Dramatic changes in the way people live and use information have been major factors behind the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's decision to transform the way it delivers educational programs to its clientele, says an Extension administrator.
While funding concerns definitely have played a role, these factors, as much as anything else, have forced Extension to re-think the way it does business. The System is transforming itself from a primarily county-delivered system to one in which more services will be delivered on a regional basis by agents specializing in a particular field says Sam Fowler, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's associate director for rural and traditional programs who is spearheading a comprehensive statewide reorganization.
One especially significant factor, Fowler says, has been the transformation of Alabama from a predominantly rural state to an urban state — a transformation that has resulted in far fewer farmers, but ones with much higher expectations for the types of service and information provided by organizations such as the Cooperative Extension System.
“These farmers are highly sophisticated — they have to be in order to survive,” Fowler says. “Likewise, their information needs are sophisticated.”
Consequently, farmers, to an increasing degree, require Extension agents who “have in-depth knowledge and expertise within a particular field” — specialists rather than the generalists who have characterized Extension field work in the past, he said.
Just as these demographic shifts have resulted in fewer farms, they have also altered the faces of the rural landscape. In place of farmers, many localities increasingly are being populated and led by people who work in the city but find the slower pace of rural life more appealing.
Fowler believes these rural newcomers comprise what is fast becoming one of the Extension System's most important clientele bases — “people one or two generations removed from the farm who still have a passionate interest in wildlife and natural resources and who want to be good environmental stewards.”
Much like the state's remaining farmers, they also are well-educated and highly sophisticated information users who require Extension agents with highly specialized expertise.
“It really gets back to an observation I made several years ago that is still valid,” Fowler says. “Yes, we're perceived as an information organization, but we won't remain in the business very long if we don't address the needs of these kinds of users.”
In an age when virtually every type of information is as close as a computer keyboard, Fowler says, it's no longer Extension's role to provide users with a welter of information — they find that on their own.
“With this sort of power at their fingertips, most clientele want information 24/7, and they don't want to come to one of our local offices to get it.”
Despite the growing expertise reflected by many clientele, Extension still has a critical role to play helping people sift through these large volumes of information — “putting it into context,” Fowler says.
“As an organization, we've got to remember we're not only in the information business but in the business of adding value to information,” he says. “Simply put, we don't just provide people with useful information. We also show them how to use it to make valuable decisions.”
Fowler says this realization was another major factor behind Extension's decision to direct most of its resources toward a regional delivery approach carried out by highly specialized agents.
Even as Extension transforms itself to a predominantly regional system, Fowler says it will strive to maintain a presence in as many counties as possible.
“We're committed to maintaining a presence in every county,” he said. “We're going to have a staff and we're going to have an office in every county where we're provided with office space.”
Fowler says it's also important for clientele to realize that this reorganization doesn't amount to a re-invention of the Extension mission.
“Our mission hasn't changed, and our reason for existing hasn't changed,” he says. “It's just the way we go about accomplishing our mission that has changed.”