June 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB1

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The Influence of Cellular Telephone Usage on the Perceived Role and Functions of County Agents

The purpose of this study was to determine if cellular telephones could help Extension agents become more effective in their work and thereby improve the quality of service while increasing contacts. A research instrument was developed to survey 218 county agents using cellular telephones in their work in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Statistical analysis of the survey data revealed that the use of cellular telephones makes a positive difference in county agents' ability to perform their daily roles and functions. Although the use of cellular telephones did not reduce travel expenditures or miles driven, total contacts with clientele increased significantly.

Jeffrey Clary
County Extension Coordinator
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Auburn, Alabama
Internet address: jclary@acesag.auburn.edu

Bonnie White
Associate Professor, Vocational and Adult Education
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama
Internet address: whitebj@mail.auburn.edu

Greg Mullins
Professor, Department of Cropland Soil Environmental Science
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia
Internet address: gmullins@vt.edu


In the world of ever-changing and increasing technologies, the concept of "doing more with less" has become a reality. Cooperative Extension and Extension agents are faced with this reality daily as the number of agents throughout the nation has decreased over the last 10 years. Requirements of Extension agents have increased dramatically, even though the number of farmers who derive their total income through agricultural pursuits has decreased. Modern Extension agents have assumed many roles, such as consultants, economists, weed scientists, entomologists, pathologists, planners, evaluators, and community development specialists. These expanding roles have led to creative leadership endeavors with mixed results (Williams, 1997; Lowery, 1996; Sisk, 1996; Drost, Long, Wilson, Miller, & Campbell, 1996; Brandon, 1998).

Traditionally, Extension agents seek proactive approaches to changes affecting their clientele (National Research Council, 1989; Minarovic, 1996; Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, 1996; Russell, 1995; Warner, Christensen, Dillman, & Salant, 1996). Agents are constantly looking for new technologies to help them be more effective and efficient. The cellular telephone may hold possibilities of assisting agents to be more productive in their roles and functions by enabling them to stay in contact with their offices and other resource specialists while remaining accessible to their clientele. Communication plays a critical role in agents' abilities to transfer information.


Nationwide, fewer Extension agents are being asked to serve an ever-growing population. Funding seems to be dissipating at all levels: local, state, and federal. The reduced number of agents has resulted in diversified job assignments, thereby resulting in a larger clientele base per agent. Funding cuts have affected travel budgets, causing county agents to be more careful and precise in how their travel is used. Justifying personnel assignments and expenditures is becoming common.

Although new systems exist for use by Extension agents, such as computers, technology-enhanced equipment, satellite downlinks, and the Internet, much Extension work is still done by face-to-face contact through on-farm and home visits. This increase in workload is occurring concomitantly with a decrease in available personnel. Therein lies a growing problem--more people requesting assistance with fewer agents to respond.

The role of Extension agents remains the same; however, methods of achieving that role have changed and have brought new challenges. Being in touch with a larger number of people in more divergent locations is the reality of Extension agents' duties.

The purpose of this study was to determine if cellular telephones could help Extension agents become more effective and efficient in their day-to-day work and thereby improve the quality of the services and the extent of Extension agent contacts. In other words, according to Extension agents' perceptions, could the use of cellular telephones increase agent contacts and have a positive impact on the role and functions of county agents?

Research Procedures

All county Extension agents in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee who use cellular telephones in their work were surveyed. These 218 county agents were identified by each state's Extension director; of these, 20 (five from each state) were used for reliability.

The Likert scale survey addressed several aspects concerning the use of a cellular telephone, including:

  • Costs,
  • The number of contacts before and after acquiring a cellular telephone,
  • Minutes of cellular telephone usage per month, miles traveled per month, and
  • Agents' perceptions of cellular telephone benefits.

The survey was disseminated via e-mail and the Internet. One hundred fifty (150) surveys (75 percent) were returned. Of the 150 returns, work specialties were as follows:

  • Administrators - 19,
  • Agriculture - 93,
  • Family and Consumer Sciences - 19,
  • 4-H - 17, and
  • Community Resource Development - 2.

Data was collected and processed using a database-built survey that automatically collected and tabulated results.

Independent variables (the variables that affect dependent variables) included:

  • Size of the county in square miles,
  • Clientele base,
  • County population,
  • Area of specialization,
  • Number of agents in the county,
  • Agent's total travel budget,
  • Funds for purchase of cellular phone,
  • Funds for monthly charges,
  • Years in Extension,
  • Age and educational level of agents,
  • City populations, and
  • Gender of agents.

Dependent variables included:

  • Total contacts per month,
  • Work miles driven per month,
  • Minutes talked on the cellular phone per month, and
  • Cell phone contacts per month.

The survey instrument also provided space for agents to add personal written comments. Because cellular telephones were a relatively new concept for Extension agents in 1998, the length of time agents had used cellular phones was not considered. The number and percent of agents using cell phones and the agent responses per state are presented in Table 1.

Table 1.

Total Number of Agents and Cell Phone Usage by State


Total Agents

Agents Using Cell Phones

Percent of Cell Phone Users

Responses per State





















Statistical Analysis

Data analysis included a combination of descriptive and conventional statistical tests. When appropriate, effects of independent variables were evaluated using conventional tests to determine if these effects were real and not due to random sampling errors.

Statistical analysis procedures involved a repeated measures design with two treatments--the agents surveyed being the subjects before and after acquiring a cellular telephone. Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was used as the primary statistical method to evaluate the effects of independent variables on the dependent variables using a .05 level of significance (SAS, 1985). For significant differences, coded dependent variable means were separated using Duncan's Multiple Range Test (p 0.05).

Differences in total client contacts and monthly mileage before and after the use of cellular phones were evaluated by applying the single-sample analyses to the difference between the before and after measurements (SAS, 1985). In this procedure, the differences between estimates of total contacts and miles traveled before and after the use of cellular phones were calculated for each agent. The t-test was applied to the paired differences to test the null hypothesis that cellular phone usage had no effect on the total number of contacts or the total miles traveled per month.


Independent variables with a significant statistical difference at the .05 level included:

  • Total agents in the county staff,
  • Areas of specialization,
  • Educational level of agents,
  • County population,
  • Annual travel budget,
  • Funding source for cellular phone purchase and monthly billing, and
  • Gender of agents.

Independent variables with no statistical difference at the .05 level included:

  • Years in Extension,
  • Number of clientele,
  • City population,
  • Size of the county, and
  • Age of agents.

Implications from these findings are discussed under "Conclusions and Recommendations."

The effects of cellular phone use on the total number of agent contacts and the total monthly work-related mileage before and after the acquisition of cellular phones were evaluated using a t-test (Table 2).

Table 2.

Effect of Cellular Phone Use on Monthly Office Contacts, Total Contacts, and Total Monthly Mileage Using a Repeated Measures t-test


Mean difference


Std error


Office contacts (Contacts after minus before)





Total contacts (Contacts after minus before)





Mileage (Mileage after minus before)





Based on these differences, cellular phone usage had no statistically significant effect on monthly mileage or on the slightly higher office contacts. A statistically significant increase, however, occurred in total contacts with cellular phone use. These findings indicate that agents are driving approximately the same number of miles per month, but, by having the phone in the vehicle, agents increased total contacts significantly.

Descriptive statistics were used to evaluate county agents' perceptions of how the use of cellular telephones affected their roles and functions as county agents (Table 3). Facilitation of problem solving (M=2.25) was perceived as the role/function most affected by the use of cellular telephones. The role/functions of information transfer (M=2.60), travel (M=2.92), and total contacts (M=3.00) were perceived as being more affected than meetings (M=3.23), quality of life (M=3.19), or recruiting volunteers (M=3.96).

Table 3.

County Agents' Perceptions of How Cellular Phone Use Has Affected Their Roles and Functions per Likert Scale



No. Responses





Range of Response

Information transfer







Quality of life







Recruiting volunteers







Facilitate problem solving







Travel functions







Meeting functions







Total contacts







*1 = Very great extent; 2 = Great extent; 3 = Moderate extent; 4 = Slight extent; 5 = Not at all

Six questions on the survey allowed space for agents' comments. Comments that strengthened the case for county agents' use of cellular telephones included:

  • Saved repeated trips,
  • More total contacts,
  • Travel more efficient,
  • Reduced mileage,
  • More accessibility,
  • Handles messages on the road,
  • Return calls faster,
  • Increased contacts,
  • Safety, and
  • Security.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Cooperative Extension is an agency in technological transition. Requirements placed on Extension agents have increased dramatically, while agent numbers and financial resources have diminished. Communication continues to be an integral part of a county agent's daily functions.

This survey of cellular telephone usage by county agents in four states determined that the use of cellular telephones can increase the number of agent contacts. Basically, cellular telephones allow agents to be available to their clientele while away from the office. Further evidence of the perceived importance of cellular telephones to Extension agents is the fact that, of the Extension agents using cellular telephones, 56 percent paid for their cellular telephones with personal funds.

Several generalizations resulted from the statistical analysis of this survey:

  • No consistent trends exist across travel budget categories; however, the higher the travel budget, the more miles driven and minutes talked.
  • Male agents typically drive more miles per month than do female agents.
  • The greater the number of agents in counties, the fewer the number of miles driven per agent.
  • Agents with agricultural specialty are driving more, talking on the cellular phone more, contacting more people in the office, and contacting more people in general than their counterparts without cellular telephones.
  • Agents who use cellular telephone funds other than their own for purchase and billing talk more, drive more, and contact more people.
  • Cellular telephone use caused total contacts to increase.
  • The agents' positive comments strengthen the case for cellular telephones to become an integral high-tech tool of Extension agents.

Future study in this area could include a mini-study to gain constituent impressions of effects of Extension staff cell phone usage on the services received. Further studies on the use of new and emerging "technology tools" are also recommended. For example, digital cameras, pagers, cellular telephones, and satellite technology all hold possibilities of enhancing Extension agents' abilities to increase their effectiveness and efficiency in performing their duties while being mindful of health and safety issues.


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