April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB7

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Exploring the Potential of In-Service Training Through Distance Education

A survey of county Extension staff was used to explore the potential for using distance education technologies for in-service training. County staff cited time- or travel-related reasons as the most common factors preventing them from attending specific in-service programs within the past 12 months. Given a choice about where Extension in-services should be held, they preferred regional locations over any other, though they were receptive to having some county-level in-service programs delivered by distance education. As a result of the survey responses, in the fall of 1997, Penn State Cooperative Extension began a pilot program of quarterly satellite in-services.

Timothy W. Kelsey
Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
Internet Address: tkelsey@psu.edu

Claudia C. Mincemoyer
Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Extension Education
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Internet Address: cmincemoyer@psu.edu

The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Cooperative Extension, an outreach program of land-grant universities, brings university-based information to local communities. It is a partnership among federal, state, and local governments, with close (and necessary) linkages between university-based faculty and county- or local-based staff. Maintaining communication between state and local personnel is important because that link provides university-based faculty with the information they need to develop and support Extension programs relevant to community needs and county staff with the information and knowledge they need to implement those programs. Training of county staff, usually called "in-services," is vital.

Penn State Cooperative Extension, the Cooperative Extension program at The Pennsylvania State University, relies heavily on in-service training of county staff. The majority of in-services are held in University Park, which is centrally located in the state. The large number of in-services, combined with the large size of Pennsylvania (which can lead to 3- to 4-hour trips from county locations), means county Extension staff can spend much time getting to or from training. Anecdotal evidence suggested travel and time could be an impediment to training, or at least a drain on programming time.

In 1997, a committee of Extension staff and faculty at Penn State were asked to examine in-service education, and make suggestions for enhancing the system. The committee focused much of their attention on new technologies and on distance education methods, which have the potential to save travel and staff time, and travel costs, while increasing productivity.

Despite increasing academic attention on distance education, it was unclear how receptive county Extension staff would be to receiving education from such methods. It also was unclear what mix of distance education, face to face, and other educational techniques were favored by county staff, or for which issues. Results from this evaluation were to be provided to administrators, and faculty and staff, for use in improving in-service education. The study also included attention to ways of improving existing in-services (as reported in Mincemoyer & Kelsey, 1999).

A number of states have used distance education-based training for Extension educators, including Alabama (Stuempler et al., 1997), Nebraska (Mescher, 1995), Virginia (Murphy, 1987), Pennsylvania (Escott et al., 1996), Texas (Hiel & Herrington, 1997), South Carolina and Georgia (Lippert et al., 1998), Oklahoma (Stewart & Soliah, 1987), and Oregon (Patterson & Wykes, 1992). Distance education clearly has time- and cost-saving benefits, and is most cost-effective when used to teach a large number of widely separated sites (Boland, 1988). A videoconference produced by Oklahoma State University and received at 24 sites across Oklahoma, for example, cost only $2.91 per person, compared to $9.13 per person if it had been delivered in-person (Stewart & Soliah, 1987).

Department heads in the agricultural sciences are supportive of using distance education (Bowen & Thomson, 1995). Many agricultural faculty members want to learn how to better use distance education techniques, including models of effective teaching and designing instruction for credit courses, yet have a much lower interest in designing distance education-based instruction for non-formal groups, such as Extension audiences (Miller & Carr, 1997).

In some instances, distance education methods are viewed more favorably by Extension educators than face-to-face sessions. Participants in a Nebraska leader training program, for example, preferred satellite delivery over in-person training, 63% to 35% (Mesecher, 1995). Those results might suffer from self-selection bias, however, because the survey focused on participants in the satellite-based program. Extension educators who prefer in-person training might simply have chosen not have participate in the program because it was distance education-based.

It was unclear how receptive Extension educators in Pennsylvania would be to distance education-based in-services and what mix of in-person and distance education they would prefer.


To answer these and other questions, a mail survey was sent to all full-time county Extension staff in Pennsylvania (N=269). Responses were received from 85% of the staff (N=228) with no follow-up reminder. The instrument included open- and closed-ended questions relating to in-service education in Penn State Cooperative Extension.

The survey focused on issues such as the reasons they may have missed or decided not to attend a specific in-service, the ideal geographic location for in-services, and how receptive respondents would be to in-service programs delivered via distance education methods. Responses were analyzed by entering the responses into a computer and using statistics software.


County Extension staff in Pennsylvania reported spending an average of 8.9 days on in-service education every year. Staff attended an average of two in-services at a regional location, with the rest of the in-service days being spent at statewide locations. Staff reported making an average of 3.8 trips to University Park for these other in-services. With 269 full-time county Extension staff, this translates to more than 1000 trips to University Park each year for in-service education. Staff reported time or travel-related reasons most often for why they did not attend specific in-services in the past 12 months.

Given a choice about where Extension in-services should be held, county staff preferred regional locations over any other location (Table 1). County locations (using distance technology) generally were viewed less favorably than any other option, except by youth development staff, family living staff, and county Extension directors, who viewed such locations as slightly preferable to University Park.

It is important to note that many of the youth development and family living staff are actively involved in an Extension program that uses video satellite uplinks extensively, so they might simply be more familiar with distance education techniques than other county staff. In addition, even though satellite delivery has been used with clientele in Pennsylvania, it has been used infrequently for staff training, so many staff have not experienced it directly.

Table 1.
What is the Ideal Location for Most In-Services to Encourage Your Attendance?
(1=most desired; 4=least desired)

  County Extension Staff by Major Responsibility County Extension Directors (N=51)
All (N=228*) Agriculture (N=83) Youth Development (N=75) Family Living (N=60) Community Development (N=6)  
University Park 2.46 2.25 2.76 2.62 1.60 2.50
Regional Location 1.86 1.82 1.86 1.78 2.20 1.88
County Location (using Distance Education) 2.59 2.60 2.44 2.61 3.20 2.40
Combination of Above 2.41 2.53 2.25 2.55 2.60 2.15
*Major responsibility breakdown does not include 4 staff with "Other" responsibility.

These preferences towards distance education contrast with the Extension educators in Nebraska surveyed by Mesecher (1995), who preferred satellite delivery (65%) over in-person training (35%). The difference between responses in Pennsylvania and Nebraska could be due to differences in travel distance, direct staff experience with distance technologies, how the questions were asked (such as the number of options from which to choose), or (as discussed previously) from self-selection bias in the Nebraska study.

Despite this seeming hesitance by many Pennsylvania county staff towards county-level in-services using distance education, the vast majority of county staff said they were receptive to having some in-service programs delivered by distance education (Table 2). Several respondents indicated that relying entirely upon distance education methods makes it harder for county staff to get to know other county staff working in similar topic areas. Face-to-face in-services also provide an opportunity for county staff to visit the campus, allowing them to accomplish other tasks during their visit. Responses indicated that the appropriateness of distance education-based in-service education clearly depends upon the subject matter and content of the in-services.

Table 2.
Staff Receptivity to Having Some In-Service Programs Delivered Using Distance Education Technologies (e.g., satellite, video, PICTel, World Wide Web)

  County Extension Staff by Major Responsibility County Extension Directors (N=51)
All (N=228*) Agriculture (N=83) Youth Development (N=75) Family Living (N=60) Community Development (N=6)  
Yes 91.7% 92.8% 88% 95% 100% 100%
No 5.7 4.8 8 5 0 0
*Major responsibility breakdown does not include 4 staff with "Other" responsibility.

Distance education can entail different costs than more traditional in-services (and who pays those costs may be an issue). The major costs of on-campus in-services include travel time and transportation for county staff to get to the meeting site, and the staff time needed to attend. In Pennsylvania, travel costs are borne by each county office. Distance education can dramatically reduce these county-level costs by eliminating the need for county staff to travel, but (at least with satellite-based programming) it also increases the costs to the in-service providers (costs such as uplink and video production expenses and greater program development time for specialists).

County Extension directors were asked if they would be willing to share these costs of delivering distance education, in recognition that their staff would save travel time and expense. About 88% of the Extension directors said they would be willing to pay for such distance education programs. Six percent said they would not.

County staff were also asked their opinion on the ideal length of an in-service delivered via distance education. Across all county staff, the mean ideal length was about 2 hours, 40 minutes (Table 3). Community development staff generally wanted longer distance education in-services than did other staff, but the time differences between content areas were not large. The survey also explored the delivery formats of email- and Web-based in-services, including one-time sessions, multiple sessions held at regular intervals (such as once a week), or some other combination.

Table 3.
Ideal Length for Most In-Services Received by Distance Education Methods

  Mean Hours (County Extension Staff by Major Responsibility) County Extension Directors (N=51)
All (N=228*) Agriculture (N=83) Youth Development (N=75) Family Living (N=60) Community Development (N=6)  
Videotape, audiotape, satellite 2:40 hours 2:49 hours 2:29 hours 2:37 hours 3:00 hours 2:50 hours
E-mail/WWW Percent Favoring
1 day 16.7% 23.6% 20% 30.4% 20% 20%
1 lesson/week for several weeks 43 67.3 61.8 45.6 80 68.6
Other (1 lesson every 2-3 weeks, month[s], etc.) 9.7 9.1 18.2 23.9 0 11.4
Don't Know 30.6 0 0 0.1 0 0
*Major responsibility breakdown does not include 4 staff with "Other" responsibility.


The results of this survey indicate that county Extension staff identify time as a major impediment to their participation in in-service training. In Pennsylvania, this is partially related to the travel distances required. County staff would be receptive to county-level distance education for some in-service training. However, because the county was their least preferred training location, distance methods would have to be balanced with regional and statewide sessions.

Staff preferred regional locations for training over all others. Such locations generally require less travel time than going to University Park and provide an opportunity for staff to meet face-to-face with colleagues working in other counties. Distance education methods focused on regional sites could still offer these benefits, and save travel time for staff and university-based faculty. Retaining some face-to-face training is important.

In response to another survey question, county staff overwhelmingly said they had too little voice in in-service planning and design. Unless other factors change, simply relying more upon distance education training could make this opinion even worse because the opportunities for staff and faculty to get to know each other and talk face-to-face will be reduced.

The survey did not focus on university faculty members' attitudes towards distance education. Some methods can require more preparation by teachers and provide less flexibility. A shift to some distance education methods, such as Web- or email-based courses, will also require a shift away from the traditional "count the number of trips" mode of Extension. Faculty and administrators will need to develop new methods of evaluating in-service education.

As a result of the survey responses, in the fall of 1997, Penn State Cooperative Extension began a pilot program of quarterly satellite in-services. These 1- to 2-hour in-services are uplinked from University Park and downlinked at county locations. To be eligible for satellite broadcast, at least 35 staff must be registered to make the program cost effective. As of June, 2000, 11 satellite in-services had been held, with a total audience of 535 county staff. Estimates are that $35,310 in travel costs have been saved by county Extension offices as a result of using satellite instruction instead of face-to-face. Currently, Extension administration is considering a proposal to cost-share some of these savings to help pay for satellite uplink costs.


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Bowen, B., & Thompson, J. S,. (1995). Department head perceptions of the need for distance education in the agricultural sciences. Journal of Applied Communications, 79(1), pp. 1-11.

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