June 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA7

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Educating Rural Private Water System Owners in Pennsylvania Using Satellite Versus Traditional Programs

A safe drinking water program was delivered by satellite in an attempt to more efficiently reach the target audience while maintaining the same effectiveness present in the traditional live speaker program. Survey results were compared between attendees of the traditional and satellite program. The satellite program met the educational objectives and was cheaper and required less time commitment from specialists, but it attracted a smaller audience and allowed limited audience interaction. The cost per attendee for the two programs was similar. Future water quality programs will continue to use both satellite and traditional programs.

Bryan R. Swistock
Extension Associate
School of Forest Resources
Internet Address: brs@psu.edu

William E. Sharpe
Water Quality Coordinator and
Professor of Forest Hydrology
School of Forest Resources

John Dickison
Head of Production
Information and Communication Technologies

College of Agricultural Sciences
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Water quality has become a major focus of Cooperative Extension programs throughout the United States. Extension programs in Pennsylvania have historically targeted the large mostly rural population of over 1.1 million homes served by individual water supplies. Homeowners using these water supplies are in need of educational programs because, unlike community water supplies, water system operation and maintenance are strictly voluntary.

Homeowners are responsible for all aspects of water system maintenance, including having their water tested, interpreting the test results and purchasing equipment to treat water quality problems. As a result, many individual water wells have never been tested, and their owners are generally uninformed about water quality issues (Francis et al., 1982). Unfortunately, the quality of water from individual water systems is often unacceptable.

In a comprehensive national survey of individual water systems, Cornell University researchers reported that 64% of the nearly nine million individual water systems in the United States failed to meet at least one primary or secondary drinking water standard (Francis et al., 1982). More recent surveys in Pennsylvania have indicated that the water quality problems of individual water supplies have not improved in recent years (Sharpe, Mooney, & Adams, 1985; Sharpe, Jones, & Swistock, 1993; Swistock, Sharpe, & Robillard, 1993).

These problems can be avoided if owners of individual water systems are well informed and given access to reliable and unbiased information to assist them in making management decisions about their water supply. Since 1984, Penn State water specialists have traveled throughout Pennsylvania and personally delivered over 120 Safe Drinking Water Clinics to over 9,000 individual water system owners. The program has been highly regarded by attendees and easily attained its educational objectives (Mancl, Sharpe, & Makuch, 1989). However, the sheer size of the target audience has required a large time and dollar commitment to deliver this program, and it has only reached less than 1% of the individual water system owners in Pennsylvania. In fact, time and cost limitations have restricted the availability of the program at times.

With the advent of satellite distance education methods in Extension, many programs traditionally delivered by specialists at county meetings are now delivered via satellite to multiple downlink locations. These types of programs have generally received positive comments from attendees and agents (Shrestha & Sutphin, 1995-96; Souder, 1993; Anderson, 1989). Past evaluations of Safe Drinking Water Clinics have revealed that over 50% of those attending do so because they either know that they have a water quality problem or they know of water quality problems in their area (Mancl et al., 1989). The traditional speaker-based program was, therefore, very attractive and helpful to attendees because it gave them an opportunity to discuss their problems one-on-one with a water quality expert. It was questionable whether such a program could still be successful when delivered via satellite.

The objective of the study reported here was to determine if satellite delivery could be used to more efficiently reach the target audience of private water system owners while still maintaining nearly the same success and effectiveness in teaching and causing attendees to take action on their water supply. This objective was achieved by comparing a survey of attendees at a satellite Safe Drinking Water program to historical survey results from traditional speaker-based county programs.


The Traditional Program

The traditional speaker-based Safe Drinking Water Clinic program was delivered by the authors and others during 1984-1999. The program consisted of a 2-hour slide program on private water system management topics, including:

  • Drinking water standards
  • Water testing
  • Pollutants of concern
  • Groundwater hydrology
  • Proper well and spring construction
  • Water treatment

The program concluded with an opportunity for attendees to personally consult with the water specialists. County agents hosting the program were encouraged to invite local water testing laboratories, water treatment equipment vendors, and local water quality experts to the meeting. In many cases, agents were able to arrange for water testing at a reduced cost for meeting attendees. Individual host counties were responsible for advertising the program, which was normally offered once in the afternoon and repeated later in the evening. A more detailed description of the program is available in Mancl et al. (1989).

The Satellite Program


In May 1999, the same program was delivered from Penn State to county downlink sites. Satellite time and publicity were arranged through the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC). Planning for the satellite program began in Fall 1998, when county offices were notified about the availability of the program. Twenty-eight of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania indicated an interest in downlinking the program.

Representatives from these counties were asked to attend an organizational meeting in February 1999 (3 months prior to the airdate). At this meeting, the logistics of the downlink were discussed, including program content, satellite feed information, press releases, and recommendations for local programming to accompany the satellite broadcast. A list of fact sheets and circulars was also distributed for agents to have on-hand the evening of the program. Advertisement of the satellite program to the public was primarily the responsibility of the individual counties.

Results from other satellite programs have suggested the importance of making the program more than just "talking heads" (Shrestha & Sutphin, 1995). Thus, over 70 color slide graphics from the original program were edited for television viewing and incorporated into the satellite program. Also, a previously produced 15-minute video on groundwater contamination was added. This video was essentially the only content difference between the traditional Safe Drinking Water program and the satellite program.

Three Extension water quality specialists from Penn State delivered the program on May 12, 1999 from a studio at the Penn State campus at University Park, Pennsylvania. These were the same three specialists who delivered many of the 120+ traditional Safe Drinking Water programs over the previous 15 years. Personnel from the Agricultural Information Department in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University produced and broadcast the program to the county downlink locations.

At least one videotape copy of the satellite program was provided to each of the 67 county Extension offices within 2 weeks of the program airdate. The videotape was available for clients who could not attend the live program or for those who heard of the program after it aired. Although no attempt was made to measure use of the videotapes, anecdotal information suggests that they were used frequently in some counties.

Maintaining Personal Interaction

The most significant modification to the program for satellite delivery was the question and answer period at the conclusion of the program. Thirty minutes were allotted at the end of the program for attendees to phone or fax questions to the water specialists using toll-free numbers. At the conclusion of the question and answer session, attendees were also given phone and fax numbers and mail and email addresses to contact a specialist with additional questions in the days following the meeting. The Penn State water quality Web page was also advertised as an additional source of water publications and information on-line. County agents were also encouraged to invite local water experts from state and local government agencies and water testing laboratories to provide personal consultation.


The traditional Safe Drinking Water Clinic program was evaluated to determine if the program was effective in helping attendees better manage their private water supplies. During 1984-86, 328 attendees from four county meetings were sent a 13-question survey 3 to 10 months after the program. Goals and objectives were set prior to the mailing to determine the success of the programs (e.g., 20% of attendees will get their water tested). Follow-up mailings resulted in a 70% return on this evaluation. More detail on the evaluation of the traditional program is available in Mancl et al. (1989).

The same survey with a few added questions (15 total questions) was used for evaluation of the satellite program to allow direct comparison between the effectiveness of the two delivery methods. The evaluation also included an open-ended question to allow attendees to express their general opinions. The same objectives used by Mancl et al. (1989) were used for comparison purposes.

On May 12, 1999, the Safe Drinking Water Clinic was delivered live via satellite to 580 attendees at 28 county downlink locations throughout Pennsylvania. Addresses were collected at 25 of the 28 locations for 288 attendees. Postage-paid evaluations were sent to these 288 attendees approximately two months after the program aired. Reminders were mailed one week after the evaluation and resulted in a final return rate of 56%.


Opinions of the Satellite Program

Average attendance per downlink site for the satellite program was about 50% of what had been observed for the traditional program over the previous 15 years. As mentioned earlier, these figures do not include clients who viewed the satellite program via videotape. There are many possible explanations for this difference, including the following.

  • Nearly every county that downlinked the satellite program had hosted the traditional program at least once in the past, which may have affected interest in the program.
  • Potential attendees may have avoided the program because they disliked past satellite programs, or they may have objected to the satellite delivery method without ever attending one.
  • The satellite program was delivered in mid May, a time when the public is generally more difficult to entice to evening meetings. The traditional program was generally delivered during winter and early spring (January-March), when competition from outdoor activities is limited in Pennsylvania.
  • It may have been advantageous to keep attendance at the satellite program lower given the constraints of downlink equipment at many sites (room size, TV screen size, and sound equipment).

Eighty-one percent of attendees felt the overall satellite program was good, very good, or excellent. The satellite program easily met the same educational objectives developed for the traditional Safe Drinking Water Clinic (Table 1). The percentage of attendees who found the program of speakers to be very helpful (66%) was nearly identical to results from the traditional program (Table 1).

In addition to being well received, the satellite format seemed to have little negative impact on the effective transfer of information to the audiences. More than twice as many attendees at the satellite program learned at least two important ideas about managing their individual water system compared to the traditional program (Table 1). In fact, 87% of attendees at the satellite program indicated that the satellite format had made them just as likely or more likely to attend future satellite Extension programs, suggesting that they were generally pleased with their ability to learn from the satellite program.

While these results were encouraging, they also indicated that 13% of attendees were less likely to attend future satellite programs. This result is similar to the 11% who wrote negative comments in the open-ended question at the end of the survey. Of this 11%, 4% complained about technical problems at the meeting site, including:

  • Small television screen size
  • Poor sound quality
  • Displeasure with the satellite format

Seven percent also felt that the program was too long. It should also be noted that one county downlink site had to cancel the satellite program due to an equipment failure. Such failures are not common but they underscore a persistent concern with satellite programs.

An underlying assumption of this project was that, all things being equal, the public would prefer a traditional speaker program to a satellite downlink. It was also assumed that money and time constraints would limit the future availability of the traditional program. Thus, the more important question was to determine how strongly the public prefers a traditional program.

An additional survey question was used to gauge this preference by asking whether they would prefer to attend a Cooperative Extension program with live speakers at a location 50 miles from their home or a satellite program at a location 15 miles from their home. The 50-mile distance was chosen to be indicative of a regional meeting, while the 15-mile distance was considered typical of a county meeting in Pennsylvania. The two options given in this question were thought to be comparable in cost and time commitments and were considered viable alternatives to the unlimited use of the traditional program in the past.

Results from the survey indicated that 66% percent of attendees preferred the satellite program, 10% preferred the traditional meeting, and 24% had no preference. The percentage still preferring a live speaker program was similar to that of those who made negative comments about the satellite program and of those who indicated they were unlikely to attend future satellite programs.

In addition to the program of speakers itself, the presence of written publications, local water testing laboratories, and water treatment vendors at the county downlink sites were generally well received by attendees at the satellite program (Table 1). Written publications were very helpful to nearly 70% of attendees at the satellite program. The popularity of written publications was not surprising given the quantity and technical nature of the information presented during the meeting. In comparison to the traditional program, a smaller percentage of attendees found the water testing labs to be very helpful, and a slightly higher percent thought the presence of water treatment vendors was very helpful (Table 1). The lower opinion of the water testing labs at the satellite program may have been because a small number of downlink sites did not arrange for labs to be present. In any event, the response of attendees indicates that water labs and treatment vendors generally should be invited to programs dealing with individual water systems.

Table 1.
Comparison of Attendee Opinions After Viewing the Traditional vs.
Satellite Safe Drinking Water Program

Satellite Program
(May 12, 1999)
Program of speakers was very helpful 20% 65% 66%
Learned at least two important ideas about managing private water systems 10% 32% 71%
Written publications were very helpful -- Not evaluated 69%
Presence of water testing labs was very helpful 20% 52% 37%
Presence of treatment vendors was very helpful 20% 35% 37%
Consultation with experts was very helpful 20% 50% 33%
1From Mancl et al., 1989.

The consultation time at the end of the satellite program was not as helpful as it was for the traditional program (Table 1). During the traditional programs, it was common to interact with the majority of attendees through questions and answers or personal consultation after the meeting. During and in the days after the satellite program, 10 live phone questions, 18 fax questions, and 9 email questions were received. Thus, "personal" interaction was limited to less than 10% of the attendees at the satellite program. The length of the question and answer session did not seem to be a limiting factor in encouraging interaction because the majority of attendees felt the 30-minute question/answer session was the right amount of time (73%) or too long (6%). Only 21% would have liked a longer question session.

The attempt to steer attendees to the Penn State Water Quality Web page for additional information and answers to questions had very limited success. Only 5% of attendees at the satellite program visited the Penn State water quality Web site within 2 months after the program. Only 55% of attendees indicated that they had access to a computer. These results demonstrate the limitations of providing program materials over the web at the present time.

Actions Taken

The satellite program was successful at encouraging attendees to take actions to maintain or improve their water systems. Overall, the percentage of attendees who took various actions was nearly identical to results from the traditional program and again easily exceeded the educational objectives (Table 2). Perhaps the most important objective of the Safe Drinking Water program was to encourage attendees to get their water tested for common pollutants. Evaluation results indicated that water testing was the most common action taken by attendees at both the traditional and satellite programs (Table 2). The presence of water testing laboratories at the meeting locations certainly facilitated attendee water testing. In addition, of those attending the satellite program that had never had their water tested before, over half had tested their water within two months after the program.

Table 2.
Comparison of Actions Taken by Attendees at the Traditional and
Satellite Safe Drinking Water Programs

(May 12, 1999)
Took some action as a result of the program -- 68% 66%
Average number of actions taken -- 1.35 1.30
Specific Actions Taken
Sought additional information about water testing -- 18% 16%
Had my water tested 20% 47% 42%
Sought more information about treatment equipment -- 24% 19%
Installed water treatment equipment 1% 11% 6%
Took other action -- 15% 13%
Program saved attendee money 10% 23% 21%
1Objectives set by Mancl et al., 1989. Dashes indicate actions where no objective was set.

Thirty percent of those attending the satellite program did so because they knew they had a problem with their private water supply. These attendees would be most interested in seeking information or purchasing water treatment equipment and evaluation results indicated that a majority at least sought more information following the meeting (Table 2). Again, the presence of water treatment vendors at the meeting locations made it easy for attendees to take this action. Actions taken by attendees at the satellite meeting to research or buy water treatment equipment were both 5% lower than was observed for the traditional program (Table 2).

Information given during the program helped many attendees save money. The results easily exceeded the program objective and were similar to results from the traditional program (Table 2). Amounts saved ranged from 1 to over 50 dollars, and nearly all of these savings were the result of water testing recommendations or testing programs available at the meeting site. Only 10% of the savings were related to information about treatment equipment.

Cost Comparison

A major reason for turning to satellite technology was to reduce cost and time commitments. Using conservative cost estimates, it was estimated that traditional delivery of the program to 28 county sites would cost about 2.3 times more than the satellite delivery.

Most of this cost difference was the result of the large difference in time commitment between the programs. The Extension specialists spent about 10 days on the traditional program for each day spent on the satellite program. This ratio would have been higher had there not been a need to adjust graphics for satellite use. Even accounting for the production crew time for the satellite program, the traditional program still required about four times more employee-days compared to the satellite program. Time commitments for county Extension staff were assumed to be similar for both of the programs.

While the up-front costs were much higher for the traditional program, the much smaller average attendance at the satellite program resulted in a nearly identical cost per attendee for the two programs. As discussed earlier, there are a variety of possible explanations for the lower average attendance at the satellite meeting and it is not known whether this trend could be expected for all Extension programs.


This comparative study of traditional and satellite delivery of a drinking water program demonstrated both advantages and limitations of satellite program delivery. The satellite program was valuable for the following reasons.

  • It has the capability to reach a sizable number of private water system owners without large travel, time, and cost commitments.
  • Even using conservative cost estimates for the traditional Safe Drinking Water program, it would have cost between two and three times more money to deliver the traditional program to the same 28 counties that viewed the satellite program.
  • By nearly all educational measures, including program helpfulness, concepts learned, actions taken, and money saved, the satellite program was comparable to the traditional program.
  • The satellite program was easily recorded and distributed to county Extension offices, making it retrievable for those clients who were unable to attend the live program.

Given the favorable opinions and comparability of the satellite program in this study, future water quality programs in Pennsylvania will continue to use satellite technology. However, some problems and disadvantages were encountered with the satellite delivery method, including the following.

  • Even with phone, fax, email, and Web resources, the satellite program was unable to match the audience interaction present in the traditional program.
  • Web and email resources seemed especially limiting, given the persistent absence of computers in many rural homes.
  • Evaluation results also seemed to show that a small but significant portion of the audience absolutely preferred a traditional program even if it is more inconvenient for them to attend. This portion of the audience may be lost for future satellite programs.
  • The satellite program also attracted a much smaller audience than the traditional program. This meant that despite the cheaper overall cost of the satellite program, the dollars spent to educate an attendee of either program were similar.

In view of these limitations, traditional live-speaker programs will still be offered, especially in areas where public interest in water topics is high and a large attendance is anticipated. Future satellite programs will be shorter in length (1 to 1.5 hours) and focused on specific water-related issues. Evaluation of future programs will be needed to determine if the lower attendance observed at the satellite program can be generally expected or was unique to this program.


Anderson, S. (1989). Natural resources education through videoconferencing. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(3),58-64.

Francis, J.D., Brower, B.L., Graham, W.F., Larson, O.W., McCaull, J.L. & Vigorita, H.M. (1982). National statistical assessment of rural water conditions. The Office of Drinking Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.

Mancl, K., Sharpe, W.E., & Makuch, J. (1989). Educating the rural public about safe drinking water. Water Res. Bull., 25(1),155-158.

Sharpe, W.E., Mooney, D.W., & Adams, R.S. (1985). An analysis of ground water quality data obtained from private individual water systems in Pennsylvania. Northeastern Env. Sci., 4(3/4), 155-159.

Sharpe, W.E., Jones, M.C., & Swistock, B.R. (1993). Comparison of selected agricultural pollutants in farm and rural home water wells in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Paper no. A32102 American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 2950 Niles Rd., St. Joseph, MI 49085.

Shrestha, G.M. & Sutphin H.D. (1995-96). Program delivery via satellite in the information age: Extension educators' perspectives on teaching techniques, communication channels, and participation. J. Educational Technology Systems, 24(2), 135-144.

Souder, W.E. (1993). The effectiveness of traditional vs. satellite delivery in three management of technology master's degree programs. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), 37-52.

Swistock, B.R., Sharpe, W.E., & Robillard, P.D. (1993). A survey of lead, nitrate and radon contamination of private individual water systems in Pennsylvania. Journal. of Env. Health, 55(5),6-12.