, on the average, agents were mildly anxious overall, and tense on the computer science subscale. They were relaxed or confident on the other subscales.

Table 2. COMPAS scores of Extension agents.

Scale M SD
Overall computer anxiety 110.86 32.47
Hand calculator 5.51 2.33
Trust 6.76 3.11
General attitude 8.36 3.44
Data entry 10.08 3.98
Word processing 9.61 4.00
Business operations 10.07 4.13
Computer science 13.85 4.01

We went one step further to see how many agents were mildly anxious/tense/very anxious and how many were comfortable/very relaxed (Table 3). Overall, 55% of the agents were anxious. Over three-fourths of them were anxious about computer science, and two-fifths about doing data entry, business operations, and word processing. Nearly one-fourth had a generally anxious attitude, and an insignificant number was untrusting of a computer or anxious about using a hand calculator.

Table 3. Computer anxiety levels for overall COMPAS and subscales.

(n=522) Percent by computer anxiety level

COMPAS scales
Very anxious/tense/
mildly anxious
very relaxed
Overall 55% 45%
Computer science 77 23
Data entry 43 57
Business operations 42 58
Word processing 40 60
General attitude 24 76
Trust 12 88
Hand calculator 4 96

Stepwise regression analysis revealed that computer skill level was the best predictor of computer anxiety. This predictor accounted for 31% of the overall score and was negatively correlated (r=-.556). Three other variables - perceived typing skills, perceived mathematical ability, and hours of computer use per week - explained an additional six percent, and were also negatively correlated (r=-.246, r=-.222, r=-.433).


It's significant that over half of the agents in the Southern region felt computer-anxious. Consequently, they may not want to learn and use computer technology in their educational programs. However, as agents learn computer skills they become less anxious. Knowing how to type, mathematical ability, and increased interaction with the computer further reduces computer anxiety.

Naturally, Extension administrators would like agents to accept and use computers. They can facilitate this if they show a commitment to computer technology in their organizations, organize formal computer training for agents, provide facilities and offer incentives and rewards for agents to use computers, and extend specialist support for continued practice.


1. In 1986, one-half of the states in the Southern region had a computer in every county office, and one-fourth of the states had computers in 75% of the county offices.

2. D. H. Johassen, "State Anxiety and Exposure to Microcomputers: Assessing Computerphobia" (Paper presented at Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Las Vegas, 1985).

3. N. E. Bertz, "Prevalence, Distribution and Correlates of Math Anxiety in College Students," Journal of Counseling Psychology, XXV (September 1978) and E. Fennema and J. Sherman, Fennema-Sherman Mathematics Attitudes Scales: Instruments Designed to Measure Attitudes Toward the Learning of Mathematics by Males and Females (Washington, D.C.: Journal Supplement Abstract Service, American Psychological Association, 1976).

4. J. Baylor, "Assessment of Microcomputer Attitudes of Education Students" (Paper presented at Mid-South Educational Research Association, Biloxi, Mississippi, 1985).

5. M. J. Cantrell, "An Assessment of Attitudes, Needs, and Delivery System for Microcomputer Applications by Agricultural and Extension Educators in Mississippi," Dissertation Abstracts International, XLIII (May 1983), 3488A.

6. D. G. Mitchell, "A Study to Determine Attitudes, Self- Perceived Training Needs, and Experience of Alabama County Extension Agents in the Use of Microcomputers" (Master's thesis, Mississippi State University, 1985).

7. P. E. Worden, "More Computer Application Ideas: A Part of the Lives of Clients and Extension Professionals," Journal of Extension, XXIII (January/February 1985), 7-10.

8. J. W. Baker, "Attitudes of Maine Cooperative Extension Service Personnel Towards Computerization," Research in Rural Education, II (Spring 1985), 159-62.

9. E. R. Oetting, Oetting's Computer Anxiety Scale (COMPAS). Fort Collins, Colorado: Rocky Mountain Behavioral Science Institute, 1983.