October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB7

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Computer-Mediated Needs Assessment to Identify 4-H Youth Curriculum Needs

Pennsylvania's 4-H Youth program faculty and staff participated in a needs assessment to determine priority needs for curriculum revision and development. The needs assessment process began with a computer-mediated discussion among a panel of youth development professionals. Statewide input from county Extension educators was obtained using interactive software on the World Wide Web. County educators reacted to the priorities identified during the computer-mediated discussion. A curriculum priority list emerged that is being used for resource allocation and curriculum planning.

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

Marilyn Corbin
State Program Leader, Children, Youth and Families
Penn State Cooperative Extension and Outreach

The Pennsylvania State University


Needs assessment is a process that "identifies needs and decides upon priorities among them" (Encyclopedia of Educational Evaluation, 1975). The 4-H Youth Development Program in Pennsylvania was faced with the challenge of assessing and prioritizing needs for youth curriculum using a systematic and cost-effective method. In 2000, Penn State Cooperative Extension adopted a new 4-H youth curriculum development structure and process. Nine curriculum committees were established to support the national curriculum system for 4-H. Curriculum committees needed input to identify priorities for 4-H youth curriculum development.

A 4-H youth curriculum is a comprehensive package of information related to a specific topic. Typically, 4-H projects are the most common venue for information dissemination to youth. Each project consists of a sequential, developmentally appropriate set of learning activities, usually prepared in the form of manuals or project books. A leader or helper's guide accompanies each project to help the project leader understand youth and their development, become familiar with the project content, and detail instructions for project implementation. Youth participating in the 4-H Youth Development Program in Pennsylvania have over 150 projects from which to choose.

Beginning in 2001, a curriculum management team, comprised of the nine curriculum committee chairs and faculty and staff involved in the curriculum development process, allocated resources for curriculum development based on needs identified from youth and staff across Pennsylvania. Based on priorities and needs, curriculum committees completed an on-line curriculum development proposal (http://www.pa4h.cas.psu.edu). Linking resources to needs will aid in the development of relevant curriculum materials.

For this new process and structure to be successful, statewide staff buy-in and support was critical. A needs assessment was conducted that provided the opportunity for all Extension educators in the system to participate in identifying priorities.

Questions related to in-service education needs, volunteer development and competencies, training barriers, collaboration, and other important youth issues were asked; however this article discusses responses to the question that relates specifically to curriculum development and training. What are the high priority subject-matter areas for 4-H youth development projects?

Needs Assessment Process

Electronic Brainstorming

The State Program Leader for Children, Youth and Families and the regional directors from Pennsylvania's eight regions identified a team of youth development professionals (n=16) who were competent to identify curriculum needs for 4-H youth programs. The team consisted of county educators, volunteers, a department head, a regional director, faculty, and staff. The group convened at Penn State University's Management Development Technology Center in University Park, Pennsylvania.

The center is a technologically advanced facility for enhancing group communication using electronic forms of information exchange (Wilson, 1999). Linked as a team, participants rapidly share information through electronic dialogues. Equal opportunity for participation of individuals exists using their keyboard to anonymously contribute ideas. Malhorta (1993) describes a similar process, the computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) technique, and suggests that this technique minimizes response biases, eliminating biases caused by interviewer interpretation of the data, and reduces recording errors.

Each individual had a computer work station that was networked to a facilitator's computer. The facilitator addressed operational questions and provided information on clarity and organization prior to the session. Questions were posed by the facilitator, one at a time, on participants' individual monitors. Responses from all individuals were projected onto a large screen. This method of inquiry provided individual, anonymous, and simultaneous input.

In the nominal group process, ideas are generated individually, and reported in small group discussions (Etling, 1993). Each small group generates a list that is shared with the entire group. Using the electronic process, this step in the nominal group process is completed without breaking into small groups. Participants ask questions or seek clarification to responses generated. This method of idea generation provides an accurate and complete record of the discussion and there is no need for a scribe. The computer captures all of the input that is then categorized by the participants.

As in the nominal group process, the creativity and input of every person is valued and a single person cannot dominate the discussion. Everyone "talks" at once, electronically, generating more ideas at greater depth and speed than in the nominal group process. In addition to generating ideas and gathering information, an electronic assessment allows the group to consolidate or organize the information and to evaluate information based on one or more criteria. Unlike the nominal group process, there is less discussion of the issues during this stage of the computer-mediated process.

Prioritizing Input

Participants generated a list of 46 curriculum areas in need of revision or development. The participants voted for their top 10 priority curriculum areas from the list of 46 areas. Using the group communication software, the results were tallied to provide the total number of votes for each curriculum area. Thirteen project areas had at least one-third of the participant's votes. This criterion was determined in advance by the researchers as a sufficient percentage of participants to indicate priority importance.

The facilitator combined the votes and displayed a summary of curricula areas ranked from high to low priority, similar to the final group vote in nominal group process. A final report was generated by the group communication software with input categorized, prioritized, and/or summarized. Participants were given a printed copy of the final report at the conclusion of the session.

Statewide Input on the WWW

The priority list for curriculum development was shared on the World Wide Web with county educators conducting youth and family programs. 4-H youth faculty and staff (n=33) completed an on-line survey to share their reactions to the priority list. Web respondents reviewed the curriculum priorities identified by the panel of experts and added or deleted curriculum projects.

The same criteria to determine a priority was used with the Web survey as in the computer-mediated process. If 10 (33%) or more educators responding to the Web survey voted for a project to be removed from or added to the priority list, the project was added or removed. Only 1 project was deleted from the original list of 13. No additional projects were added, indicating a high level of congruence with the list generated by the computer-mediated discussion group.


Curriculum Priorities

Forty-six percent of Pennsylvania's 67 counties provided input during the assessment. Table 1 shows the project areas identified (n=64) that are in need of revision or development. Areas determined to be in greatest need of revision or development are also noted in Table 1 as project priorities. Curriculum areas with no priorities identified may indicate there is already sufficient, quality curricula in that category.

Table 1
4-H/Youth Development Curricula Priorities

Table One: 4-H project areas and those needing revision


The Penn State 4-H Youth Development Program is faced with an enormous challenge. Using a needs assessment process can assist with decision making by clarifying what is important and at what level (McKillip, 1987). Using the results of the needs assessment requires commitment and resources to assure that the identified needs are being addressed.

Communication with the curriculum committees regarding priority curriculum needs is essential. Congruence between new curricula developed and the priorities identified will assure that the educational and curricular needs are met. The inception of the curriculum management team provides a structure for this oversight and resource allocation. Resources should follow priorities.

The needs assessment process for curriculum development is not complete. Mattson (1995) emphasizes that professionals at various levels of a system will recognize different needs. Sometimes the person recognizing a need may vary from the person experiencing the need. It is important to ask youth in the 4-H program about their needs and interests because curricula must be interesting and exciting, as well as educational, or youth will chose to participate in other organizations and activities. Hartley (1983) found that activities must be designed to address the needs and expectations of youth to keep them involved and active.

The Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, a division of National 4-H Council, has as an organizational goal to increase the number of organizations, groups, and individuals who recognize that young people belong at the table where decisions are made that affect them. Dialog with young people enrolled as 4-H members and those who are not involved in the 4-H program is the next step in the assessment process. The result of not responding to the needs of our clientele may be lower levels of participation and involvement in 4-H youth programs. Curricula, the cornerstone of our 4-H youth program, will continue to require diligent review to assure youth needs are addressed.


Etling, A., & Maloney, T. (1995). Needs assessment for Extension agents and other nonformal educators. University Park, PA . (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 388 774).

Mattson, B. (1995). Models of personnel needs assessment. Alexandria, VA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 386 895).

McKillip, J. (1987). Need analysis: tools for the human services and education. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Whitkin, B. (1984). Assessing needs in educational and social programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson (1999). The Management Technology Development Center. Unpublished manuscript, Penn State University.

Scarvia, A., Ball, S., Murphy, T. (1975). Encyclopedia of educational evaluation, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.