Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA6

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Who's Responsible for Computer Competence?

County level personnel and secretarial staff must be encouraged to take more responsibility for their own computer-related competence and to take advantage of training opportunities. Only through cooperative acceptance of responsibility can personnel develop and maintain the technological competence required to keep Extension competitive in the educational marketplace.

Donald Z. Goode, Jr.
Ground-Water Programs Coordinator and Computer Applications Specialist
Bureau of Plant Industry
Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce
Mississippi State, Mississippi

Graydon Ed Elliott
Leader (retired) of the Computer Applications and Services Department
Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service
Mississippi State University-Mississippi State

In 1979, Douce argued that, "We in Extension will lose the support of the public if we don't take an active role in using this new technology [computers] in our educational programs."1 Prawl, Medlin, and Gross noted in Extension in the '80s that "...the system is encouraged to use new electronic technology in providing viable educational opportunities to expanded audiences."2 The need for Extension personnel to have computer expertise has been acknowledged for some time. By 1988, the need to develop, apply, and transfer technology had become part of a National Initiative to improve the "Competitiveness and Profitability of American Agriculture."3

Extension applications of computers have been classified into two general categories: office management uses and educational uses.4 Other categories of computer applications include clientele services and program management.

To carry out these computer applications, Extension personnel must develop and maintain their knowledge and skills. Technological obsolescence can result from the deterioration of present skills or failure to acquire new skills as job requirements change.5 A 1982 study of Mississippi Cooperative Extension (MCES) faculty indicated that perceptions vary about who has the responsibility for maintaining the computer skill level of Extension personnel.6

A similar study was conducted in 1990 to determine the involvement of MCES personnel in computer applications and computer technology transfer.7 A part of that study dealt with computer-related training needs and training responsibility perceptions of MCES personnel, which is the focus of this article.


This study used a descriptive (correlational) survey design.8 A questionnaire was developed and used to gather data for the study using a modification of Dillman's total design method.9 It included an open-ended question on training responsibility perceptions. An opportunity to make additional comments was also provided.

The population consisted of 476 state and area administrators, county personnel, specialists, and secretaries in MCES. Part-time and paraprofessional employees, as well as assistant county agents, were excluded from the study. Questionnaires were mailed to a random sample of 343 personnel stratified by their job position. The response rate was 86%.


MCES personnel gave a variety of responses about who they thought was responsible for keeping them current with computer technology. These responsibility responses were categorized as: (1) my own, (2) Computer Service Department, (3) administration, and (4) Staff Development Department. A variable for each of these four categories was coded according to the open-ended comments made to the question. Many respondents' comments were coded into more than one category, while others made no response to the question (see Table 1).

Table 1. Perceptions of computer training responsibility.
Responsible party Frequency Percent1
Secretaries, ag agents, home economists, and 4-H agents
MCES administration's responsibility 94 42.9%
My own responsibility 46 21.0
Computer services' responsibility 45 20.5
Staff development's responsibility 11 5.0
Administrators (area and state)
My own responsibility 6 37.5
Computer services' responsibility 6 37.5
Staff development's responsibility 3 18.8
MCES administration's responsibility 1 6.3
My own responsibility 39 6 5.0
Computer services' responsibility 15 25.0
MCES administration's responsibility 14 23.3
Staff development's responsibility 0 0.0
1. This column doesn't total 100% since each respondent listed from zero to several responses to this question.

Forty-three percent of the county level personnel and secretaries felt the administration was responsible for keeping them current with computer technology. This included all levels of administration. Respondents held the administration responsible for making training opportunities available and for providing time away from regular duties to attend training sessions. Administration was also charged with providing time for practice back home after the training sessions were over. Secondary responsibility was placed on themselves (21%) and the Computer Services Department (21%) for maintaining the computer- related competence of county level personnel and secretarial staff.

Area and state administrators listed themselves (38%) and the Computer Services Department (38%) as being responsible for keeping them current with computer technology. The Staff Development Department was listed by 19% of the administrators as being responsible.

Most of the specialists (65%) took the responsibility on themselves for staying current. Specialists placed secondary responsibility on the Computer Services Department (25%) and the administration (23%).

In all groups, the Staff Development Department wasn't listed frequently as being responsible for their computer-related competence. In the MCES system, this department has a management role and delegates much of the training to other subject-matter departments. This may explain the low incidence of this department being listed.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Although the results of this study can be generalized only to Mississippi, they suggest training approaches that may be applicable in many states. Given the differences in perception about responsibility, the impetus for training may need to come from different directions. Data from the study showed MCES personnel spent an average of six hours each week at the computer keyboard. One of those hours was in software experimentation. An additional hour a week was spent in reading computer-related material. More time was requested by many respondents for practice and further learning. In addition, MCES personnel with the most education and computer-related experience rated individualized study higher than those with less experience. Administrators at all levels should look for ways to provide support for developing computer competencies. This support could include providing time on the job for learning experiences and offering additional workshops or training alternatives.

For more experienced personnel who develop and maintain their own computer competence, self-study materials should be developed and provided for advanced computer applications.

County level personnel and secretarial staff must be encouraged to take more responsibility for their own computer- related competence and to take advantage of training opportunities. Computer resources should be made available to motivated personnel for practice and study during work hours, and after work. Only through cooperative acceptance of responsibility can personnel develop and maintain the technological competence required to keep Extension competitive in the educational marketplace.


1. G. K. Douce, "A Blue-Sky Perspective," Journal of Extension, XVII (May/June 1979), 11-16.

2. W. Prawl, R. Medlin, and J. Gross, Adult and Continuing Education Through the Cooperative Extension Service (Columbia: University of Missouri, Extension Division, 1984).

3. USDA, Extension Service, Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives: Focus on Issues (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988).

4. G. E. Elliott, "Microcomputers in Cooperative Extension," The Agricultural Education Magazine, LVII (No. 10, 1985), 20-22.

5. M. Gist, B. Rosen, and C. Schwoerer, "The Influence of Training Method and Trainee Age on the Acquisition of Computer Skills," Personal Psychology, XLI (No. 2, 1988), 255-65.

6. M. J. Cantrell, "An Assessment of Attitudes, Needs, and Delivery System for Microcomputer Applications by Agricultural and Extension Educators in Mississippi" (Ph.D. dissertation, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, 1982).

7. D. Z. Goode, Jr., "Computer Applications and Computer Technology Transfer by Mississippi Extension Personnel: An Evaluation of Involvement, Competencies, and Training" (Ph.D. dissertation, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, 1990).

8. D. Ary, L. C. Jacobs, and A. Razavieh, Introduction to Research in Education (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985).

9. D. A. Dillman, Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method (New York: John Wiley, 1978).