Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA8
Communication-Age Trends Affecting Extension
As we leave the information age and enter the communications age, trends are driving both the innovation and use of information technology. With the availability of new technologies and changes in information processing, it's imperative that Extension's leaders look ahead and identify the role Extension will play to invent Extension's desired future. Two types of trends are especially important influences on Extension: technological and organizational trends.
Here are some trends Extension professionals need to consider and be ready to adopt or risk obsolescence:
Convergence and Communications
Communications, computers, and media are converging. The future is the sum of several independent innovations coming together. One network brings all types of information (voice/data/video) into the home, office, and industry. It carries television, telephone, radio, and data transmissions. Communication networks spread ideas and concepts around the world and are even more powerful than the printed media. The ultimate effect of convergence is that distinctions blur between products and services, and among information technology modes. For example, bibliographic information can be provided on a plastic compact disc (product) or through on-line databases (service).
One major technological change will be a workstation (desktop or laptop) for every staff member. Workstations are more than just computers. They bring together voice, data, and video. The portable versions have flat panel screens that display both data and video. They connect to the world via cellular phones or portable satellite dishes.
Computers and components will get smaller and more powerful. Replacing today's average desktop computer will be a workstation with one or more 32-bit or 64-bit processors, up to a gigabyte or more of RAM memory, several gigabytes of optical or hard disk storage, and a color display in a smaller package. Laptop and smaller handheld workstations will have most, if not all, the capabilities of a desktop system. Pocket-sized computers will track appointments, addresses and phone numbers, expense accounts, calendars, notes, and communicate with other computers.
Standards are in place for microcomputers, but they're still in the works for communications products. Companies are uniting behind common standards that allow everyone to develop products that can be used in every computer. One important move in standardization is the move to embrace the UNIX operating system.
Scanners, optical character readers, voice recognition, and digital dictation abound. Information in a paper format can quickly be transferred to an electronic one. If you don't know how to type, voice technology will retrieve or enter information.
Images and sound will dominate. Systems devoted to text and numbers only are viewed as outdated. Speech synthesis will permit the computer to talk back. Color will be a necessity. High definition quality digital video monitors with split- and touch- screen capabilities will be part of many if not most workstations. These impressive monitors will overlay computer graphics on top of regular video. Standard office laser printers will have a resolution of 1000 dots per inch (dpi) or more, up from the current 300 dpi. Color laser printers will produce four- color, near-magazine quality color printing.
A new network/local storage mix will be available as larger storage capacity becomes common (CD-ROM, laserdisc, gigabyte hard disks). Thin-film magnetic and optical technology will vie for dominance. New versions of the audio compact disc (CD) will hold over 200,000 pages of textual information or a combination of text, video, slides, and audio. Strides in data compression and transmission speed will decrease the cost of communication.
Small, inexpensive, and portable (suitcase size) satellite dishes will bring two-way voice/data/video transmissions to the most remote locations. Cellular phones will connect remote sites with the office. Staff members and clientele will have access to large state, national, and international databases. The standard county office workstation will have immediate access to subject-matter databases that compare with Library of Congress and National Ag Library holdings. No remote site in Alaska or Maine will be too far away to have excellent access to information.
Large on-line databases, text retrieval services, and other information services will have a user's personal profile stored in their system. According to the characteristics in the profile, these services will automatically gather and send new information to users as it becomes available, constructing personalized newspapers, magazines, journals, and television programming.
Audio/video/computer conferencing will be available to more and more locations. Conferencing will replace face-to-face meetings and exhausting, expensive travel. Conferencing through electronic mail systems will increase. Special computer conferencing programs will be available to enhance cooperative writing projects. Using workstations, all participants will see the document simultaneously and can make changes. Video conferencing can be used for training both staff and clientele. Many sites will have workstations that put audio/video/computer conferencing on every staff member's desk.
Dynamic growth will occur in the area of automatic data gathering (remote sensing by satellite and other devices such as personal weather stations). Automatic collection of human-generated data will expand (handwriting, voice, digitized scanning). At their workstations, staff members will gather information and perform modeling, data management, forecasting, reporting, and graphics work. The new information technologies will add value to information by converting, storing, processing, and transporting it in an easy-to-use and accessible form. The benefits will be wider reach, greater convenience, richer content, and lower cost.
Interaction between humans and computers will be eased by advances in keyboards, pointers (infrared screen pointer, mouse technology, light pens, touch screens, optical gloves), and speech recognition. Voice technologies (speech recognition, voice response, and speech synthesis) will take an important role as user-friendly interfaces between humans and technology. Expert systems and Standard Query Language (SQL) will make it easier for users to question systems. With hypertext type systems, users can touch any part of a video, graphic image, or text to get additional information that's connected to the image. In such a system, with a touch of the screen, the video image of a beetle on a pine tree will yield textual information on its genius and species, plus control measures. These new interfaces will make using technology as easy as talking to a neighbor over the back fence.
Major growth of information technology systems will be seen outside the workplace when the alliance of computers and audiovisual information is complete. Communications networks will carry cable television, phone service, and data networks into the home on optical fibers. Infotainment systems will be the focal points of most homes. They will be made up of a television, stereo sound system, network connection, and computer components, along with a form of compact disc player that accepts everything from basic audio to multimedia discs.
Software, databases, and expert support systems will gain in value compared to hardware and transmission lines. Content specialists will be scarce and more expensive while technology will be plentiful and decrease in price. One specialist or a national task force will be able to develop a national database that answers common questions in that subject-matter area, freeing specialists to work with unusual questions.
The ability of two or more systems to work in perfect harmony will increase as systems are designed for interoperability. All computer and communication equipment will work together. Users may not even recognize they have moved through several systems to find the exact information wanted.
Artificial reality simulates real-time equipment for education and recreation. Desktop moviemaking will become more popular than desktop publishing. A personal computer, video recorders, and special graphics software will turn any would-be moviemaker into a video producer.
Changing technology isn't the issue. The real issue is how Extension professionals will interact with technology. Extension's future depends on our ability to interpret trends and use technology to deliver programs and teach problem solving....
The following trends show the shape and look of the future organization:
Telework or location independent work will be common. Office work will be done from home, the road, or a conveniently located satellite office. Telecommuters will force administrators to evaluate employment in terms of productivity, not just hours.
Using information technologies will eliminate dealing with some middle men. Bypassing the middle allows users to deal directly with the central providers of products, services, or information. Large agribusiness firms will bypass the local agent to deal directly with the best expert who may be a specialist in any state.
Industrial production has risen 90% in the past 10 years, while white collar worker's productivity has risen only four percent.1 The average factory worker has $35,000 to $50,000 worth of capital equipment to complete his/her job. The average white collar worker has $2,000 to $3,000. This difference in the level of support will change with the influx of information technology into the white collar worker's domain.
Information technology plays a strategic part in the acquisition and maintenance of professional skills. Extension needs to provide continuous employee training/retooling as changes in information technology continue. Extension professionals need to be trained to evaluate masses of information that inundate them from databases, retrieval systems, and FAX transmissions. Clientele need better skills to evaluate information. Distance learning technologies (satellites, workstations, conferencing systems, videotapes, and computerized databases) bring information to the learner. The county agent can't be a specialist in every area anymore, but that agent can serve as a facilitator for finding the solution to the client's problem using databases and communications systems.
Information protectionist policies will fall as we move to a global economy. International standardization of information systems will make it easy to work together. The latest information on trickle irrigation may come from Israel, Florida, or Thailand in a matter of seconds or minutes, not the days, weeks, and months as it now takes.
Naisbitt's forecasted trend away from broadcasting to "narrowcasting" will continue, especially in three areas.2 Narrowcasting has given us speciality channels like the Nashville Network, all-sports channels, and all-music channels. Narrowcasting also foretold the growth of the videotape cassette rentals and VCR sales. A third area of growth is in the development of databases for almost every subject-matter area - pesticides, family economics, forest resources, chemical abstracts. People want to choose where they get their information, not lock themselves into the choices made by one provider.
Extension professionals must be committed to accepting cross-fertilization of ideas from all disciplines. We can't hold to the old ways of separation and specificity. Many developments in separate disciplines have major consequences on other areas.
The U.S. is becoming a nation of time shifters.3 Time and place play less of a role in work assignment as millions of Americans are using FAX, electronic mail, and voice mail to exchange information with others to handle at their convenience. Several state Extension Services ask clientele to set their VCRs to record broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning for playback at their convenience.
The marketplace demands customized/immediate response to problems and questions. Staff, through technology, have instant access to more data then they can use. Their challenge is to synthesize the data to make effective decisions.
The information network is in place. The databases on it may be developed by resident professionals or contract workers hired to do specific jobs for a fixed term.
Changing technology isn't the issue. The real issue is how Extension professional will interact with technology. Extension's future depends on our ability to interpret trends and use technology to deliver programs and teach problem solving. We must adjust our organizational structure to take advantage of technology. Technology will change the nature of the Extension workplace, but it won't do it overnight.
1. Anne P. Crum, "Factors Which Influence Electronic Mail Use" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, 1988), p. 163.
2. John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1982).
3. Business Week, October 10, 1988, p. 103.