April 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Assessing In-Service Education: Identifying Barriers to Success

This study examined Pennsylvania's in-service education process for county Extension educators. All county educators were surveyed to determine preference for in-service delivery, format, and type, perceived amount of voice in determining in-service offerings, and reasons for not attending in-service training. Ways to integrate the in-service process into the plan of work process were also investigated. County Extension educators find it increasingly difficult to commit time to in-service education. They desire more distance-delivered training and an active voice in planning and selecting in-services. Changes made to Pennsylvania's in-service and plan of work processes as a result of this study are discussed.

Claudia C. Mincemoyer
Manager, Extension Staff Development
Internet Address: cmincemoyer@psu.edu

Timothy W. Kelsey
Associate Professor, Agricultural Economics
Internet Address: tkelsey@psu.edu

The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


In-service education has been defined as education delivered in a structured setting that enables one to become more competent professionally, that is, to further develop technical subject matter competencies to keep abreast of and, if possible, ahead of change, and to explore educational and technological content and processes in varying depth and to extend personal competencies. (National Policy Guidelines for Staff Development, 1977; Smith, 1995). Much of the recent research on Extension in-service processes focuses on delivery method alternatives (Shih & Evans, 1991, Agnew, 1991, Smith & Wolford, 1997; Hiel & Herrington, 1997; Hermann, 1991).

Because faculty with Extension responsibilities are one of the primary sources of information for county faculty (Radhakrishna & Thomson, 1996; Shih and Evans, 1976), it is important that faculty understand the in-service needs of county staff and be inclusive in their in-service and plan of work development. State Extension faculty may not fully understand their role in the Extension programming process, especially as it relates to development of resource materials, providing in-service training, and in evaluation of program (Baker and Villalobos, 1997).

In-service training is used extensively in Pennsylvania State (Penn State) University's Cooperative Extension program. In fiscal year 1997, there were 166 in-services conducted through the Staff Development office, with over 2,700 attendees. The vast majority of these in-services were held at University Park, which is centrally located in the state. The Extension Staff Development Unit organized two general three-day in-service weeks each year (one in the fall and one in the spring) during which most of these in-services were held. In-services for all program areas were held during the same two weeks. There are approximately 269 county-based Extension staff, and 116 university-based faculty who have greater than 10 percent Extension appointments.

Because the time and travel expenses associated with in-service education are relatively large, in 1997 a committee of Extension staff and faculty at Penn State was asked to evaluate how in-services are used, what could be done to make them more effective, and to determine what types of in-services county Extension staff find most useful. Results from this evaluation were to be provided to administrators and faculty and staff with Extension appointments for use in fine tuning in-service education in Pennsylvania.


A mailed questionnaire was sent to the population of full-time county Extension staff in Pennsylvania (N = 269). An 85% response (n = 228) rate was realized with no follow-up reminder. The instrument included 24 questions utilizing both open and closed-ended questions relating to in-service education in Penn State Cooperative Extension. After initial development of the instrument, an expert panel of faculty, county Extension staff, and program support staff was used to establish content and face validity of the instrument. Descriptive statistics including means, percentages, and frequencies were used to describe responses.


Description of the sample

Respondents self-reported those program areas in which they had major programming responsibilities. Respondents were able to report more than one program area.

Program Area of Respondents n % of Total
Agriculture (AG) 83 36%
Youth Development(YD) 75 33%
Family and Consumer Sciences(FCS) 60 26%
Community Development(CD) 6 3%
Other 5 2%

Type of in-service

Participants in the study were asked how interested they were in four types of in-service education. A Likert-type scale was used to assess participant interest in the major types of in-service training: 5. very interested, 4. interested; 3. somewhat interested; 2. not interested; and 1. not sure. Responses were then sorted by program area and are reported below.

Overall, agents were most interested in in-services which focused on technical subject matter updates and technical skills development. This held true for agricultural agents; however, youth agents were slightly more interested in program sharing and ideas as an in-service. Family living agents were interested in technical skills development and program sharing, but still were most interested in technical subject matter updates. Community development agents were equally interested in all three types of in-service.

Type of Agent
Technical subject matter update 4.5 4.8 4.1 4.6 4.5
Technical skills development 4.1 4.5 3.7 4.2 4.7
Program sharing and ideas 4.1 3.9 4.1 4.2 4.7
Process skills training 3.4 3.2 3.4 3.7 3.7

Days and Number of In-Services Attended

During the last year, 61% of the respondents attended up to five in-services, 32% attended between six and ten in-services, and 6% attended between 11-15 in-services. The mean number of days spent on in-service during the last year by participants was 8.9 days.

Ideal Length

More than half (60%) of the participants agreed that the most desirable length for an in-service would be a full-day program; however, many responded (n = 44) that length is dependent on the content, depth, and topic to be covered.

Reasons for Not Attending In-Service

The top reasons that prevented county-based Extension educators from attending or helped them decide not to attend specific in-service programs during the last year were (a) previous commitments (56%); (b) too much time away from the office (53%); (c) conflict with local programming (45%); (d) conflict with another in-service (43%); (e) work/family conflicts (42%); and, (f) in-service not relevant to programs in county (41%).

Problems or Issues Resulting in Less than Ideal In-Service Experience

The top three problems or issues which occurred that resulted in a less than ideal educational in-service during the last year for all agents were (a) the in-service lacked sufficient content-depth (36%); (b) agents already knew the information being presented (33%); and, (c) poor instructors (23%).

Structure of In-Service Groupings

All agents preferred that groupings of in-services be organized around either a state plan of work, group of plans of work (45%), or major program areas (26%). The current integrated approach used in Pennsylvania, where in-services for all program areas are held during the same week, was preferred by the least percentage of agents (21%). Fifty percent of all agents responding felt that a combination of in-service weeks and stand-alone offerings would be best.

Agent Voice in In-Service and POW Planning

Sixty four percent of all staff responding felt they did not have enough voice in what in-services were offered in the previous year. Those who felt they did not have enough voice suggested ways input could be obtained. The top two methods cited were to: (a) ask agents, and (b) coordination by those involved in the plan of work (POW). Similarly, 62% of all staff responding felt they did not have enough voice in the development of content for in-services. Methods suggested most frequently by respondents to obtain input were: (a) to ask agents; (b) form advisory committees to specialists; (c) have POW leaders provide coordination; and, (d) solicit regional feedback. Over 90% of all staff responding felt county staff should be involved in in-service planning and development. Just over half (51%) of those responding felt they did not have enough voice in POW planning and implementation.

Conclusions and Discussion

County-based Extension educators, regardless of their major program assignment, are finding it increasingly difficult to commit time to in-service education. When they do commit to attend training, Extension educators want the training to meet their program needs and be applicable to local issues and programming. County educators also desire an active voice in the planning and selection of in-services. Integration of in-service education into the plan of work process was also desired by county staff.

As a result of the findings from this study, several changes were made in the in-service and plan of work process in Pennsylvania.

1. Prior to 1998, in-service RFPs were requested annually each fall. Faculty with Extension appointments were requested to update their annual plans of work during the spring. County Extension educators write their personal job objectives based on state plans of work in the fall of each year, before they see the in-service offerings. The survey identified the disconnect between these three processes. As a result, the in-service RFPs are now requested from faculty with their plan of work update so that the two processes are linked. Also, the annual in-service calendar will now be published in the summer so that Extension educators will have access to it while drafting their personal job objectives for the coming year. Professional development can now be incorporated into their job objectives.

2. As a result of the survey, a pilot satellite-delivered in-service initiative was introduced. In-service programs are being delivered by Extension faculty to county-based Extension educators and the results evaluated. Offering a combination of satellite and traditional in-person in-services addresses the concern of time away from family and the office as expressed by many respondents. Five Pennsylvania-specific satellite in-service programs have been offered since 1997: (number of staff participating)

TEAM Nutrition (100)
4-H Policy Update (90)
Consumer Credit (65)
Children, Youth, and Families (45)
Lyme Disease Update (no registration required)

From the pilots, it is known that that an average of $65.00 in travel costs and an average of 5 hours of travel time for each participant is being saved.

3. Previously, statewide in-services featured individual in-services on any topic from any of the major program areas. This structure was changed. Three major statewide in-services, each with a theme to reflect the major program areas in Pennsylvania now are conducted: (a) Children, Youth, and Families; (b) Agriculture and Natural Resources; and, (c) Community and Economic Development. Faculty with Extension appointments may offer in-services during one or more of the statewide in-services coordinated by the staff development unit. In-service topics that cross program boundaries are offered during all three in-services (such as computer-related training, conflict management, program evaluation)

4. Results of the survey were distributed to all faculty with Extension appointments and county-based Extension educators. Several members of the faculty are initiating efforts to involve county-based educators in the planning and implementation of their in-services.

In-service education is a two-way process, between university- and county-based educators. This study of county staff perceptions of and reactions to in-service education has helped Penn State strengthen its in-service education by identifying barriers to the educational process. It has provided university-based faculty and administrators with a better understanding of the needs of county staff and better ideas on how to organize in-service education.


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