Crossing the digital divide
By David Petritz, Associate Dean and Director of Purdue Extension
Those of us in Purdue Extension are working toward much the same goal as our predecessors, who were among Indiana's first agricultural Extension agents in the early part of the 20th century--to get reliable information to the people who need it.
What has changed over the generations is the way we deliver that information.
When I joined the Purdue Agriculture faculty nearly 30 years ago as a farm management specialist, Extension communication was mainly person-to-person. It wasn't uncommon to travel four hours to give a 30-minute presentation. In the 1970s, like other agricultural economists, I was on the road five to six days a week for four months, traveling around the state and speaking to large groups of farmers.
A few weeks ago, I had a planning meeting with a group in Hamilton County. But instead of the 1 1/2 hours that it would have taken to drive to the meeting, my commute was reduced to the few seconds that it took to walk upstairs for a videoconference.
What has changed over the years? People. Resources. Technology. Life is more complicated today--families are busier; communities and businesses are more intensely focused. Budget cuts have dramatically pared down the number of Extension specialists available to serve a growing population. And technology has removed the barriers of time and distance.
What hasn't changed is the need for information.
If I'm a farmer and I find a weed in my corn or a bug eating my corn, I still want to know what to do. The difference is I don't have to get in my car and drive somewhere to find out. From the convenience of my kitchen or home office, I can access a weed module on the Purdue Agriculture Web site and learn about weed management. I can send an e-mail to the Extension office in my county and get a question answered. I'm getting the same information as I would get from an Extension educator in my county, but I'm getting it without leaving home. And I have the option of attending a program presented by an Extension specialist at a county meeting or viewing it over the Internet via streaming video.
Purdue Extension has a history of adapting technology to meet the educational needs of Hoosiers. We were early adopters of radio and television technologies and also created one of the first statewide computer systems in the country. So it's no surprise that we would embrace distance education as a means to deliver programs that people want and need and at a time and place that is convenient for them.
In 1999, Indiana legislators provided a $2.8 million state budget appropriation to support Purdue Extension. The funds have been used to provide connectivity for county offices, putting information on the Web that both county-based Extension educators as well as the public can access, regardless of their computer systems.
The state funding also allowed Purdue Extension to develop a new series of educational programs through its 21st Century Initiative that targets priorities identified by citizens at meetings in all 92 Indiana counties. Grants were awarded to faculty and Extension educators to develop programs that respond to high-priority educational needs and incorporate distance learning as a method for delivering information. In addition to programs on agriculture, natural resources, business, family and community development, specific needs such as workforce education for agricultural workers, certification for crop consultants and instruction in new technologies like global information systems are addressed.