June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2
County Extension Agents' Perceptions of eXtension
In 2006, an Internet resource known as eXtension was launched. The online resource represents the realization of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy's (ECOP) vision to develop a resource with the potential to increase Cooperative Extension's Internet presence. The purpose of the study reported here was to describe the perceptions of eXtension held by Texas Cooperative Extension county Extension agents. Agents had positive perceptions of relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, and trialability as those characteristics related to eXtension. The findings provide a baseline for studying the adoption of eXtension and offer an explanation of factors affecting the adoption process.
Doing business via the Internet is both realistic and potentially essential for success in the 21st century. As of April 2006, 73% of American households with telephone access reported (at least) occasional use of the Internet (Madden, 2006). This number is expected to continue growing into the foreseeable future. By taking advantage of this trend and using the Internet as an educational tool, increases in the overall functionality of the entire Cooperative Extension system can be recognized (Tennessen, PonTell, Romine, & Motheral, 1997).
In 2002, an Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) report, The Extension System: A Vision for the 21st Century, called for Extension personnel to move aggressively into the world of information technology. Since that time, the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) and many of the 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions have joined together to develop an Internet delivery strategy known as eXtension, available at: http://www.extension.org. The aforementioned institutions provide the bulk of eXtension's four million dollar annual budget. eXtension is administrated by a single director and a small staff, with oversight from ECOP, a governing committee and multiple advisory councils.
Content for eXtension is provided by teams of Extension experts, called "Communities of Practice," from around the country. The modules they develop are placed online in a wide variety of formats, including text and video. eXtension was developed to (a) increase the economic efficiency of the current Extension model by eliminating redundant educational efforts, (b) increase the profitability of Cooperative Extension, (c) raise consumers' awareness of Cooperative Extension, and (d) provide an instantly accessible information resource to increase customer satisfaction (Accenture, 2003). In short, eXtension could be the key to increasing the relevance of Extension for future generations of clientele.
Theoretical Framework & Literature Review
The theoretical framework for this research was based upon Rogers' (2003) theory of the diffusion of innovations. Rogers' theory states that innovations diffuse through a social system over time. There are five characteristics that influence how rapidly an innovation is diffused into a social system: (a) relative advantage, (b) compatibility, (c) complexity, (d) observability, and (e) trialability (Rogers, 2003). Of these five, relative advantage and compatibility are considered to have the most influence on the rate of adoption (Rogers, 2003). Innovations that are perceived by individuals to have low complexity, with high relative advantage, compatibility, observability, and trialability, diffuse most rapidly.
Technology is increasingly a part of an Extension agent's daily activities (Gregg & Irani, 2004). A brief review of the Journal of Extension uncovered numerous examples of technology utilized by agents (Carroll & Lovejoy, 2005; Gustafson & Crane, 2005; Hoffman Tepper, & Roebuck, 2006; Kallioranta, Vlosky, & Leavengood, 2006; Massey, Jaskolski, & Sweets, 2005). Previous experience with technology should increase the compatibility of eXtension.
Seevers (1999) investigated the beliefs and organizational values of New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service employees. Seevers found employees extremely valued things such as (a) honesty/integrity in their work, (b) credibility with clientele, and (c) helping people to help themselves. Safrit, Conklin, and Jones (2003) examined the organizational values of Extension educators in Ohio over a 10-year period. They found, despite a significant investment of time and money, efforts to increase the degree to which employees behaved in ways consistent with certain organizational values were largely unsuccessful, resulting in little to no gain (Safrit et al., 2003). Safrit, Conklin, and Jones concluded that difficulty in changing the organizational culture may have affected the success of those efforts. This is consistent with Rogers' (2003) theory, which states that some innovations, despite clear benefits for adopters, fail to diffuse due to clashes with cultural norms. Efforts to promote the adoption of eXtension may be unsuccessful if Extension agents do not view eXtension as compatible with the organizational culture.
Although eXtension is primarily geared towards clientele needs, it is also expected to be a resource for agents (Accenture, 2003). A survey of human and family Extension educators revealed a majority of the respondents were interested in participating in online professional development; almost 25% were already doing so (Senyurekli, Dworkin, & Dickinson, 2006). Further, educators indicated they needed professional development opportunities that were convenient and did not exceed their desired time commitment. eXtension has the potential to fulfill these needs, thereby enhancing the possibility Extension agents will see the innovation as compatible.
Previous studies have suggested Extension agents need professional development and in-service opportunities to strengthen their computer skills (Albright, 2000; Courson, 1999). However, agents perceived themselves to be competent in the use of the Internet to find information (Courson, 1999). A lack of computer skills could increase the perceived complexity of eXtension, but Extension agents may feel very comfortable accessing eXtension as an information resource. Due to this conflict, it remains unclear how agents will perceive the complexity of eXtension.
Purpose & Methods
Agent acceptance of eXtension is imperative for the program to be successful (Accenture, 2003). The findings presented in this article are part of a larger study undertaken to understand the influence of selected factors on the adoption of eXtension by Texas Cooperative Extension county Extension agents (Harder, 2007). (See "An Assessment of County Extension Agents' Adoption of eXtension," Harder & Lindner, 2008, [this issue] for more findings from the study.) The section of the study presented here was descriptive in nature. The objective was to determine agents' perceptions of eXtension based upon Rogers' (2003) characteristics of an innovation (relative advantage, compatibility, observability, complexity, and trialability).
The target population was Texas Cooperative Extension county Extension agents employed in 2007. According to the Texas Cooperative Extension office, there were 533 county agents (K. A. Bryan, personal communication, February 12, 2007). Cochran's (1977) formula was used to determine the sample size (N = 237) for the study. County Extension agents were randomly selected to participate (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007).
An online questionnaire was used to collect data. The original instrument was developed by Li (2004) to examine the diffusion of distance education at the China Agricultural University. Li's original instrument was modified by the researcher to fit the context of eXtension, based upon selected studies from the review of literature (Li, 2004; Rogers, 2003; Seevers, 1999). It was then converted to an online format.
The instrument was reviewed for content validity by a panel of experts composed of faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Education, Leadership, and Communications at Texas A&M University and the national marketing director of eXtension. A pilot study was conducted to test face validity and establish reliability. Following the expert panel review and pilot study, the wording for several statements was modified and additional statements were added to increase the likelihood of obtaining valid and reliable results.
Participants were asked to rate 28 statements based upon a six-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree). The scale was interpreted as follows: Strongly Disagree = 1.00 - 1.50, Disagree = 1.51 - 2.50, Somewhat Disagree = 2.51 - 3.50, Somewhat Agree = 3.51 - 4.50, Agree = 4.51 - 5.50, Strongly Agree = 5.51 - 6.00. Rogers' (2003) characteristics of an innovation were used to categorize the statements into constructs as follows: (a) relative advantage, (b) compatibility, (c) observability, (d) trialability, and (e) complexity. Table 1 includes a sample of the statements from the instrument.
|Cooperative Extension will become more popular due to the addition of eXtension.||Relative Advantage|
|eXtension supports the mission of Cooperative Extension.||Compatibility|
|eXtension seems difficult to use.||Complexity|
|I can select the features of eXtension that I want to use.||Trialability|
|It will be easy for other Agents to observe if I am using eXtension.||Observability|
The reliability of the instrument was tested by calculating Cronbach's alpha coefficient for each internal scale (Cronbach, 1951). A reliability level of .80 or higher was considered acceptable (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007). Reliability levels for the internal scales are presented in Table 2.
|Internal Scale||α Levels|
|Note: Reliability levels ≥
.80 were considered acceptable.|
aOriginal α level was .758; one item was deleted.
Participants were contacted via e-mail using to the tailored design method prescribed by Dillman (2000). Of the original 237 addresses, 236 were valid. A final response rate of 66.90% (N = 158) was obtained. Eight participants opted out. There were 25 responses removed due to missing or incomplete data, reducing the number of usable responses to 125.
Non-response error was controlled by comparing early to late respondents. No significant differences existed for perceptions of relative advantage, compatibility, observability, or trialability. Based upon the lack of significant differences between early and late respondents for the aforementioned primary variables of interest, it was concluded the results for those variables could be generalized to the target population (Lindner, Murphy, & Briers, 2001). However, findings related to the variable of observability are limited to the sample due to the significant difference between early and late respondents.
The majority of respondents had primary responsibilities in the areas of agriculture (n = 45), family and consumer sciences (n = 39), and 4-H/youth development (n = 26). There were fewer agents in the areas of horticulture (n = 8) and natural resources (n = 3). No respondents reported community development as a primary agent role. All of the respondents had obtained a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Most (84.8%) of the agents were at least 30 years of age. Approximately 46% of respondents were female, and 51% were male.
Descriptive statistics were used to report agents' perceptions of eXtension according to the characteristics of an innovation: (a) relative advantage, (b) compatibility, (c) complexity, (d) trialability, and (e) observability (Rogers, 2003).
The objective was to describe agents' perceptions of eXtension based upon Rogers' (2003) characteristics of an innovation (relative advantage, compatibility, observability, complexity, and trialability). On a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree), agents tended to somewhat agree eXtension was not complex (M = 4.48, SD = .77), was compatible with their values and beliefs (M = 4.35, SD = .87), was trialable (M = 4.11, SD = .88), and had a relative advantage (M = 3.75, SD = .82). Agents somewhat disagreed eXtension was observable (M = 2.85, SD = .98). A summary of the means and standard deviations for each construct is provided in Table 3.
|Note: N = 125. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Responses for the eight relative advantage items ranged from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" on a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Table 4 displays the means and standard deviations for each item. Respondents tended to somewhat agree with the statement, "eXtension increases the accessibility of Cooperative Extension programming" (M = 4.35, SD = 1.01). They tended to somewhat disagree with the statement, "I envision spending less time answering routine questions by referring clientele to eXtension" (M = 2.87, SD = 1.28).
|Relative Advantage Items||N||M||SD|
|eXtension increases the accessibility of Cooperative Extension programming.||125||4.35||1.01|
|I envision finding information faster by using eXtension as a resource.||125||4.16||1.10|
|eXtension is a cost-savings effort that prevents duplication of efforts.||125||3.98||1.02|
|Using eXtension as a resource will make doing my job easier.||124||3.86||1.03|
|Cooperative Extension could become more popular due to the addition of eXtension.||125||3.83||1.01|
|eXtension creates more funding opportunities for Cooperative Extension.||125||3.69||1.07|
|eXtension provides agents with more time to serve traditional clientele.||123||3.26||1.23|
|I envision spending less time answering routine questions by referring clientele to eXtension.||124||2.87||1.28|
|Note: Overall M = 3.75, SD = .82. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Responses for the four compatibility items ranged from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" on a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Table 5 displays the means and standard deviations for each item. Respondents tended to agree with the statement "eXtension provides research-based information to the public" (M = 4.86, SD = .94). They somewhat agreed with the statement "eXtension can be used to cultivate sustainable relationships in the community" (M = 3.80, SD = 1.28).
|eXtension provides research-based information to the public.||125||4.86||.94|
|eXtension supports the mission of Cooperative Extension.||125||4.66||.99|
|Online programs are an acceptable way for Cooperative Extension to deliver programs.||125||4.41||1.23|
|My vision for the future of Cooperative Extension includes eXtension.||124||4.27||1.14|
|eXtension will allow me to deliver programs based upon the needs of clientele.||125||4.07||1.01|
|eXtension can be used to cultivate sustainable relationships in the community.||125||3.80||1.28|
|Note: Overall M = 4.35, SD = .87. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Responses for the three observability items ranged from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" on a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Table 6 displays the means and standard deviations for each item. Respondents tended to somewhat disagree with each observability item.
|Agents will easily be able to identify people who are involved in eXtension.||125||3.14||1.10|
|The official eXtension website is well-publicized.||125||2.74||1.09|
|eXtension is a highly visible program.||125||2.69||1.08|
|Note: Overall M = 2.85, SD = .98. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Responses for the four complexity items ranged from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" on a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Table 7 displays the means and standard deviations for each item. Respondents tended to agree with the statements, "E-mail is a tool that I am comfortable using" (M = 5.19, SD = .95), "Using online resources to access information is easy for me" (M = 4.68, SD = 1.03), and "I am good at navigating websites to find the information I need" (M = 4.66, SD = 1.13).
|E-mail is a tool that I am comfortable using.||125||5.19||.95|
|Using online resources to access information is easy for me.||125||4.68||1.03|
|I am good at navigating websites to find the information I need.||125||4.66||1.13|
|It will be easy for me to download information from eXtension to my computer.||125||4.42||1.07|
|Using eXtension seems simple.||125||3.98||.92|
|eXtension seems user-friendly.||125||3.97||.91|
|Note: Overall M = 4.48, SD = .77. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Responses for the four trialability items ranged from strongly disagree to strongly agree, on a six-point scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Table 8 displays the means and standard deviations for each item. Respondents somewhat agreed with all of the trialability items.
|I can use eXtension without committing to develop new materials for it.||124||4.20||.94|
|I can test key features of eXtension with no obligation for continued or future use.||125||4.10||.94|
|I can select the features of eXtension that I want to use.||125||4.08||.94|
|I will be able to define the terms of my use of eXtension, if any.||124||4.06||.95|
|Note: Overall M = 4.11, SD = .88. Scale: 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Somewhat Disagree, 4 = Somewhat Agree, 5 = Agree, 6 = Strongly Agree.|
Conclusions & Implications
The objective was to describe agents' perceptions of eXtension based upon Rogers' (2003) characteristics of an innovation. Respondents had positive perceptions of relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, and trialability as those characteristics related to eXtension. They had the most positive perceptions of complexity. They did not perceive eXtension to have a high degree of observability.
Rogers (2003) identified subdimensions of relative advantage such as a decrease in discomfort and a saving of time and effort. Respondents somewhat agreed eXtension would make their jobs easier. They indicated eXtension might increase the accessibility of Cooperative Extension programming, which is consistent with one of the goals of the program (Accenture, 2003).
However, eXtension was not perceived to save time and effort for agents. They somewhat disagreed with the statements "eXtension provides agents with more time to serve traditional clientele" (M = 3.26, SD = 1.23) and "I envision spending less time answering routine questions by referring clientele to eXtension" (M = 2.87, SD = 1.28). eXtension's failure to save time and effort represents a serious drawback of the system, as previous research has found agents struggle with the issue of time management (Harder & Wingenbach, 2007; Place, Jacob, Summerhill, & Arrington, 2000). The rate of adoption may be slowed if agents perceive this to decrease eXtension's relative advantage (Rogers, 2003).
Rogers (2003) said innovations that are compatible with the ideas, values, beliefs, and experiences of potential adopters will have faster rates of adoption. Previous research identified core values of Cooperative Extension, including honesty and integrity, credibility with clientele, and high standards for educational programming (e.g., Safrit, Conklin, & Jones, 2003; Seevers, 1999). Respondents indicated they perceived eXtension was somewhat compatible with those values. They agreed eXtension was supportive of Cooperative Extension's mission. The rate of adoption for eXtension should be faster due to eXtension's compatibility with agents' beliefs and values.
Complex innovations have lower rates of adoption (Rogers, 2003). eXtension was not perceived to be complex by agents despite previous research that found agents needed to strengthen their computer skills (Albright, 2000; Courson, 1999). The items in this study referred directly to the use of e-mail and the Internet, which may account for the disparity. However, the findings from this study support Gregg and Irani's (2004) conclusion that Extension agents are increasingly using technology in their daily activities. eXtension should not be inhibited by agents' perceptions of its complexity.
Innovations that can be tested on a trial basis have improved rates of adoption (Rogers, 2003). Respondents had positive perceptions of eXtension's trialability. This was unexpected, given the necessity to obtain a username and password in order to access certain eXtension materials, such as "Ask an Expert." The inherent trialability of eXtension is limited by such a requirement, because it forces the user to make a commitment before experimenting with the innovation. Agents may not have used eXtension enough to be aware of the need to register, or they may have had enough familiarity with their own state-based, online Extension resource to substitute that experience in lieu of hands-on experience with eXtension. Regardless, the respondents' positive perceptions of eXtension's trialability should relate positively with its rate of adoption.
The final characteristic, observability, was negatively perceived by respondents. Rogers (2003) said observability is positively related to an innovation's rate of adoption. The negative perceptions of eXtension's observability would be expected to inhibit the rate of adoption. Agents reported (a) it would be somewhat difficult to identify people involved in eXtension, (b) the official eXtension Web site was not well publicized, and (c) eXtension was not highly visible. These perceptions should be considered a threat to the adoption of eXtension for this sample population.
The following recommendations are intended to increase agents' perceptions of relative advantage, trialability, and observability, respectively. These recommendations are based upon the assumption that increasing agents' adoption of eXtension is a desirable outcome, as might be inferred from the positive perceptions of eXtension reported in the study reported here. Agents should be educated to incorporate eXtension into their daily job responsibilities in ways that will help them save time and effort. They should be provided with temporary guest access to eXtension without requiring registration. Finally, the marketing efforts for eXtension need to be improved so that it becomes more visible to agents.
Future studies are recommended to determine the primary needs of agents, because the adoption of eXtension depends largely upon how well the innovation can address those needs. Research should determine which methods are most effective for increasing the visibility of eXtension. Such studies will be informative for improving efforts to encourage the adoption of eXtension.
Accenture. (2003, November). e-Extension pre-select business case. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Albright, B. B. (2000). Cooperative Extension and the information technology era: An assessment of current competencies and future training needs of county extension agents. Dissertation Abstracts International, 61(7), 2668A. (UMI No. 9980102)
Carroll, N., & Lovejoy, S. (2005). Using technology to survey new audiences. Journal of Extension [On-line], 43(6) Article 6IAW2. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2005december/iw2.shtml
Cochran, W. G. (1977). Sampling techniques (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Courson, J. L. (1999). An assessment of the computer-related skills needed and possessed by county extension professionals in the Mississippi State University Extension service. Dissertation Abstracts International, 60(9), 3239A. (UMI No. 9946324)
Cronbach, L. J. (1951). Coefficient alpha and the internal structure of tests. Psychometrika,16, 297-334.
Dillman, D. A. (2000). Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. (2002). The extension system: A vision for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2007). Education research: An introduction (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
Gregg, J. A., & Irani, T. A. (2004). Use of information technology by county extension agents of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. Journal of Extension [On-line], 42(3). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2004june/rb2.shtml
Gustafson, C., & Crane, L. (2005). Polling your audience with wireless technology. Journal of Extension [On-line], 43(6) Article 6TOT3. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2005december/tt3.shtml
Harder, A. (2007). Characteristics and barriers impacting the diffusion of eXtension among Texas Cooperative Extension county extension agents. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX.
Harder, A., & Wingenbach, G. (2007). Texas 4-H agents' perceptions of selected competencies in the 4-H Professional Research, Knowledge, and Competency model. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Association for Agricultural Education, 34, 445-455.
Hoffman Tepper, K., & Roebuck, J. (2006). Building partnerships for youth: An online youth development resource center. Journal of Extension [On-line], 44(2) Article 2TOT4. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2006april/tt4.shtml
Kallioranta, S. M., Vlosky, R. P., & Leavengood, S. (2006). Web-based communities as a tool for Extension and outreach. Journal of Extension [On-line], 44(2) Article 2FEA4. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2006april/a4.shtml
Li, Y. (2004). Faculty perceptions about attributes and barriers impacting diffusion of web-based distance education (WBDE) at the China Agricultural University. Dissertation Abstracts International, 65(7), 2460A. (UMI No. 3141422).
Lindner, J. R., Murphy, T. H., & Briers, G. E. (2001). Handling nonresponse in social science research. Journal of Agricultural Education, 42(4), 43-53.
Madden, M. (2006). Internet penetration and impact. Pew Internet & American Life Project Report. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life.
Massey, R., Jaskolski, N., & Sweets, L. (2005). The use of personal response transmitters in Extension settings. Journal of Extension [On-line], 43(6) Article 6TOT3. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2005december/tt4.shtml
Place, N. T., Jacob, S. G., Summerhill, W. R., & Arrington, L. R. (2000). Balancing work and family: Professional development needs of extension faculty. Proceedings of the 27th Annual National Agricultural Education Research Conference, 180-192. San Diego, CA.
Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Safrit, R. D., Conklin, N. L., & Jones, J. M. (2003). A longitudinal study of the evolution of organizational values of Ohio State University extension educators. Journal of Extension [On-line], 41(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2003october/rb1.shtml
Seevers, B. (1999). Organizational values of New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service employees. Proceedings of the 26th Annual National Agricultural Research Conference, 421-430. Orlando, FL.
Senyurekli, A. R., Dworkin, J., & Dickinson, J. (2006). On-line professional development for extension educators. Journal of Extension [On-line], 44(3) Article 3RIB1. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2006june/rb1.shtml
Tennessen, D. J., PonTell, S., Romine, V., & Motheral, S. W. (1997). Opportunities for Cooperative Extension and local communities in the information age. Journal of Extension [On-line], 35(5). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1997october/comm1.html