The Journal of Extension - www.joe.org

August 2012 // Volume 50 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW6

The Minnesota Maple Series: Community-Generated Knowledge Delivered Through an Extension Website

Abstract
Extension continuously seeks novel and effective approaches to outreach and education. The recent retirement of a longtime content specialist catalyzed members of University of Minnesota Extension's Forestry team to reflect on our instructional capacity (internal and external) and educational design in the realm of maple syrup production. We responded by developing an educational maple blog series that incorporated faculty and community expertise through a participatory, peer-to-peer approach. The blog series expanded and strengthened the state's maple knowledge network, met contributors' and users' content needs and expectations, influenced maple practices, and retained program flexibility for adaptation.


David S. Wilsey
Assistant Extension Professor and Educator
Cloquet, Minnesota
dwilsey@umn.edu

Julie A. Miedtke
Extension Educator
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
miedt001@umn.edu

Eli Sagor
Associate Extension Professor and Educator
Saint Paul, Minnesota
esagor@umn.edu

Extension Center for Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources
University of Minnesota Extension

Our Challenge

Delivering quality content to family woodland owners to support maple syrup production has long been a priority for University of Minnesota Extension Forestry. The 2010 retirement of our longtime maple specialist challenged our team to restructure our maple-related offerings. We sought novel approaches to deal with several interrelated challenges:

  • Transition content from a beloved and seasoned specialist;
  • Identify and cultivate new instructional capacity inside and outside Extension;
  • Offer quality education designed to foster behavior adoption and change.

With syrup season fast approaching, we sought solutions to address each of these concerns, while allowing future adaptation. We elected to develop a blog series (Kinsey, 2010; Coates, 2004) on the Extension Forestry site My Minnesota Woods <http://www.myminnesotawoods.umn.edu/> and used participatory techniques to enrich the overall blog experience.

Participatory Blogging

The 2011 Minnesota Maple Series (Figure 1) included nine weekly posts, running from 21 February through 21 April, plus a series index. Extension educators developed and coordinated the series; determined overarching themes and specific topics; and contributed content and technical skills. Finally, educators selected and recruited maple syrup producers from around the state as contributors.

Figure 1.
Screen Shot from the 2011 Minnesota Maple Series

Screen Shot from the 2011 Minnesota Maple Series

The series tapped real-world expertise, making it widely available. We felt learners would relate to the experiences of local producers (their peers), chosen to represent diverse geography, production systems, and cultural traditions. This allowed us to cover a range of production considerations in a single series. Weekly posts introduced producers and shared their stories through words and images, reflecting their conditions, approaches, and objectives. This approach developed Extension's relationship with knowledgeable citizens. The technology permitted quick publication of text and images, bringing nearly real-time information to our target audience throughout the season, from both Extension educators and their local peers: active producers.

Results

Website Analytics

We analyzed pageviews, visits, and unique visitors (Figure 2) for all posts with "maple" in the title for the period 1 January - 19 September 2011. While the series ran for only 9e weeks, the expanded window provides context for maple-related site activity. Some of the content analyzed predated the series.

Figure 2.
Understanding Web Metrics Terminology

"Pageview" - A view of a page on your site. A reload counts as an additional pageview.

"Visits" - The number of individual sessions initiated by all the visitors to your site

"Unique visitor" - A visitor that can be declared with a high level of confidence as unique to the site.

- Source: Google Analytics

Table 1 presents data for the most popular maple posts during the period. There were 3,620 pageviews and 1,473 visits. The majority occurred during the series (Figure 3). Unique visitors to posts ranged from 84 to 288 (due to overlap, visitor totals are not added). The most popular was the series index, with 594 pageviews from 288 unique visitors.

How did series traffic compare with the rest of the site? Within the series timeframe, 21 February - 21 April 2011, My Minnesota Woods' most popular post registered 910 pageviews from 434 unique visitors. In the same period, the most popular maple post had 542 pageviews from 267 unique visitors, and the series index was the sixth most viewed page overall, with seven maple posts among the website's top 20 posts.

Table 1.
Site statistics for Maple Blog Posts on My Minnesota Woods, January 1 - September 19 2011

Post Title Post Date Page Views Visits Unique Visitors
2011mapleseries  [series index] n/a 594 247 288
Timber Sweet 3 Mar 2011 495 195 274
Announcing the 2011 Minnesota maple series 21 Feb 2011 427 195 272
Making maple syrup at the Peterson farm 25 Feb 2011 451 205 278
Drinking Maple (non-series) 9 Mar 2009 226 147 174
Poem of the Month: Maple syrup (non-series) 220 114 173
Spirit Lake Native Products 10 Mar 2011 192 80 148
Updates from week of March 14 15 Mar 2011 269 97 165
Fuel systems and updates from week of March 28 31 Mar 2011 129 26 88
Charlie Nahgahnub and Updates 23 Mar 2011 176 45 102
Saps and Syrups in Minnesota  (non-series) 20 Mar 2009 277 n/a 177
Value added products and updates 8 Apr 2011 139 34 84
Our final post 14 Apr 2011 138 33 88
Totals for all "maple" posts   3620 1473  

Figure 3.
Time Series of Total Daily Maple Pageviews for the Period

Time Series of Total Daily Maple Pageviews for the Period

Users

While useful, traffic tells us little about content value. For this, we sought direct feedback from readers. All series posts allowed readers to add questions or comments either below the post or in a linked discussion space. Finally, we linked an evaluation form to each post to elicit directed feedback. Unfortunately, only 18 readers followed the survey link. We believe the embedded survey approach could be better crafted to encourage higher response rates.

Table 2 highlights the results of the evaluation form. Respondents supported our goals of increasing user knowledge and peer connectivity. One shared: "I am in the early years of collecting sap so I do not have anything… to share but have learned a few things." Another wrote: "I just read the blog and it is perfect! In fact, the next email … was a DNR forester from Iowa that had a question!" Most respondents had applied or planned to apply new knowledge in their practice. One commented: "We plan on cooking some sap… and got a very good idea on how to organize the wood under the kettle" [from an embedded photo]. All respondents found the blog appropriate and useful, and nearly all wanted to see more presented in the same format.

Table 2.
Select Results* from the Embedded Survey

Survey Question N Strongly Agree Agree Percent Strongly Agree or Agree
I have learned something about Maple Syrup Production by reading this blog series. 18 9 9 100
This blog series has helped me to connect with (directly or indirectly) or feel connected to another Maple Syrup Producer or Producer Network. 18 9 9 100
I have used or plan to use knowledge acquired through this Blog Series. 18 6 10 89
The authors have clearly presented appropriate and useful information. 18 14 4 100
I would like to see information presented in this way for other forest products or activities that occur throughout the year. 18 12 5 94
*As of 20 September 2011

Producers

We also obtained feedback from two of our four featured producers. Both found the series and their involvement worthwhile. One shared: "It was interesting to see other producers' experiences." Producers found the series to be "an easy way for us to help people," and Extension's involvement allowed them to contribute in a time-constrained season. One commented: "The blog made us aware that there [are] other ways to reach out to people and share our love of making maple syrup." Producers would have appreciated more insight into traffic on their content, which can easily be provided. Overall, producers responded positively and showed interest in future participation in similar offerings.

Internal

Finally, participating faculty met to evaluate the experience, ex post. Engaging community experts in program delivery was a clear positive, as was integration of existing resources (e.g., national and regional publications, online content, etc.) with real-time local content. A noted challenge was the time investment for series development and delivery, including site visits and production of weekly posts.

Summary

Participatory blogging represents a powerful tool for content development and delivery. It strategically pairs Extension's content expertise with community expertise. Likewise, it develops and reinforces university-community partnerships. Community participation also offers a means to engineer diversity into programs. Finally, a series builds and sustains energy around an issue over a period of time. We recommend the approach where knowledge is decentralized and/or community based and when learning opportunities develop over discrete timeframes. Examples might include various garden projects, county and state fair season, or seasonal gathering (e.g., balsam bough/wreath making season). Finally, we recommend that educators budget accordingly for time commitments associated with new technologies and production.

References

Coates, D. (2004). Weblogs as a disruptive technology for Extension. Journal of Extension [On-line], 42(3) Article 3COM1. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2004june/comm1.php

Kinsey, J. (2010). Five social media tools for the Extension toolbox. Journal of Extension [On-line], 48(5) Article 5TOT7. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2010october/tt7.php