Winter 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

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Computer Literacy and Use

Computer literacy may be more widespread among Extension clientele than previously supposed and will probably increase as computers become a more important part of daily life. This is reflected in the numbers of non-owners of computers in the survey who were computer literate (20%). Nevertheless, the majority of Extension clientele aren't computer literate, and important differences exist in their needs.

Mark T. Taylor
Former Research Associate in Adult and Community College Education
North Carolina State University-Raleigh

Dana L. Hoag
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in Agricultural and Resource Economics
North Carolina State University-Raleigh

Mitchell B. Owen
Extension Specialist in Extension Computer Services
North Carolina State University-Raleigh

Computers are increasingly finding their way into everyone's daily routine. Extension clientele are no exception. Computers are used for farm tasks ranging from financial management to increasing production efficiency.1 Home economists use them to provide advice on household tasks, identify sources of personal stress, and analyze diet. And youth instructors find simulations useful for teaching. Yet Extension clientele, especially farmers, have been reluctant to adopt this new technology. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that fewer than three percent of farmers use personal computers, even for record keeping.2

In response, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service (NCAES) recently developed ExCEL (Extension Computer Education Laboratory), a mobile unit used to offer computer education to Extension staff and clientele.3 Regional workshops provided educational programs in all counties during the program's first year. Staff training was offered in office management, basic computer education, and subject-matter computer applications developed by the NCAES. ExCEL courses for farm clientele included farm budgeting and record keeping, animal waste management, and feed-ration formulation. Home economics clientele learned about home care, kitchen design, dietary analysis, and stress management.

The long-term goal of ExCEL is to integrate computer education into existing county Extension programs. ExCEL workshops provided important insight about how best to do this with a first-hand look at client computer literacy, interest in applications, and barriers to use.

A great deal was revealed by interacting with participants in the computer education courses that couldn't have been learned with a survey. However, a small random survey of ExCEL users was done, as a complement, to provide comprehensive statistical data. The survey and experience gained in the ExCEL program provides important information about computer use that Extension educators can use to develop and implement other computer education programs.

Perhaps the most important finding from the workshops was that low computer literacy is an important barrier to widespread computer use. Iddings and Apps support this finding.4 Without developing basic computer skills, only a small portion of Extension's clientele will be able to benefit from computer technology.

Results and Interpretations

A total of 57 full-time farmers, 22 part-time farmers, and 32 participants in home economics courses were surveyed. Data can't be generalized because individuals self-selected themselves by attending the ExCEL workshops; the data were unique and important, however, because they provided information about individuals with computer education.

Computer Ownership and Literacy

Full-time farmers were more likely to own and use computers than part-time farmers or home economics clientele. Thirty-nine percent of the full-time farmers owned a computer (n=22) compared to 25% for other participants.

Computer ownership, however, didn't necessarily equate with computer literacy. About one-third of participants who owned computers reported little use of their machines. Many reported a lack of training opportunities contributed to this problem.

In contrast, some non-owners of computers were computer literate. Over 20% of farmers who didn't own computers used them extensively or occasionally outside the home. Farm wives (who represented 26% of the full-time farmers and 45% of the part-time farmers) and home economics clientele used computers in their off -farm jobs, and many younger farmers used computers in college or previous jobs.

Interest in Computer Applications

Farmers displayed relatively little interest in nonbusiness uses of computers such as personal budgeting, education, or games. The majority of full-time farmers (88%) were interested in using computers for budgeting and record keeping functions; 35% were interested in agricultural programs (such as animal waste management), and 18% in personal use. Part-time farmers had more diverse interests: 73% were interested in budgeting and record keeping functions, 18% in agricultural programs, and 64% in personal uses of computers.

Home economics clientele showed little interest in computerized business applications. Nearly 80% said they were interested in personal applications such as word processing, home record keeping, and educational uses for children.

Barriers to Computer Ownership

Few differences existed in the barriers to computer ownership. The most common one was the belief that the use of a computer wouldn't justify its cost. This was followed-in roughly equal proportions-by the expense of the machines and the belief that learning to operate a computer was difficult and time- consuming. Several individuals indicated lack of training in operating computers prevented them from purchasing one.

Full-time farmers were most likely to cite time considerations as a barrier to computer ownership. Part-time farmers, however, didn't name time constraints. This may be partially explained by the number of retirees who participated in the workshops. About 20% of the part-time farmers were retired, and most part-time farmers had worked in professional and managerial roles (including the computer industry). Many of them were extremely interested in computers and saw the workshops as a means of developing a new hobby or use for computers. Home economics clientele also didn't indicate that time was an important constraint.

Options for Clients

Workshop participants demonstrated considerable interest in purchasing a computer despite their concerns. Forty-three percent of the full-time farmers, 30% of home economics clientele, and 18% of the part-time farmers indicated that they planned to buy a computer soon. Seventeen percent of the full-time farmers and over one-third of the other clientele were not ready to buy a computer, but would like to have access to a computer through their county Extension offices. The remaining participants were considering buying a computer, but wanted more information before purchasing. Only three to six percent had no interest in computers.

The money clients were willing to spend on a computer system (computer, monitor, and printer) varied. Full-time farmers had realistic expectations about the cost of a system that would meet their needs. Full-time farmers were willing to spend more on a system than part-time farmers, and part-time farmers would spend greater amounts than the home economics clientele, perhaps implying that a farm or home business more easily justifies the expense of acquiring a computer.


Computer literacy may be more widespread among Extension clientele than previously supposed and will probably increase as computers become a more important part of daily life. This is reflected in the numbers of non-owners of computers in the survey who were computer literate (20%). Nevertheless, the majority of Extension clientele aren't computer literate, and important differences exist in their needs.

Computer education programs should meet the literacy levels and needs of particular groups. Retirees, for example, were very interested in computer training, and the home economics courses had the best overall attendance at ExCEL workshops. On the other hand, full-time farmers expressed concern about having time to become computer literate or to use software applications. Yet, more Extension effort is probably placed in software support for full-time farmers than for home economics clientele or retirees.

Extension staff should demonstrate the advantages of their programs to help clientele justify the cost of owning computers. Farmers, for example, must see that the returns from a computer will warrant the investment. This can best be done by providing repeated computer training opportunities.

Although the workshops were highly rated by all participants, computer ownership was the single most important factor influencing individuals' attitudes toward computers. Among full-time farmers, 82% of computer owners believed the machines useful compared to 46% of non-owners. Similar results were obtained for part-time farmers.

One way to increase clientele literacy may be to improve agents' and specialists' understanding of computers. Most of the agents involved in the ExCEL project had limited computer skills. Sponsoring computer classes, providing access to computers and instruction through county Extension offices, developing computer user groups, and encouraging Extension clientele to get additional training are ways of developing computer literacy and more advanced computer skills among Extension clientele.


1. P. Beetley and S. Gifford, "The Farm Computer: A Management Information Perspective" (Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Computers in Agricultural Extension Programs, Vol. 1, 1988), pp. 44-48.

2. D. Willimack, "The Financial Record-Keeping Practices of U.S. Farm Operators and Their Relationship to Selected Operator Characteristics" (Presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the American Agricultural Economics Association, Baton Rouge, Louisiana).

3. M. Owen, D. Hoag, and T. Taylor, "ExCEL: Extension Computer Education Laboratory" (Presented at the 3rd International Conference on Computers in Agricultural Extension Programs, Orlando, Florida, 1990).

4. R. Iddings and J. Apps, "What Influences Farmer's Computer Use?" Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Spring 1990), 19-21.