April 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB1

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Using Distance Education to Teach the New Food Label to Extension Educators

Purpose of this study was to determine the ability of Extension educators to increase their knowledge of the new food label through distance education. Instruction was provided via an Extension satellite program to 97 county agents and 67 female program assistants. The participants completed pre- and post-tests; responses were analyzed by Student's t test to determine change in knowledge about "Nutrition Facts." County agents' mean post-test score was significantly higher than the mean pre-test score. Program assistants scored lower than county agents, yet were knowledgeable about the food label with a significantly higher mean post-test score than pre-test score. This study supports satellite programs to increase the knowledge base of Extension professionals in preparation for consumers' queries on emerging issues.

Barbara Struempler
Associate Professor/Extension Nutritionist
Department of Nutrition and Food Science
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Internet Address: bstruemp@acesag.auburn.edu

Suzette M. Jelinek
Nutrition Network Coordinator
Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Amanda H. Brown
Extension Graduate Assistant
Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Laura G. Sanders
Research Data Analysis
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama

Extension educators are faced with challenges and opportunities when educating the public about emerging issues. In 1994, Extension educators were challenged to disseminate information about "Nutrition Facts," the new federally mandated food label (McNeal, 1992). To assist county Extension educators in gaining knowledge of "Nutrition Facts," a satellite program was conducted by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Satellite programs have been shown to be an effective educational tool (Verduin, 1991; Willis, 1993). To assess the change in knowledge of the Extension professionals before and after satellite viewing, pre- and post-tests were voluntarily completed. This study reports the change in knowledge of "Nutrition Facts" by Extension educators using satellite education.


A satellite "Nutrition Facts" program was telecast to all 67 Extension county offices in Alabama in March 1994. The purpose of the satellite program was to increase Extension educators' knowledge of the new food label. The 60-minute satellite program was comprised of a 5-minute introduction, a 30-minute video presentation and a 25-minute interactive question and answer call -in period. All Extension county agents (N=270) and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program [EFNEP] program assistants (N=135) were encouraged by district agents to attend the satellite program.

The 30-minute video presentation, "The New Food Label: Reading Between the Lines," was developed by Extension nutritionists and produced by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. The video was developed for Extension educators, but would be appropriate for later use with consumers having at least a high school education. The video provided a comprehensive discussion of the new food label and demonstrated its use in making daily healthful food choices. Content validity of the video was ensured by having consumers, nutritionists and dietitians review the video for accuracy, clarity, content importance and content coverage.

Parallel pre- and post-tests were developed to evaluate the change in knowledge of participants who attended the satellite training. All questions could be answered from the information presented in the video. The 26 questions on both tests were identical except for the order presented. There were nine multiple choice questions with four choices, one choice being "don't know" for some questions. The "don't know" option was provided to distinguish between incorrect responses based on uncertainty or lack of knowledge and responses based on misconception. The remaining 17 questions were true and false. Some of the questions tested Extension participants' understanding of "Nutrition Facts" nutrient terminology, while other questions determined participants' ability to use the information on an actual label to answer specific questions. Content and construct validity of the instrument were ensured by an expert panel of consumers, dietitians and nutritionists.

One week prior to the satellite program, an instruction packet was distributed to all county agent coordinators. The packet contained a sufficient number of pre- and post-tests for local county educators. In addition, written instructions for the administration of the tests were included. They stressed that Extension participants were not to see the pre- and post-tests before the evaluation period. It was also emphasized that the tests be completed only on a voluntary basis.

Pre- and post-tests were administered by county agent coordinators to county agents and program assistants attending the satellite program. Confidentiality was insured by participants self-reporting first and last initial, plus birth date. After the pre-test was completed, it was collected by the county agent coordinators. Following the 30-minute satellite program and the 25-minute call-in, the post-test was administered and collected. Pre- and post-tests were forwarded to the researchers for analysis.

Statistical Analysis

The 26 questions on both tests were scored +1 for a correct response and 0 for an incorrect response. Answers were summed together for a total score (possible range = 0 to 26). The total score was converted to a percentage. Pre- and post-test scores were compared using Students' t test for continuous variable. Significant change between pre- and post-test responses was determined by the McNemar symmetry chi-squared test.


Of the approximately 400 eligible participants (268 county agents and 135 program assistants), 36% of the county agents and 50% of the program assistants completed both pre- and post-tests. The demographic characteristics of these 164 Extension participants are shown in Table 1.

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics of County Agents and Program Assistants Participating in Food Label Satellite Program
CharacteristicCounty AgentsProgram Assistants
Gender (%) 
Mean Age (years)40.347.6
Education (%) 
High School Graduate043.3
College Graduate26.847.8
Post College73.28.9

The mean pre- and post-test scores for county agents and program assistants are presented in Table 2. The mean post-test scores for both county agents and program assistants were significantly higher (p = .0001) than the mean pre-test scores for each group. County agents scored significantly higher (p = .0001) than program assistants on both the pre- and post-tests.

Table 2
Mean Pre- and Post-Test Scores of County Agents (n=97) and Program Assistants (n=67) and Significance of the Change in Test Scores
nbsp;Pre-test Score > SPost-test Score > SD
County Agents72.79% > 16.43a,c85.56% > 12.12b,c
Program Assistants62.95% > 16.78a,d75.32% > 15.19b,d
a,b Means in a row with different superscripts differ significantly (p = .0001).
c,d Mean in a column with different superscripts differ significantly (p = .0001).


Although distance learning is not new to Extension, this was the first time in Alabama that pre- and post-tests were used to determine change in knowledge of participants at a satellite program. In this study, the highly significant gains in knowledge of the Extension educators supports the use of satellite programming in delivering information on emerging issues, such as "Nutrition Facts". This introduction to "Nutrition Facts" provided Extension educators with the baseline knowledge to use when presenting local county programs.

With advancements in technology, a well-designed satellite program provides a powerful communication method compared to "classroom type" learning. For example, the video portion of the satellite program combined words, still and moving pictures, events occurring in real time, motion, animation, and even text. This pre-produced television-type program can teach in a different way from a classroom lecture (Gunawardena, 1990). This gives pre-produced video programs a power to present information that other media lack.

It is recognized that adult learning styles complicate the distance educator's job (James, W.B. & Gardner, D.L., 1995). This satellite program used three difference methods to reach the adult learner. First, the 30-minute pre-produced educational video provided an in-depth overview of the food label. Second, the 25-minute interactive question and answer telephone call-in allowed for two-way communication between educator and learner. Finally, a 16-page colorful Extension publication was provided to the participants to use as a reference when answering county requests.

An overall evaluation form was completed by the participants and returned to the Communications office at Extension headquarters. This is a routine practice for all Extension satellite programs. For this program, 47% (n=77) of the participants completed the general evaluation. Interestingly, no comments were made by the participants with regard to the pre- and post-tests.

Most of the comments from the overall evaluation were positive. Of the participants, 71% indicated the length of the program was about right. In addition, 61% indicated they would use a copy of the program at a later date. An individual comment stated, "The information presented was excellent. It will take time for the public to understand this new labeling process." Another comment was, "This was one of the best satellite conferences I've seen. It kept my interest with a good script and great information!"


Satellite programs, as a form of distance education, are an effective vehicle to instruct Extension professionals on emerging issues. Well-designed satellite programs can affect gain in knowledge of participants. Favorable responses by participants indicated that use of the satellite programs should be continued.


Gunawardena, C. (1990), The integration of video-based instruction. In R.D. Garrison & D. Shale (Eds.), Education at a distance: From issues to practice. Malabar, FL: R. E. Krieger Publishing Co., pp. 110.

James, W.B. & Gardner, D.L. (1995), Learning styles: Implications for distance learning. In M.H. Rossman & M.E. Rossman (Eds.), Facilitating distance education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 19-32.

McNeal, G. (1992), Conference summary: National Exchange for Food Labeling Education. The communication process: research, materials, audience. 301-504-5719. Washington, DC: Food Labeling Education Information Center, National Library.

Verduin, J.R., & Clark, T.A. (1991). Distance education: The foundations of effective practice. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

Willis, B. (1993). Distance education: A practical guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Technology Publications.