June 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB1

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On-Line Professional Development for Extension Educators

Abstract
In an environment of widespread budget decreases for Extension, we examine how interested and capable Extension educators are for on-line professional development. We also explore which factors are most important when deciding to participate in a professional development opportunity and what content areas are of most interest. Results indicate that nearly all of the participants surveyed are interested in on-line professional development and find content to be the most important factor. They are most interested in topics like youth development and risk-behaviors. We discuss the findings and outline recommendations for offering an effective on-line course.


Aysem R. Senyurekli
Doctoral Student
Department of Family Social Science
kara0100@umn.edu

Jodi Dworkin
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist
Department of Family Social Science
jdworkin@umn.edu

Joel Dickinson
Information Technology Professional
College of Human Ecology Administration
jdickins@che.umn.edu

University of Minnesota
St. Paul


Introduction

Extension is experiencing wide-spread budget decreases across the country. This has led to a reduction in field staff, who are now being asked to take on more responsibilities with less support. As a result, the need for professional development is increasing (Radhakrishna, 2001). Unfortunately, budget decreases can mean limited funds available for Extension educators to participate in traditional face-to-face workshops and trainings. On-line learning can provide a less expensive and more convenient alternative. Research has shown that Extension educators are interested in distance education in general (Conklin, Hook, Kelbaugh, & Nieto, 2002; Edwards, McLucas, Briers, & Rohs, 2004) and on-line education in particular (Sherfey, Hiller, Macduff, & Mack, 2000). In this present article, we provide further evidence for the growing interest in and capability for on-line education.

Background

Nearly 72 million American adults use the Internet for school or training (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2004). This type of instruction has several advantages. First, for those who have difficulties accessing traditional face-to-face courses due to lack of time or geographic location, on-line courses can provide access from any computer that has the necessary technology (Brown & Green, 2003). This might be especially pertinent for Extension educators who work in rural areas. Second, depending on the way it is offered, on-line courses can also allow learners to proceed through course content at their own pace on their own time, without being restricted by the instructor or other participants. This is critical in that it enables learners to master each section or module before proceeding to the next (Santovec, 2004).

Research has shown that Extension educators in particular are interested in on-line learning. Washington State University Extension surveyed 300 individuals who manage volunteers and found both a need for and interest in on-line distance training (Sherfey, Hiller, Macduff, & Mack, 2000). The study revealed that participants had difficulties obtaining the training they needed face-to-face due to factors like cost, time off from work, and travel necessities. Although most had no prior experience with distance learning, they had access to the necessary technology through work.

Similarly, a survey of Georgia Extension agents revealed that nearly three-fourths of the 365 agents surveyed were interested in pursuing distance education (Edwards, McLucas, Briers, & Rohs, 2004). The majority could access courses through computers at both work and home, and many had high-speed or fast dial-up Internet access. More than half of the agents surveyed were interested in taking a specific course instead of a degree or certificate program.

The authors of the study described here suggest that future research should explore which particular topics would be of interest to Extension agents. Building on past research, we outline which factors Extension educators think are important when deciding whether or not to participate in a professional development course and what content areas are of most interest to them.

Method

An on-line survey was developed to assess various factors involving the professional development of Extension educators. In particular, Extension educators were asked to:

  1. Report how they currently meet their professional development needs;

  2. Rate their level of interest in on-line professional development;

  3. Describe their access to technology;

  4. Rate how likely they are to participate in an on-line professional development opportunity offered by the University of Minnesota Extension Service;

  5. Rate the level of importance they place on several factors that affect their involvement in professional development activities; and

  6. Identify the professional development topics that are of most interest to them.

An electronic mail message was sent to a list serve of all human and family development Extension specialists across the country. Specialists were asked to forward the survey to all Extension field staff and family educators with whom they work. Because there is no way to know how many individuals ultimately received the survey, it is not possible to identify a response rate.

One hundred and fifty-seven educators from 14 states completed the on-line survey (Table 1). Six participants did not identify which state they were from. The greatest percentage of participants was Extension field staff (Table 2). Because the overwhelming majority was employed by the Cooperative Extension Service, participants are referred to throughout this manuscript as Extension educators.

Table 1.
Extension Educators Who Completed the Survey by State

State

Participants (%)

Arizona

8.9

Illinois

15.9

Kansas

15.3

Kentucky

0.6

Maryland

7.0

Massachusetts

0.6

Minnesota

1.3

Missouri

7.6

Nevada

3.8

North Carolina

9.6

Ohio

7.6

Pennsylvania

14.0

South Carolina

3.2

Utah

0.6

 

Table 2.
Extension Educators Who Completed the Survey by Role Within Extension

State

Participants (%)

Field staff

73.9

Specialists

14.0

Administrators

6.4

Unknown

4.5

Non-Extension outreach

1.3

 

Results

How Extension Educators Meet Their Professional Development Needs

Nearly all the Extension educators surveyed currently use workshops or seminars as one way of fulfilling their professional development expectations (Table 3). Close to three fourths of all participants use methods that incorporate technology, including video conferencing, on-line classes, and interactive television.

Table 3.
Professional Development Methods Used by Participants
(Note: participants were asked to "check all that apply")

Method

Participants (%)

Workshops or seminars

97.5

Traditional classroom courses

43.3

Video conferences

40.1

On-line classes

24.2

Interactive television

10.2

 

Level of Interest in On-line Professional Development

Results indicate that of the157 Extension educators surveyed, over 95% are "very interested" (40.1%) or "interested" (55.4%) in participating in professional development opportunities available on-line versus attending a traditional class or workshop. Of those who currently use workshops or seminars to meet their professional development expectations, 95.5% are "very interested" (39.9%) or "interested" (55.6%) in participating in on-line professional development opportunities versus a traditional class or workshop. Those who already use on-line classes seem to find some benefit in them, as 97.3% of these individuals are "very interested" (60.5%) or "interested" (36.8%) in continuing to use on-line classes versus traditional classes or workshops.

Factors Impacting Decisions About Professional Development Opportunities

Participants responded to questions about the impacts of their decision to participate in a professional development opportunity. When asked, "when you consider attending an event for professional development, what factors are most important to you," participants most frequently identified "content" as the most important factor, "convenience" and "time commitment necessary" as the second most important factors, and "convenience" as third most important (Table 4). For over one third of respondents, price did not seem to be a top priority. Not only was it identified most frequently as the fourth most important factor (Table 4), but no pattern was identified as to how much participants would expect to pay for one hour of professional development (Table 5). The factor most frequently chosen as the least important was "opportunity to network."

Table 4.
Most Important (MI) Factors When Considering Participating in a Professional Development Opportunity

Factors

MI (%)

2nd MI (%)

3rd MI (%)

4th MI (%)

Least important (%)

Content

65.6

18.5

9.6

5.1

0.6

Convenience

12.1

21.7

27.4

15.3

10.8

Opportunity to network

4.5

12.7

10.8

22.9

27.4

Pre-approval by supervisor

1.3

3.2

4.5

3.8

13.4

Price

8.3

21.0

22.9

24.8

13.4

Time commitment necessary

7.6

21.7

22.3

21.0

20.4

 

Table 5.
What Extension Educators Are Willing to Pay for One Hour of Professional Development

Cost

Participants (%)

Less than $15

26.1

$15

23.6

$20

26.8

More than $25

21.0

 

Technological Access

Participants responded to a series of questions assessing their technological connectivity. Over 80% of all participants reported that they would log in to a computer from work if taking an on-line class. Consequently, it is not surprising that close to 60% have some sort of high-speed Internet access, such as DSL (27.4%), T1 lines (23.6%), or a cable modem (8.9%). In addition, 75.8% of those surveyed currently use Internet Explorer to connect on-line.

Participation in an On-Line Professional Development Opportunity in the Future

Having the technological capability to participate in an on-line course is necessary but not sufficient for participation. Learners must also be interested in and willing to use on-line learning opportunities. Nearly three-fourths of all participants surveyed are "very likely" (21.0%) or "likely" (51.0%) to participate in an on-line professional development opportunity offered by the University of Minnesota Extension Service in the next 2 years. In fact, 71.5% of those who do not currently use on-line methods are "very likely" (15.5%) or "likely" (56.0%) to participate in an on-line professional development opportunity provided by the University of Minnesota Extension Service in the future.

Professional Development Topics of Most Interest

Participants were asked to review a list of 17 topics and identify which topics they would be most interested in receiving professional development around (Table 6). When asked to select those that were of most interest, participants most frequently identified "youth development" and "health and nutrition" as their first choice, "youth risk behaviors" and "youth development" as their second choice, and "decision-making" as their third choice. When asked to self-identify other professional development topics of interest, several of the participants identified "childhood obesity" and "immigrants."

Table 6.
Professional Development Topics of Most Interest

Topics

1st choice (%)

2nd choice (%)

3rd choice (%)

Age

8.3

3.2

5.7

Bullying

7.0

1.3

2.5

Child care

3.8

3.2

3.8

Communication

1.9

5.7

4.5

Culture

1.3

8.3

3.2

Decision-making

2.5

3.8

12.1

Divorce/remarriage/step families

5.1

3.2

3.2

Family life education

2.5

7.0

3.2

Family relationships

2.5

5.7

5.7

Family resource management

7.6

5.7

5.7

Health & nutrition

17.8

3.8

5.7

Immigrants/refugees

0.0

1.9

1.3

Out of school time

7.0

5.7

7.6

Parent education

5.7

2.5

2.5

Parenting

2.5

5.1

7.0

School/education

1.3

2.5

7.6

Single parent families

0.0

2.5

1.3

Youth development

18.5

10.8

6.4

Youth risk behaviors

3.8

15.9

5.1

 

Conclusion

Although nearly all the Extension educators surveyed currently use workshops or seminars as one way of fulfilling their professional development expectations, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed are interested in participating in on-line professional development. Nearly 25% of all participants are already using on-line courses to fulfill their professional development expectations, and those that are not have the interest and technological means to do so. With respect to the factors that are most important for Extension educators when deciding to participate in a professional development opportunity, content, convenience, and time commitment necessary were ranked as the most important, respectively. Youth development, youth risk behaviors, and decision-making were the top three choices of professional development topics of interest, respectively.

Limitations

The high level of interest this sample had in on-line professional development may not be representative of Extension educators nationwide. Because participants could only access, complete, and submit the survey on-line, this select group of Educators who responded may have an affinity for using the Internet. The geographical location, budget constraints, and technical training of other Extension educators might not be as conducive to engaging in on-line professional development opportunities as they were for this group.

Recommendations for Teaching On-Line Courses

The growing evidence that on-line education might be a viable option for Extension educators prompts us to consider ways to make this type of education a success. For those interested in offering an on-line professional development course, there are several key points to keep in mind.

The first is to make the topic relevant. This includes choosing a topic that is known in advance to be of interest to the target audience. It also means sorting through what is probably a vast body of knowledge on that topic and only placing the most relevant pieces on-line (Carter, 2004). The importance of this point is underscored by the findings in the study described here; content was found to be the most important factor for Extension educators when deciding to participate in a professional development opportunity.

The second key point is to reward participation. Just as is the case with a face-to-face course, the audience needs to be motivated to stay engaged in the course. Engagement can be encouraged in a variety of ways, from entering participants in drawings if they contribute to on-line discussions, to offering certificates at the end of the course or providing continuing education units (Carter, 2004).

The third key point is to teach technological literacy. Just because the audience has the technology necessary to access the course does not mean they have the skills needed to maneuver easily through the course. Offering an orientation course or providing access to volunteers who can assist participants throughout the course can make an on-line education experience more pleasant (Carter, 2004). Creating a site navigation interface that is intuitive to participants, appropriate for the course, and consistent with general web standards and practices (e.g., placing main navigation options on left side of page) can also help participants through this process.

Last, it is important that the facilitator be prepared to teach an on-line course. He or she should work closely with someone who has the technological skills necessary to help address problems should they arise. The facilitator should also build face-to-face meetings into the course if needed (Carter, 2004). This is an important consideration if there are participants in the course who have little social interaction with their peers outside of face-to-face seminars or trainings (e.g., educators who work in rural areas). An online course could further limit their opportunities of learning from their peers (Brown & Green, 2003).

Facilitators in this situation could offer a blended course. These courses combine on-line instruction with live interaction. The course begins and ends with a face-to-face meeting between all the participants and the facilitator; all that is in between is completed by the participant at his or her own pace and location in an on-line environment. As a result, the participant can benefit both from the flexibility of on-line education and the social interaction of face-to-face meetings (Carter, 2004). If the goal is to increase social interaction between participants, technologies such as blogs (Web logs), message boards, chat rooms, Web casting, and customized synchronous environments can also be viable options.

Acknowledgements

Data collection and analysis were supported by the Office of Continuing Professional Studies in the College of Human Ecology at the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

References

Brown, A., & Green, T. (2003). Showing up to class in pajamas (or less!): The fantasies and realities of on-line professional development courses for teachers. The Clearing House, 76(3) 148-51.

Carter, K. (2004). Online training: What's really working? Technology & Learning, 24 (10) 32-6.

Conklin, N.L., Hook, L.L., Kelbaugh, J.B., Nieto, R.D. (2002). Examining a professional development system: A comprehensive needs assessment approach. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2002october/a1.shtml

Edwards, C.M., McLucas, B., Briers, G.E., & Rohs, F.R. (2004). Educational interests of Extension agents: Implications for the delivery of educational programming at a distance. Journal of Extension [On-line], 42(1). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2004february/a5.shtml

Internet Activities. (May-June 2004). Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved January 14, 2005 from http://www.pewinternet.org/trends/Internet_Activities_4.23.04.htm

Radhakrishna, R.B. (2001). Professional development needs of state Extension Specialists. Journal of Extension [On-line], 39(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2001october/rb4.html

Santovec, M.L. (2004). Doing online professional development Online. Distance Education Report, 8(18) 4, 7.

Sherfey, L. E. B., Hiller, J., Macduff, N., & Mack, N. (2000). Washington State University on-line management certification program. Journal of Extension [On-line], 38 (4). Available at: http://joe.org/joe/2000august/tt1.html