December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM1

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What is Extension's Itinerary for Information Superhighway Travel?

In this commentary, the author uses a hint of satire and his potential educational needs as a small, diversified farmer to pose important questions about Extension's itinerary for information superhighway travel. Without a plan for the use of information technology, Extension only contributes to the widening chasm between the rich and poor. Extension educators must lead the social consciousness debate on the role of information technology in our lives and find significant ways to enfranchise the poorest communities.

Joseph L. Donaldson
Assistant Extension Agent
The University of Tennessee
Agricultural Extension Service
Pulaski, Tennessee
Internet address:

There's something strange about this college gig I'm into now. First of all, I've been in college seven years. Learning has become a merry-go-round and I just can't seem to get my footing right to hop off. My current gig is information technology in the agricultural sciences. How should colleges of agriculture respond to all this technology stuff? It's an interesting question. But I just keep coming up with more intriguing questions. How can farmers benefit from information technology? What about rural communities? Do college students learn more when they use the Web? So the merry-go-round keeps going faster and faster.

I've often thought about what I would be doing if I hadn't gone to college. Because about 15-20% of the graduates from my high school go to college, it's common for us college-bound seniors to have a back-up plan. I still remember mine - to work in one of the local apparel factories. At the time, I thought it could be the perfect job for a guy with a high school diploma.

But I made this plan before NAFTA and the relocation of the apparel industry to our Central and Latin American neighbors. Just two years ago, Osh Kosh B'Gosh closed four factories in my tiny county alone, Clay County, Tennessee (7,000 residents). One in every three adults was unemployed. So times have been tough for those people - and would have been for me, too, had I not gotten on the college merry-go-round. Yet I can't help but wonder about my life if I had taken another direction.

The best I can visualize, I'd be raising hogs and chickens and growing tobacco and vegetables on the family spread. Of course, life would be much simpler and much more difficult at the same time. There's an uncertainty to farming; being at the mercy of the weather is riskier than betting against Bill Gates' takeover of the world.

So like all farmers I know, I'd be looking for information to reduce my uncertainty. I'd need to know about black shank, the AIDS-epidemic of a tobacco field...poultry nutrition...brucellosis and other bacterial swine diseases...vegetable marketing.

I couldn't exactly depend on the radio for much help. You see, people who know about radio and radio marketing aren't too excited about opening a radio station in such a small county. After all, radio stations can't sell ads if there are hardly any businesses to buy 'em. And the station that's 45 miles away which carries a farm news report has weak reception in our area. Then there are the big Nashville country radio stations - I can tune them in perfectly. But, since they started describing country music as "hot," "new," and "progressive," they no longer carry farm reports.

I could turn to other information sources. Other tobacco farmers, for one. But there are not many of them left since the government started an all-out assault on tobacco companies. The companies are buying cheap foreign tobacco to save enough money to pay legal bills. And of all the other information sources - farm magazines, newspapers, bulletins, salespersons - none would fascinate me like the World Wide Web. Everybody's carried away with it. Everybody's telling you to "visit" them on their Website.

On a trip to town to pick up a thingamajig to fix the tractor, I might stop by the local library to take a spin on the information superhighway. Give it a try - see how I can prevent black shank from killing my profits this year like it did last. Being an industrious and observant farmer, I'd click on a search icon. Then I'd type T-O-B-A-C-C-O and be dazzled by the number of sites available on the subject. I'd have information from the National Kill-The-President's-Tobacco-Tax Coalition, The National Smokers Federation, and other sites far removed from the tobacco field and my problems. I would be vexed at all the flashing advertisements and useless trivia. (I know this for sure because I still remember what it felt like to explore the Web for the first time.)

So, confused, frustrated, and with a resolve never to waste time on such a useless thing again, I'd head back to the farm. Of course, I'd still need to know about black shank, the AIDS- epidemic of a tobacco field...poultry nutrition...brucellosis and other bacterial swine diseases...vegetable marketing. And I'd probably call the county Extension agent for help. But then again, the county agent's probably at a meeting at the university, learning how to create a Web page.

The points I'm making:

(1) Let's not be so caught up in Web novelty that we forget that methods and media are to reach and teach. I'm reminded of how teachers once delivered lessons full of spontaneity and energy as they drew and outlined and illustrated on the chalkboard. But all of that was before teachers decided they should use their new overhead projector because, as we all know, it would make for more educated students. Except now practically all teachers who use the noisy, distracting overhead do so with the same prefabricated transparencies year-after-year.

(2) Before we set our sites and dedicate our educational efforts to information superhighway travel, we've got to commit ourselves to taking people with us on that journey. Perhaps Extension futurists of the 1950s envisioned most of their educational programs delivered via television. And look what happened to the once-promising tube. Television has become a wasteland where the ills of society (dysfunctional families, brawls, adultery, not to mention the talk show fascination with topics like bisexual love triangles) are given a showplace.

Of course, one can often find a thought-provoking piece on Public Broadcasting. But, Julia Child, Charlie Rose, and Jim Lehrer do not exactly share the information that has the potential to positively change lives like most Extension topics: parenting, technical skills in agriculture, decision-making, and other skills for daily living.

But back to the Web. I see Extension specialists delivering timely information to agents through the Web. Newsletters that would once have taken two weeks to draft, copy, fold, and mail are now delivered instantaneously. I'm just not convinced that timely delivery alone will allow us to help those most in need. I think we need to be leaders in helping people access and use technology for their own benefit. Some experts have told me that the crux of this debate about technology and what society does with it (a debate which I think Extension ought to be having) will not be about access but rather literacy. These experts contend that "WebTV" technology will allow inexpensive World Wide Web access through any television set, and that the real social issue will be technology literacy, teaching people to understand and use "WebTV" for educational purposes. Regardless, I think Extension can play an important role.

(3) For these and other reasons, we who are Extension educators must become Web leaders of adult education and information delivery. People have to see and use their Web browsers for timely, relevant, research-based information/education to believe they can. Yet, with all the "Web presence" now enjoyed by state Extension organizations around the country, we are not leaders at all. We are part of the blind majority using technology to widen the already deep chasm between the rich and the poor. We need to answer pressing questions:

  • If Extension doesn't teach Web skills like information retrieval and evaluation, who will?
  • What are the possibilities for home-based businesses and marketing via the Web, especially for people with disabilities?
  • If people want to use their Web browsers for education and training, how can Extension empower them to do so?
  • How can technology enfranchise the poorest communities, those urban neighborhoods plagued with chronic unemployment and those rural areas dependent on single industries? Can information technology expand life options?
  • We must be leaders in the social consciousness debate on the role of information technology in our lives. Are our public universities, particularly land-grant institutions, conducting such useful social science research?

The answers to these questions should provide Extension with the direction it needs to chart a course for information superhighway travel. Otherwise, we will leave too many people behind on that journey. Let's be pioneers - and leaders - in this information age. Realizing that, before we can be pioneers or leaders, we must be explorers. I contend that Extension is currently exploring the information superhighway without an itinerary, or at best, an ill-constructed one.