High-Touch versus High-Tech in Extension

I would like to introduce you to Jeremiah Terrell, Human Development and Family Science Specialist and County Program Director for University of Missouri Extension. I interviewed Jeremiah at NEAFCS 2016 and he gave thought-provoking answers to questions about innovation and technology use in Extension work. Much of Jeremiah’s programming involves face-to-face interaction and relationship-building. Below are his responses to questions about high-touch versus high-tech and where potential lies for our most impactful programming. Enjoy!

Can you describe your most impactful program? How much face-to-face time is given to clientele versus virtual time?

It is tough to say which of my programs is most impactful.  I like to think that there are several programs that make a difference in the lives of those who have participated.  That being said, I would have to say that Building Strong Families is the one class that I “see” the most impact.  Building Strong Families is a parenting class that looks at the entire family and focuses on family strengths as a foundation for further growth.  Building Strong Families has thirteen modules that cover everything from stress management to communication to setting goals.  I typically teach 6 modules over 6 weeks.  I also choose four or five of the modules and have the participants collectively decide on a couple of modules that are of interest to them.

I am a big fan of multi-session classes because of the ability to see change over time.  Participants are able to go home after a class and try some of the things that were learned.  When they come back the following week, we are able to discuss what worked and what needs to be adapted.  This is where the observation of true impact becomes clear.  I have had parents communicate to me that they were able to see positive changes in their interactions with their kids and express true gratitude.

Building Strong Families is completely face-to-face.  It does not have a virtual component.  To try and make Building Strong Families virtual would be a detriment.  It is not because the concepts could not be taught in a virtual setting.  But because the concepts have to be caught.  And, to catch how to do human interaction, you must have human interaction.

Where does Extension fit into a high-tech world?

I think that Extension fits into a high-tech world through offering resources.  I think that we should have publications for everything under the sun for our audiences to pull from.  I think that Extension Specialists should be tireless promoters of those resources.  We have the ability to bring research and practical knowledge together in order to better people’s lives.

I also think that there is a need for short educational videos that could be used to whet the appetite of our audience to get involved in local programming.  I do not want to say that it would be a promotional video, but that it would be a stand-alone video that has some substantive value, that would encourage further discovery through local programming.

In a round-about sort of way, I am saying that high-tech would be the doorway to deeper discovery that could be delivered hands-on at the local level.

Let me use a personal story to make my point.  When my wife and I were planning our wedding, I invited one of my rather eccentric friends to come.  He declined and went on to tell me that weddings, graduations, birthdays, and funerals were “doorway” events.  He said that “everyone wants to dwell in the doorways.”  He said that he wanted to spend some time “in the rooms.”  He encouraged my soon to be wife and me to come and spend a few days with him after the wedding.  We did, and as a result our relationship was strengthened and we still look back with fondness on that time together.  I tell this story because, in Extension, we are in the business of relationships.  People do not think of Extension without immediately putting a face to who they know that works for Extension.  In order to do that we must spend time with people in the rooms.  That is our identity.

In your opinion, how can Extension effectively balance high-touch and high-tech?

I think this varies based on discipline.  Even in the area of Human Environmental Science it can differ.  Take for instance a cooking class.  One could benefit from a video about as well as an in-person class when it comes to preparing a meal.  But when we look at the intricacies of family interaction, one would be hard pressed to benefit as much from a video as well as being able to articulate within a group of people.

I think that being relational is one of the biggest assets that Extension can offer.  We can only truly do that on the local level.

Let’s say Extension is still around and thriving in 2050. What does it look like?

I would hope that it looks somewhat like what I have already stated.  I think that we must be careful not to abandon our past in order to seek out new territory.  In this case that “new territory” is to integrate more technology into our mode of operations.  I think that exploration is integral to who we are.  We must continue to do this, and to determine how to better connect with our audiences.  But we cannot do this at the expense of our past.  We must let relationships guide our approach in all other areas.

What do you think? Do you agree with Jeremiah? Share your comments below!


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