February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

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Extension Agents' Use of Information Sources

This article describes the extent of information use by Extension agents in the United States. A random sample of 191 agents responded to a three-part questionnaire. The major findings were: (a) Extension agents need an item for information the same day to answer a client's inquiry; and (b) agents frequently communicate with a number of information sources--clients, other agents, Extension specialists, local news agencies, and local business organizations. Significant differences were found between demographic characteristics (age, gender, education level, and primary are of program responsibility) and information sources used. Staff development and Extension information services should use these findings to make informed decisions regarding production of educational materials.

Rama B. Radhakrishna
Research Associate
Internet address: rradhakr@psupen.psu.edu

Joan S. Thomson
Associate Professor

Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University


What, when, and how information is gathered and used by Extension agents is of critical importance in meeting the information needs of such agents and the clientele they serve. Identification and understanding of their search and use of information sources will go a long way in improving delivery methods for Extension. As Extension educators consider various delivery methods, inquiries must be made concerning the usefulness and appropriateness of delivery methods, type of audience, educational level of learners, skills of Extension agents, and their educational goals. These inquiries become even more critical in the context of budget cuts, reduced staff, professional development goals, and efficient use of resources.

Several studies have been conducted regarding information use by Extension agents (Burns & Anderson, 1973; Shih & Evans, 1991). These studies suggest that Extension specialists, agricultural experiment station bulletins, Extension publications, and farm magazines are major information sources consulted by Extension agents. Agnew (1991) found that state Extension directors perceived that program delivery approaches will change in the next five years. These changes include increased use of electronic communications and instructional devices. The electronic changes most often mentioned were increased use of telecommunication as a mode of delivery, access to electronic data sources, interactive instructional video, and increased use of computer technology.

Purpose and Objectives

The overall purpose of this study was to examine information use by Extension agents in the United States. The first objective was to determine agents' search for and use of information--that is, how soon they need an item for information and for what purpose they need that information. The second objective was to identify information sources that Extension agents most frequently used. The third objective was to determine differences, if any, between frequency of use of information sources and agents' demographic characteristics (age, gender, education level, and primary area of program responsibility).

Methods and Procedures

A mail questionnaire was used to collect data. A stratified random sample of 305 agents (stratified by Extension regions) was drawn from 1,515 Extension agents in eight randomly selected states: Iowa, Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, and Oregon. The questionnaire, developed by the researchers, had three sections: (a) agents' information search and use; (b) frequency of use of information sources measured on a five-point, Likert scale which ranged from 1(none) to 5 (once a day); and (c) demographic information (age, gender, highest education level, major for the highest degree, and primary area of program responsibility). The questionnaire was assessed for content and face validity by a panel of experts in agricultural communications and research methodology. Items that were measured on the Likert scale were assessed for reliability using Cronbach's alpha. Results of reliability analysis indicated that the questionnaire had acceptable reliability (alpha = .81). After the initial mailing and two follow-ups, a total of 191 (63%) agents responded. Early and late respondents were compared on key variables as per procedures suggested by Miller and Smith (1983). No significant differences were found between the two groups and the data were generalized to the population. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics, t-tests, and ANOVA.


Demographic Profile of Agents

The 91 female and 100 male agents had an average age of 43 years. Age of respondents ranged from 21 to 66 years old. Agents averaged 13 years of work experience. A majority of agents (74%) reported a master's degree as their highest level of education. Agriculture was the primary area of program responsibility for 73 agents, family living/home economics for 53 agents, and 4-H/youth development for 41 agents. Twenty-three agents were in the "other" category (forestry, community development, and natural resources).

Objective 1--Search for and Use of Information Sources

Agents were asked to indicate: (a) when they need an item for information; (b) causes for information search; and (c) frequently searched subject-matter areas. Seventy-seven percent of agents indicated that they needed an item for information the same day. To answer a clients' inquiry was the most frequent cause for searching information (94%), followed by preparing for a training program (63%), report preparation (56%), collecting research-based information (36%), preparing for a presentation (35%), and preparing a radio program (33%). The most frequently searched subject area was county information (48%), followed by 4-H (46%), pesticide application (38%), crop production (38%), farm management (36%), livestock feeding (30%), food processing (24%), leasing (22%), and nursery production (21%).

Objective 2--Frequency of Use of Information Sources

Agents were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 (none) to 5 (once a day), the extent they communicate with 21 information sources. Extension agents communicate with clients (4.85), followed by another agent in the office (4.62), another agent in another county (3.95), Extension specialists (3.72), their immediate supervisor (3.66), local news agencies (3.66), local business organizations (3.20), state and federal agencies (3.04), and local school teachers and administrators (3.00). Agents communicate at least once a year with Extension workers in another state and non-Extension university faculty.

Objective 3--Demographic Differences

T-tests and ANOVA results indicated significant differences between frequency of use of information sources and agents' age, gender, highest education level, and primary area of program responsibility. Older agents (over 44 years old) communicated more frequently than younger agents with Extension program advisory committees. Younger agents (less than 44 years old) were more likely than older agents to communicate with local school teachers and administrators. Male agents differed from female agents by more frequently communicating with Extension specialists, Extension workers in another state, non-Extension university faculty, and state and federal agencies. Female agents communicated more frequently than male agents with other community organizations.

Agents with B.S. degrees communicated more frequently with their immediate supervisors, county commissioners, and local school teachers and administrators than agents with M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Agents with Ph.D. degrees communicated with agents in another county and in another state more often than agents with B.S. and M.S. degrees.

Agricultural agents differed from family living and 4-H agents by more frequently communicating with Extension specialists, Extension workers in another state, and non-Extension university faculty (Table 1). 4-H and family living agents communicated more frequently with local school teachers and administrators and youth organizations than agricultural and other agents.

Table 1
ANOVA Results for Primary Area of Program Responsibility and Frequency of Use of Information Sources
Information Source 4-H/YD Mean(a) FL/HE Mean(a) AG Mean(a) Others Mean(a) F Ratio
Extension specialist 3.61A 3.35A 3.93B 4.13B 8.76**
My immediate supervisor 4.00A 3.58A 3.60A 3.43A 2.83*
Extension worker in another state 1.89A 1.86A 2.30B 2.30B 4.80**
Non-Extension university faculty 2.31A 1.86A 2.49B 2.74B 7.93**
Local school teachers and administrators 3.49A 3.06A 2.72B 2.87A 6.85*
Youth organizations 3.36A 2.66B 2.93B 2.53B 5.50**
State and federal agencies 2.66A 2.96A 3.19B 3.35B 4.89*
Other community organizations 3.17A 3.36A 2.87A 3.17A 3.46*
Local news agencies 3.56A 3.83A 3.68A 3.35A 2.87*
Note. 4-H/YD = 4-H and Youth Development; FL/HE = Family Living and Home Economics; AG = Agriculture; Others = Forestry, Community Development, and Administration; (a) The mean can range from 1 (none) to 5 (once per day). Means followed by the same alphabet are not significantly different from each other at .05 (*) and .001(**) levels as computed by Scheffe post-hoc test.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Extension agents regularly seek information to carry out their day-to-day work. Agents searched a variety of information sources not only for their own knowledge, but also to meet the information needs of their clients. These findings suggest that agents should not only be fairly knowledgeable in subject-matter areas, but they should also be aware of where, from whom, and how to find information to answer a client's inquiry.

Extension agents frequently communicate with a variety of information sources. Prominent among these were: clients, another agent in the office, another agent in another county, Extension specialists, their immediate supervisor, local news agencies, local business organizations, state, and federal agencies, and local school teachers and administrators.

Several reasons could account for the differences in demographic characteristics and frequency of use of information sources. Younger agents are more likely to be 4-H and youth agents (39% of 4-H agents were below 35 years of age compared to 19% family living agents, and 26% agriculture agents). Moreover, the program emphasis of these agents is to work with children and youth. Therefore, it is possible that they more frequently communicated with local school teachers and administrators. On the other hand, it appears that older agents, who have been in the system for a longer time, are more comfortable working with Extension program advisory committees. Male agents predominantly are agricultural agents and are most likely to communicate with Extension specialists in subject-matter areas of agronomy, pathology, soil science, and entomology. In addition, state and federal agencies are a major source of information on issues such as IPM, soil conservation, etc. Female agents, on the other hand, frequently communicated with community organizations, mainly because the programs of these organizations are more concerned with communities--food, health, nutrition, clothing, etc.

Extension agents work in communities. Agents, regardless of their primary area of responsibility and education level, frequently communicated with community organizations and local news agencies. Agents have to be in constant contact with local news agencies to publicize Extension programs and events. As such, agents frequently communicate with media personnel.

The differences among demographic characteristics and the frequency of use of information sources suggest that specialists who develop educational materials should look into demographic characteristics of agents and the type of information delivery methods they use when designing and developing Extension program materials.

The findings of this study should be shared with staff development personnel and Extension information services so that informed decisions are made in the development, publication, and delivery of educational materials.


Agnew, D. M. (1991). Extension program delivery trends. Journal of Extension, 29(2), 34.

Burns, R. W., & Anderson, L. W. (1973). The elements of access to agricultural sciences information within Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. Fort Collins: Colorado State University Libraries.

Miller, L. E., & Smith, K. (1983). Handling non-response issues. Journal of Extension, 24, 11-13.

Shih, W. Y., & Evans, J. F. (1991). Where field staff get information--approaching the electronic times. Journal of Extension, 29(3), 16-19.