Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1
Who Really Influences Extension Direction?
Historically, Extension has derived its program agenda from the people it served. With its emphasis on adoption and diffusion of practical research and educational applications, Extension has made effective use of a number of important principles of adult education. One is that the adult learner must be a key player as a program participant as well as a central figure in the program planning process. For the adult learner to be a central figure, program direction and policy must be derived from an analysis of the learner's needs.
Active involvement of the people served in determining program direction has been the hallmark of the Extension (adult) education mission since 1914. As a model for nonformal adult education and one of the largest adult education delivery systems in the U.S., Extension is an organization that has to do it the right way.
Knowles coined the term "andragogy" to describe the "art and science of helping adults learn."1 He indicated that one could tell if an adult education program would be successful by asking: "On what basis are the decisions made as to what will be offered in the program?" He says:
If the answer is that the program is planned entirely by the staff, based on what they think people ought to be interested in, I can confidently predict that participation in the program will be rather apathetic. On the other hand, if the answer is that the program is planned with the assistance of a planning committee which conducts periodic surveys of the needs and interests of the people they seek to serve, then I predict you will find a thriving adult education program.2
Is Extension Doing It Right?
The question that needs to be asked of Extension planners is: "Is Extension still doing it right?" Or have planners fallen prey to what many claim is one of the major problems facing the land-grant university today,3 namely, the problems inherent in directing the program agenda from within and using client input only to confirm what has already been decided.
The questions asked by our research were: (1) who do clients believe are influencing the program direction of the Extension Service and (2) do the clients believe they themselves have influence in directing the program agenda?
The primary purpose of this study, conducted by the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agricultural and Natural Resources (IANR), was to determine who actually exerted the most influence on the present and future policy and direction of the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service. In the study, nine clientele groups were identified by the state Extension director as the primary audiences served by the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service. These groups made up the population for the study and were identified as: farmers and ranchers, the general public, agribusiness persons, agricultural lenders, commodity groups, natural resource district personnel, soil conservation district personnel, IANR faculty and staff, and Extension agents.
Participants responded to a mailed questionnaire, which requested information about their perceived influence on Extension's efforts in Nebraska. The questionnaire was validated by a jury of experts in Extension education and research. It was field-tested to assure readability and uniform understanding of survey items. A Cronbach Alpha Reliability Coefficient of .92 was calculated for the entire instrument. A total sample size of 2,903 was selected as being representative of the populations included in the study.
Who Influences Program Direction?
In the survey, individuals were asked to rank seven statewide groups as to which had the greatest influence on Extension program direction in Nebraska. A ranking of "1" indicated most influence while a "7" indicated least influence. The seven groups ranked for their perceived influence on policies and direction of the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service were: farmers and ranchers, agribusiness personnel, state agriculture agencies, general public, state government, agricultural commodity groups, and IANR faculty.
The results of this ranking were both interesting and unexpected. The IANR faculty and staff from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were perceived to be the most influential group determining program direction for Extension. This perception was shared by all groups in the study. This finding came as a surprise - and a concern - to IANR administrators whose perception was that input into program direction and policy was exemplary in its comprehensive clientele input throughout the state.
It's important to note that the respondent groups weren't asked who should influence or who should deliver Extension programs, but who they perceived does influence program direction and policy.
The general public was perceived by all client groups to have the least influence on program direction. In recent years, there has been a concentrated effort to involve the general public more as new Extension initiatives have been introduced and implemented. Yet, in this study, the public was perceived to have the least influence.
When respondents looked at the groups traditionally believed to influence Extension programming, farmers and ranchers ranked second, agribusiness people ranked third, state agricultural agencies ranked fourth, state government agencies ranked fifth, and agricultural commodity groups ranked sixth in influence on the program direction of Extension.
Do You Influence Program Direction?
The clientele groups in this study were also asked to rate, on a one-to-five scale ("1" being no influence and "5" being extensive influence), what they believed to be the extent of their own influence on the program direction of the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service. All groups (except Extension agents) indicated they had only "slight influence" on Extension program direction. The Extension agents indicated they had "considerable influence" over the program direction.
With most groups believing they had only slight influence over program direction and believing that the IANR faculty and staff had the most influence, it would seem difficult for statewide clientele groups to feel a sense of ownership in Extension programs and be willing to support and participate in them.
As a result of this study, it became apparent that the role of the clientele groups identified by the state director didn't totally agree with the principles of adult education that provide for clientele input and participation in the program planning process. For the most part, the identified Nebraska clientele groups weren't having an impact on Extension. Only the IANR faculty and perhaps the Extension agent population provided direction on policy and programming. If this is so, the Nebraska Extension Service faces the real challenge of broadening the sources of influence on program direction and planning to gain more comprehensive input from all clientele groups statewide.
Although the following recommendations were developed based on responses from Nebraska Extension clientele, they may also apply to Extension programs throughout the country. Extension should:
- Return to the grassroots approach of determining program direction for the state. This should include involving all clientele groups served by Extension and not exclusively those who have a role in the program administration and delivery.
- Make a concentrated effort to include people currently involved in programs as well as individuals not now familiar with Extension programs to set future program goals and direction.
- Develop a mechanism for increasing clienteles' positive perceptions about the degree of program ownership if clients are to embrace new programs and maintain Extension as a viable adult education delivery system.
- Make major efforts to introduce new programs or enhance current ones that reflect changing clientele needs, especially in areas related to new technology, changes in agriculture, home economics, and business.
Extension programs will continue to face tremendous challenges in meeting the needs of an ever-changing and diverse population as changes in technology and social demographics become even more pronounced and complex. Extension directors need to recognize that Extension's primary mission of transferring technology to adult audiences can best be done by following the philosophical principles on which the program was established. Input and involvement from all clientele affected by proposed programming efforts are needed to establish priorities, programming content, and policies. This input is needed at both the local and state levels for Extension to meet the needs of future clientele groups.
1. Malcolm Knowles, The Modern Practice of Adult Education From Pedagogy to Andragogy (New York: Cambridge, Adult Education Company, 1980).
2. Ibid., p. 82.
3. Jim Hightower, Hard Tomatoes Hard Times (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing, Agribusiness Accountability Project Task Force on the Land-Grant College Complex, 1972).