February 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Regional Extension In-Service Training Via the Internet

Exclusive use of the Internet was utilized for a regional county Extension agent in-service training titled "Land Application of Animal Waste". The in-service training material for the two week session was posted on the World Wide Web. Ten specialists from South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama and 22 Extension agents from South Carolina and Georgia were engaged in Internet discussions focusing on the Web material and related personal experiences. In a post-training questionnaire, agent responses were strongly favorable to this form of training and indicated that the Internet can be an effective way of implementing an in-service Extension training for certain topics.

Robert M. Lippert
Extension Soil Fertility
Department of Agronomy
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina
Internet Address: blpprt@clemson.edu

Owen Plank
Extension Agronomist
Crop & Soil Science Department
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia

Jim Camberato
Associate Professor
Faculty of Soils and Land Resources
Florence, South Carolina

John Chastain
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina


Distance learning has become a popular method of instruction, especially for students with demanding full-time jobs or who find it difficult to invest a lot of time and expense in travel. Universities have progressed over the past 120 years from correspondence courses and films to videos, satellite linking, cable TV, computer aided instruction, and, most recently, Internet conferencing via the computer (Telg, 1996).

One of the most recent forms of distance education to be explored is interactive instruction exclusively via the Internet. This type of instruction is now possible in many areas because of the widespread availability of computers and Internet technology. Compared to other methods of distance learning such as video courses or live satellite instruction, Internet courses provide the following advantages. First, it allows for constant personal interaction between the students and instructors. Second, it allows much greater time flexibility than a televised real-time instruction where students must meet at a designated facility for scheduled instruction. Finally, it expands resource opportunities through access to the World Wide Web and the potential to communicate with specialists throughout the world (Mayadas, 1997).

The Internet approach to instruction has tremendous potential for training county Extension agents. Agents can log-on to the computer as their schedules permits. Internet training eliminates the need to travel to another location in a state or region, thus saving time and money. Most county Extension offices now have or are in the process of acquiring Internet access to the World Wide Web and E-mail, which makes this a very attractive training tool for many topics.

A two-week Internet training course was offered to county Extension agents in South Carolina and Georgia for a regional training titled "Land Application of Animal Waste". Twenty-two county Extension agents from South Carolina and Georgia registered for the course and ten specialists from South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama participated in the Internet discussion.

Training Objectives

The two main objectives for this training were: (a) To determine if Internet distance learning could be used effectively with Extension agents for training about the basic principles of land application of animal waste, and (b) To determine if agents could be sufficiently instructed prior to the training on how to access Web pages, use the Listserv and send E-mail through Netscape.

The Listserv is a means of electronic communication similar to an E-mail distribution list (with all the specialists and county agents on the list). An E-mail message sent to the username (in our case manure-1@clemson.edu) would go to all participants who subscribed to this Listserve address. A reply to the Listserv would likewise go back to all members of the list. It serves as a "slow motion" conversation with everyone or as an electronic "bulletin board." The Listserve is created by the university postmaster at the computer center. The agents who lacked Internet skills were assisted with telephone calls, one-on -one E-mail correspondence, and instructions posted on the Web.

Training Content and Delivery

To make this training successful, it was important to choose a topic of wide interest, to create an appealing and well designed Web page, and ensure that the users would encounter as few problems as possible utilizing the Internet. Prior to offering the Internet training, several agents were surveyed via E-mail regarding possible topics and preferred time of year to take the training. Land application of animal waste was selected as the preferred topic and late- to mid-May was selected as the best time.

Core material for the training was obtained from Clemson University Extension Circular 673 "Land Application of Animal Manure". Other specialists were invited to contribute materials to expand the information. Additional information included odor control, mini-pits, a table for application rates of lagoon effluents, a sample of the University of Georgia's UGFERTEX program, and links to pertinent information from the University of Georgia and Auburn University, Alabama.

Links were also provided to access laboratory information for manure analysis from South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The names of specialists contributing material to the Web page were included so that the user could click on them to get a "pop- up" E-mail box for individual correspondence.

A graduate student programmer was hired to create the Web page. Labor costs for the programmer were the only expenses encumbered for the course. Specialists, whose expertise coincided with the topic, were contacted and asked for contributions to the Web page. When the Web page neared completion, the senior training coordinator subscribed registered agents to the Listserv by using their E-mail usernames. The agents were asked to practice using the Listserv by sending test messages to all the other participants. None of the participants had any difficulty using the Listserv.

In addition, agents and specialists were asked to try to access the Web page and send E-mail by utilizing the E-mail option on their Web browser. Some of the agents learned that Web addresses are case sensitive. Many had problems sending E-mail through Netscape. This was the skill that required the most pre- training assistance. Instructions were subsequently posted on the Web explaining how to set up the proper parameters to send E-mail through Netscape.

The URL (Web address) for the training can be found at: http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~blpprt/


The training was for two weeks from May 19-30, 1997. The Listserv was relatively quiet the first couple of days then became more active as the agents and specialists began raising questions, sending responses, and sharing experiences across state lines. Some interesting discussion also occurred between specialists who had different approaches to various issues. The 41 documented questions, answers and comments were available to all the participants to read since they were sent out on the Listserv. The Listserv questions and responses were saved to a file where they can later be reworked into an Extension question and answer fact sheet or posted on the Web.

A questionnaire was included on the Web page that could be filled out "on-line" and responses were sent electronically to the senior training coordinator. There were 16 agent responses, 12 from South Carolina and 4 from Georgia. Eight agents said they read about 80% of the material on the Web page and eight agents said they read 100% of the material. Table 1 shows agent impressions of the training material content and organization, Table 2 is the agent responses to the effectiveness of Internet training for this topic, and Table 3 is the agent's assessment of Internet skills learned as a result of this training.

Table 1
County Agent Responses to the Usefulness of the Training Material
SD = strongly disagree, D = disagree, N = neither agree nor disagree, A = agree, SA = strongly agree
This training provided a good background about land application of animal waste0 2 3 8 3
Major issues such as manure testing, application rates, and odor problems were addressed0 0 1 13 2
The information was presented at an understandable level0 0 0 14 2
The information was well organized 0 1 2 12 1
Specialists were helpful explaining the material via the Listserv0 0 1 13 2
I am likely to work in this program area as a result of this training0 0 8 7 1
I found the training to be valuable for me0 0 1 12 3

Table 2
Agent Responses to the Effectiveness of the Internet for this In-service Training
SD = strongly disagree, D = disagree, N = neither agree nor disagree, A = agree, SA = strongly agree
For this topic, the Internet was an effective method of learning 0 1 0 14 1
I would recommend this form of distance learning for future in-service training 0 0 0 13 3
The use of the Internet can provide a learning experience as effective as a face-to-face class 0 4 7 4 1
The flexibility of learning time was a significant advantage 0 0 1 7 8
I was comfortable with this method of learning 0 0 2 10 4
I would take another Internet training class 0 0 0 11 5
This training helped increase my skills for using the Internet 0 0 5 8 3
It help to have Internet access to several specialists (and county agents) to discuss the material for the training 0 0 0 12 4
Having Internet access to people from other states was a learning advantage 0 0 0 9 7

Table 3
Skills Learned as a Result of the Training
SkillsNumber of responses
Accessing new Web pages 6
Bookmarking Web pages 3
Searching topics on Net Search 2
Sending e-mail through the Web 13
Using the Listserv (discussion list) 6
Downloading software on-line such as Adobe Acrobat 2
Updating Netscape on-line by down loading a newer version 3

The questionnaire also provided space for written responses to four specific questions. When asked "What advantages do you see with Internet in-service training?", nearly all agents replied that they liked the flexibility in learning time, not having to travel, the subsequent savings, and being able to share ideas with many people over a large geographic area. Responses to the question "What disadvantages do you see with Internet in- service training?" included missing the one-on-one interactions, being able to see demonstration sites when applicable, and the temptation to put off the training to address Extension-related problems in the office.

To the question, "What would you like to see changed next time if another in-service training was to be offered on the Internet?", some agents felt they needed more time, others wanted more material and links to other relevant Web sites. A few mentioned the need for more structure and goal orientation. They suggested that some probing questions on the Listserv or a test at the end would give more direction.

The responses to the question "What was the most important thing you learned as a result of this training?" were quite varied. About half of the agents mentioned that they found useful information on the Web pages or in the Listserv discussions while the other half of the agents focused on the Internet skills they acquired, such as the ability to do topic searches on the Web.


The main question to be answered by this "experiment" with in-service training of Extension agents is whether a high tech approach that has no face-to-face interaction could be a feasible method of training with a group of professionals who have traditionally depended on a more personable approach of communication. The responses to the questionnaire affirm that this type of training can work and, in fact, can engage enthusiastic participation by Extension agents. For a group who had never experienced this style of training before, they seemed to enjoy the novelty of this form of communication and being able to utilize their newly acquired Internet skills. For many, this was a course not only about land application of animal waste but how to effectively use the Internet as a learning tool.

It is important to stress that this approach to in-service training requires considerable planning in anticipation of possible problems. The Web page should be kept as user friendly as possible with minimum plug-in links which require downloading additional software programs from the Web. A few moments of frustration at a computer terminal can readily convince a person that this style of learning is unfeasible, at least for them.

Future plans are to offer another Internet in-service training next spring on regional cotton fertility issues. Changes in presentation will include worksheets or questions presented periodically throughout the training to keep the participants focused and discourage them from procrastinating in reviewing the materials or participating on the Listserv.


Mayadas, F. (1997). Asynchronous learning networks: a sloan foundation perspective. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 1(1).

Telg, R. (1996). Distance educations considerations for IFAS faculty. Univ. of Florida. Academic Programs Publication Series, no. 21, 1-4.