August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW4
Using Satellite Technology in Traditional Programs
Since 1992, Cornell Cooperative Extension has used satellite technology to deliver a traditional program that was previously accomplished with several live one-day seminars held throughout New York. Replacing the former series of meetings with a one-day satellite broadcast has reduced the specialists' travel costs, preparation, and delivery time. Audience potential has expanded beyond New York's boundaries into other states and Canadian provinces with the use of the new technology, and evaluations indicate a high satisfaction exists with program quality. Of additional benefit, videotapes of the satellite broadcast become available as reference material and for subsequent program use.
In many areas, Cooperative Extension is contending with constant or increasing demands for current research knowledge while personnel numbers decline. In New York, this prompted replacing the traditional method of educating maple syrup producers by a specialist's presentation at county or regional seminars with a satellite broadcast. This article reports the impacts upon educators and audiences over three years in which satellite technology replaced the program specialist's personal visits.
New York's several thousand maple syrup producers are concentrated in regions geographically distributed throughout the state. For many decades and continuing through the 1980s, one- day county or regional seminars were held annually for maple producers in 10 to 12 locations. Costs for travel along with the time of specialists, agents, and invited speakers were substantial for reaching the producers, landowners, and foresters (totaling more than 1,000) regularly attending those meetings. By 1992, Cornell University had acquired capacity to broadcast by satellite, and an increasing number of county Cooperative Extension offices had obtained downlink capability to receive satellite transmissions. The time seemed appropriate to seek a more efficient means of conducting the maple syrup seminars. Since 1992, satellite technology has been used to deliver the annual "Maple Production School."
About six months prior to the event, program specialists and Cornell's media service staff discussed the general format, timing, and content of the single broadcast. Extension staff in New York counties and specialists in other states and Canadian provinces were alerted to key items such as date, time, satellite address, and related information. Planning by the specialists included scheduling speakers to address key issues and current subjects, acquiring video footage for use in the program, identifying hosts at downlink sites, and making other arrangements common in planning Extension events. Agents or, in some locations, provincial foresters or maple producer associations must also be active in the months before the broadcast identifying downlink sites, promoting the event, and in many cases, considering how to provide lunch for the group.
One day prior to the live broadcast, a rehearsal was scheduled to finalize program details and familiarize speakers with TV broadcasting techniques. The broadcast generally ran from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with an hour intermission at noon. FAX and 800 telephone numbers provided the means for receiving questions and comments from the audience and enhancing interaction. Speaking to identified individuals at some downlink sites imparted an additional sense of involving real people. A videotape of the broadcast was produced for subsequent use.
Maple Production School evaluations were conducted on-site each year. Participants were requested to complete questionnaires which provided industry characteristics about those attending and their reactions to the sessions. The data reported here are for 1994 except where noted.
Evaluations were received in 1994 from 55% of the 271 producers participating at 13 of the scheduled 18 downlink sites. The sites included seven locations in other states and provinces. The downlink sites numbered 12 in 1992.
A substantial, widely distributed, committed audience participated. Respondents represented 35 counties in New York, plus Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Quebec. Nearly a third had participated in the school held the previous year. For most (91%), maple syrup production is not their primary occupation, although their average annual production is nearly 300 gallons of syrup, having an estimated retail value of $10,000.
Such programs are not without difficulty. In 1994, New Brunswick, Canada, sites failed to receive the transmission and four other sites experienced poor signal reception. Hazardous winter road conditions reduced attendance at some locations. Evaluations also indicated that a resistance to teleconferencing may still remain among participants accustomed to attending traditional live regional seminars.
Most participants indicated high satisfaction with the broadcasts and attendance at the satellite schools has been maintained. The number of attendees in New York, however, is now roughly half that attending the previous "in person" seminars. We have no reliable information on what group or groups are represented in the "lost" attendees, but it is a matter of concern.
The satellite programs have reduced travel costs and time commitment of maple specialists to an estimated 10% of that required to conduct the pre-1992 seminars. (Those savings are offset to a degree by costs for the satellite broadcasts. Indirect expenditures, such as studio and salary costs were not taken into consideration in comparing program costs.)
Teaching via satellite has permitted information transfer to many producers in states and locations previously too distant to reach with traditional programs. Dialogue between audiences of diverse regional and social backgrounds enhances the educational benefit of the program. The multi-media mix of video clips, live speakers, and still images and sound now available has definitely enhanced education in some cases beyond that which would have occurred in the live, on-site presentations. Also, the videotapes produced allow producers unable to attend to acquire much of the information presented--a benefit not available under a regional seminar format.
The success of the broadcasts undoubtedly reflects extensive planning, the many opportunities for interaction, and in some cases, continuing a pattern familiar to attendees (such as having a pancake dinner prepared by a local church group). The major advantages to the specialists' program is the dramatic reduction in travel time and direct travel costs. Somewhat less planning time is required than was needed for a dozen presentations, but earlier detailed planning is required as the specialist must coordinate studio time with the schedules of many individuals.
Agents spend less time than they did when arranging the specialist visits. As this broadcast fits a historic time frame and audience, local hosts have not expressed the common complaint that they learn of a satellite program too late for them to alert the intended audience. Some agents have found value in getting the videotapes and developing an outline of information in the broadcast for use by those unable to attend.
How best to cover direct costs of satellite teaching is still evolving. Direct charges to downlink sites including out- of-state sites, registration fees to attendees, and distribution of program costs among departments hosting the event, are issues being addressed.
Substituting a satellite broadcast for the physical presence of specialists at regional seminars has been valued by many learners and specialists. Savings in overall travel costs and planning time, and the ability to reach wider audiences with a greater array of speakers and media are among major benefits identified. Covering the added costs of satellite broadcasts and the loss of some segments of the intended audience are concerns not yet resolved.