The Next 100 Years

Using technology in the fieldiStock; Corbis

Extension is at a turning point in its illustrious history, explains Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension. The "Greatest Generation” is disappearing, and the baby boomers who make up the largest portion of extension’s audience are rapidly leaving the workforce. "Up to 60 percent of baby boomers could be retired in five to ten years, and soon they’ll be our past customers,” he said. "We need to target the next generation of learners. In general, the way Generation X’ers and Millennials want to learn, access information, and engage is far different from earlier generations."

"Ultimately, our role is to develop useful, research-based information and provide that to our customers to make a difference in their lives,” said Calvin. "But how we do that is changing. Technology really has taken off at warp speed. Our challenge is that we don’t want to be riding a chariot while the rest of the world moves like the starship Enterprise."

To better serve customers and expand access to educational programs, Penn State Extension is poised to launch a new way of doing business. At the core of this new model are extension’s educational "product lines": face-to-face courses and online training, print and electronic publications and newsletters, how-to videos, webinars, mobile apps, and so forth.

"As we implement the new business model, we’ll carefully evaluate existing and proposed new products," Calvin said. "Is a product filling a demonstrated need? Is it in the most appropriate format? What types of products and delivery modes will help us reach new people—regardless of where they are—and expand our customer base?”

A comprehensive strategy based on customer needs will drive educational product development, and integrated technologies will allow people to get what they want, how and when they want it.

"We had nearly six million visits to our college’s websites last year,” Calvin said. "As clients enter through the web or our online registration system, we’ll be able to make them aware of other offerings on the same or similar subjects. We’ll look at customer interactions as touch points to better understand their needs, build relationships, and ultimately provide them a connection to our educational opportunities."

The one constant will be extension’s ability to combine scientific research with practical, field-based experience to craft solutions to the problems people face.

"When I was an entomology faculty member, I did research on corn insect pest management, collaborated with scientists around the country, and packaged that knowledge for delivery to growers," Calvin recalled. "But once in the field, we found that the science only takes us so far, and things don’t always happen the way it says in the book."

"Insect behavior and crop injury are influenced by different pest complexes, weather, and cropping systems, and the farmer knows his fields better than anyone else," he said. "You can’t just say, ‘Here’s a sheet of recommendations; if you follow these it will work.’ The system always has worked best when you’re engaged with your customer—sort of a group-science approach."

That's the power of Penn State Extension and that isn’t changing. "But the ways in which we engage our customers are evolving rapidly. We need to adapt to changing demands and not simply live off the legacy of the last 100 years. We’re building the foundation to do that now."

by Chuck Gill