June 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW1

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Agent In-Service Alternative Provides Multiple Benefits

A self-study provided an alternative agent in-service format while updating county reference materials. Agents enrolled received a current reference text and two mailings of case studies or assignments designed to enhance knowledge of and use of the reference. The first mailing indicated pages to find answers/information to complete the assignments as well as to familiarize agents with the reference. The self-study approach was evaluated as an effective format in terms of agent training and resource allocation. Participants reported use of reference to help clientele and to enhance current knowledge of topics covered.

Joyce A. Smith
Extension Specialist, Clothing
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address: smith.12@osu.edu

Marjorie Wolford
Extension Associate
Ohio State University Extension
Circleville, Ohio

A commitment to agent in-service opportunities identifies Extension as an organization that supports investment in and professional development of its employees. Costs of in-service participation include agent time for attending and travel as well as direct travel costs. Traditional in-person in-service offerings require agents to be absent from county offices. To address these concerns, Extension administration encouraged state specialists to develop alternatives to traditional in-service formats.

An on-going responsibility for county family and consumer science (FCS) agents is assisting consumers with textile-related concerns. Counties seldom possess current basic textile reference books addressing many of these questions. In addition, many new agents graduate from university programs without coursework in textiles and clothing. A need existed to both update agents as well as place current, high quality reference materials in county offices.

A Consumer Textiles Self-Study In-Service was designed. Agents enrolled in the in-service received a college level basic textiles reference book. Funds from a grant were used to provide the text for agents completing the self-study. County budgets were charged for the cost of the book when agents enrolled did not complete the assignments.

The self-study involved two separate mailings, each of which presented five consumer questions or case studies, plus an additional extra credit question for which agents would receive a "surprise premium" upon its completion. Agents were surveyed by e -mail prior to the self-study to determine recurring consumer questions. These topics were incorporated into the case studies. Questions were also designed to familiarize agents with different sections of the text.

Page references accompanied each case study in the first mailing to facilitate agents' search for information related to the questions. Also, the page numbers helped acquaint agents with the text as well as factors to consider when responding to consumer questions. Agents had approximately two weeks to complete each set of case studies. When agents returned Part I, the state specialist and Extension associate reviewed the responses and provided feedback on each paper.

The second mailing included each agent's responses to Part I with feedback, a prepared "answer sheet" addressing the first set of questions, plus a second set of consumer questions to which agents were directed to respond. The second set of questions, however, did not include page references. Agents were instructed to answer the questions using the textbook provided and indicate reference pages on which information for the responses was found. This approach required agents to research questions much as they would when addressing a consumer problem.

After agents returned the second set of questions, each was reviewed with feedback provided. These materials were returned to agents with a prepared "answer sheet" as well as an evaluation. Agents completing the extra credit questions received their incentive or "premium" with the mailing. In-service participation and performance were documented for agent annual review and counseling.

Twenty respondents completed the written evaluation. Overall, 95% of respondents rated the self-study in-service as "moderately high" or "high" on a five-point Likert Scale for knowledge gained, acceptance of self-study approach, and usefulness of format. Although the self-study was considered time -intensive by 65% of agents responding, the approach was viewed as more "resource effective" than traditional in-person formats. One respondent reported "...had [the training] been offered at a 1-day in-service, I'm sure I would not have time to attend." Case -studies were viewed as appropriate and representative of clientele questions. A new agent whose area of specialization differed from that of the in-service reported the training as very helpful and one she might not have otherwise attended.

Additional benefits resulted from the in-service. The presence of a good reference in the county continues to facilitate agent response to clientele needs. Seventeen of the 20 agents completing the evaluation reported using the reference to assist consumers. Others planned to use the reference as a teaching resource or to loan out. One unexpected benefit was shared discussion and interaction by in-service registrants. One agent group scheduled conference calls to discuss how each had responded to the case studies. They found this helpful to examine different aspects of each situation and factors to consider in responses to consumers.

Suggestions were given for subsequent self-study in-service formats. Respondents were complimentary of a detailed time line for the self-study that was distributed to participants. Other suggestions for improvement included allowing more time to complete assignments and establishing a "hotline" to discuss questions and concerns regarding the case-studies.

Overall the self-study was an effective in-service format both in terms of agent training and resource allocation. Also, it resulted in the placement of a current reference at the county level for continued use. Although the self-study format may be limited in its applicability for certain types of agent training, it should be considered as an alternative to traditional in- service formats when appropriate.