August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA7

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Developing 4-H Curriculum on an Electronic Database

Traditional and electronic (PENpages) methods of curriculum development and review, speed the development of 4-H project materials and other curricula. Results indicated that development time and effort was reduced by one-third for large curriculum projects and up to 75% for smaller supplementary materials. The greatest advantage of the electronic method was to get first drafts of text, particularly those that would be widely used and/or controversial into the hands of those who will be using the final product before the bulk of the curriculum investment was expended.

Jan Scholl
323 Agricultural Administration Building
University Park, Pennsylvania

Cooperative Extension focuses on reaching people with research-based information in a timely manner. For the past several years, electronic databases have expanded access and increased the speed at which information can be received and sent.

Pennsylvania's PENpage system (developed in 1986 by the College of Agricultural Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University to disseminate Extension news and research developments to Extension offices and the public) is now accessible to over 300 institutions around the world. The system contains over 11,500 document abstracts, agendas, articles, fact-sheets, bibliographies, calendars, catalogs, directories, glossaries, indices, minutes, news releases, newsletters, programs, scripts, reports, reviews, and tables of contents (Hunsinger, 1993).

Debra Shaffer's (1991) study of the PENpages system in Pennsylvania showed that having access to information faster than by surface mail was beneficial to Extension program development. She also found that the availability of agriculture-related information in one easily accessed location enhanced the use of the system.

Could it be possible to harness this new technology in other useful ways, such as to speed the development of 4-H project materials and other curricula? After preliminary discussions with the coordinators of the PENpages system, T. Mincemoyer (personal communication, July 10, 1992) concluded that PENpages would be an appropriate medium to develop and review curriculum documents. It was easily accessed by Extension offices throughout Pennsylvania and the ability to update documents and use access data was already built into the system. In addition, J. Kane (personal communication, July 6, 1992) proposed that with reductions in Extension staff and faculty developing youth-related curriculum across the United States, identifying the means to review and "jury" materials on an electronic system could enhance the curriculum development effort.

The purpose of this preliminary study was to determine if it was possible to develop curriculum and supporting 4-H educational materials more quickly and effectively by distributing and reviewing them on the electronic database, PENpages.


Current trends in curriculum development and electronic technology were studied and traditional methods of development (draft, duplication, mailing, and review) of 4-H textile science materials during the period of 1989-91 and the electronic development of 4-H textile science materials from 1992-93 on the database were compared. Agents and volunteers who participated in both the traditional and electronic review of materials were surveyed to determine opinions toward traditional and electronic methods and to identify factors that might inhibit and facilitate the curriculum development process.

Data were compiled to:

  1. Evaluate the development and review process for speed, accessibility, and the quality and quantity of materials developed and reviewed.

  2. Assess what Extension agents and volunteers see as the curricular limitations of traditional and electronic methods of curriculum development.

  3. Make recommendations for future curriculum development and placement of supporting educational materials on the system.

Results and Discussion

Using the electronic system, the development time and effort was reduced by one-third for large curriculum projects and substantially more (up to 75%) for smaller support or supplementary materials. This was largely due to the ability of reviewers to locate and print materials quickly and easily, and that little time was spent duplicating, collating, and mailing first and subsequent drafts from a central source. No additional materials had to be reprinted and sent out because of loss or delay. Agents also liked the fact that when leaders or members came into the Extension office "complaining" about an old curriculum, a draft of one or more projects could be put into their hands in just a few minutes.

Explanations of the curricula and review forms were also put on the electronic system. An overall menu document was developed to show how the curriculum was organized and another document communicated a "running account" of curriculum development decisions. Individual projects and support materials were also assigned a document number.

PENpages provided a means of tracking reviews and reviewers through a document access feature on the system. Twenty-five leaders, 37 members and five agents representing 28 of the 67 counties voluntarily reviewed a total of 110 projects on the electronic database compared with eight (six leaders and two agents) using the traditional method. Most of the accesses took place in the country office, but two of the volunteers accessed materials directly from their home computers.

As comments were sent in, changes were continually made to the documents on the electronic system. This allowed later reviewers to benefit from the comments of previous reviews and prevented the developer from having to sift though the same comments over and over again. Making changes continuously also eliminated the confusion of managing a number of different drafts of the same document.

Some of the changes were made in CAPITAL LETTERS so those reviewing a document a second and third time could easily pick out the changes and know that their comments had made a difference. New reviewers had the benefit of knowing which sections had already changed.

Interactive features on PENpages were inadequate at the time of the study to provide a means of sending comments directly on the system. All replies were sent back by mail or electronic mail. It was found that either the project or the review sheet needed to be printed anyway because it was cumbersome to switch back and forth between reading the document and noting the comments on the review sheet.

Most of the reviewers printed both the project materials and the review sheet because they wanted to indicate the exact source of a problem in the text, felt that documents were difficult to read from a monitor, or didn't want to tie-up a computer at the Extension office. On the electronic system, reviewers felt they had more of an opportunity to respond to the types of materials of interest and could adjust the review to their own time schedules. Some reviewers, however, did modify the review sheet to allow more space to write.

Without duplication or postage, the costs of development were greatly reduced for the developer, but were increased for the Extension office or reviewer if the materials were printed on their equipment. However, far fewer materials were printed overall than for the traditional review, and of those printed directly from the electronic system, more were reviewed.

The greatest disadvantage to the electronic system of review was the inability to send documents with graphics, formatting, and underlining. Some reviewers remarked that without the graphics the documents seem somewhat "dry" and "lifeless." Many found them difficult to "get through," particularly with such a visual subject matter as textiles and clothing.

The greatest advantage to using the electronic system was to get first drafts of text, particularly those that would be widely used and/or controversial, into the hands of those who would be using the final product before the bulk of the curriculum investment was expended. In actuality, there was no comparison between the traditional and the electronic methods used in this study because, despite a preliminary needs assessment and several committee meetings of agents, leaders, and youth prior to the traditional review, three years of development were futile because no one would use the final product.


Curriculum development is a laborious task often coupled with the difficulty of involving people who will eventually use it the most. To obtain the necessary sanction and approval, reviewing and pilot testing curricula are required, but take time, and it is difficult to obtain an adequate clientele response. The ability to develop curricula more quickly and effectively by making them more accessible to reviewers at various stages in the development process can increase the quality and quantity of educational materials being produced. Electronic delivery is becoming a more viable approach, particularly as more and more 4-H materials become available on the Internet system (Ostergard & Risdon, 1993).

This was a preliminary trial comparing two ways of developing and reviewing 4-H curriculum. Replication and further study are necessary to enhance both methods, to encourage the review of materials not only among counties but throughout the United States, and to determine how well other database systems, within Extension, can serve this purpose.


Hunsinger, D. (1993, September). The PENpages report. (PENpages document number 10199198).

Ostergard, M., & Risdon, P. (1993, September 20). UCCE posts 4-H youth projects on the internet. Extension Technology Group (electronic transmission).

Shaffer, D. (1991). An assessment of Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension agents' attitudes toward the use of PENpages as a computer-based information service. Unpublished master's thesis, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.