How the History of Cooperative Extension affects the Future

“The organization has met many challenges in the past and will continue to adjust to meet the future. Regardless of adversity, Extension has remained focused on its mission of “taking the university to the people” -Education through Cooperative Extension

In the history of Cooperative Extension information has been collected from the university, and delivered to the people whom it can benefit. In order for the system to continue disseminating information to the public it must be understood how technology fits into our playing field.  Cooperative Extension must realize where it has come from to develop an ideal of where it will go in the future. In other words, how do we keep Cooperative Extension relevant in times of exploding information at the click of a mouse?

The mission of Extension work, set forth clearly in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 was “…to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same” (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 8). People had a need for this practical information, with little to no engine to drive it to the masses. There was no one to show, teach, or demonstrate the benefit of a new method.  Agricultural societies played a large part in the transition of education and how we view the working person. As they grew, the concern for an increase in knowledge prompted the land grants that inevitably led to the development of a college for the common person. Through a progression of many years colleges and education grew around agriculture, mechanics, business and trade (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 18-19).

Colleges saw a need for their knowledge to be shared with anyone who was interested in it. The result was a Farmer’s Institute that presented experimental field research, demonstrations, and information for the farmer’s wife and children (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 27).  As the Farmer’s Institute grew, the idea of a partnership between the Universities to the public through demonstration was formed. Through Seaman A. Knapp was a pioneer for Extension education as we know it today. His work through research, communications, and demonstrations led to a strong argument being made that there should be institutions where people could gain information relevant to farming. He believed that this education should be for anyone, even those not enrolled in a higher education institution. Finally, the Smith-Lever Act highlighted demonstrations and the passing of information through publications to people not attending colleges. (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 34)

In the 1980’s the shift of Extension changed. Agents were now serving a more diverse audience, and expanding programs and events in 4-H, family life, natural resources, and community development (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 38) “Issues of the environment along with social and economic changes in communities have created interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving and program delivery in the 1990’s (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 38).  These changes allow for Extension agents to deliver programs to the people who will benefit from the information the most. As with all changes before, their focus was to obtain the information and give it to the public.

Even more relevant a change is that of how information is passed from person to person. Only recently have we been able to exchange information from long distances via email or the world wide web. The internet is a two edged sword for Extension. While not usually verified, it allows the user to find information through the means of a search engine quickly and effectively. If the purpose of Extension is to share relevant information with the public, are we missing an entire audience that is relying on search engines for their information? With the amount of people of all ages relying on smartphones, tablets, and laptops are we providing an easy way to find information regarding the problems they are encountering at that exact moment? Extension is challenged into moving from printing, journals, and face-to-face demonstrations to those more technology-driven ways of instruction. While both service their purpose, the challenge is determining which method is most appropriate for your audience.

Extension must be willing to address new methods if we plan to remain relevant to future audiences. Taking information and extending it to the public is what drives us. Doing it in a manner that leaves people with a feeling of accomplishment is what motivates us.  “The organization has met many challenges in the past and will continue to adjust to meet the future. Regardless of adversity, Extension has remained focused on its mission of “taking the university to the people” (Seevers, Graham, & Conklin, 2007, p. 39)

There are a number of questions you can ask yourself. What are you doing to remain relevant in Extension in regards to technology? Do your audiences demand other forms or receiving information from basic communications to events and lesson plans? How are you ensuring that information from the university is given to the public? What can Ed Tech’s do to help you choose those appropriate forms of education through technology?



Seevers, B., Graham, D., & Conklin, N. (2007). Education through cooperative extension (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Curriculum Materials Service.