Since they were established in the mid-19th century, land-grant universities have served a central role in research, teaching and economic development in their home states, with a mission to support local agriculture, the life sciences and entrepreneurship. Beyond the classroom and out among the fields, much of the institutions' outreach work falls on their cooperative extension programs -- statewide networks of county offices that handle requests from residents, collect information and work with local communities to share the latest in university research.
For all their continued usefulness today -- and not only in rural areas -- state extension initiatives still operate on that 19th-century local and state model. But maybe not for long. In February, a nationwide consortium of land-grant universities announced the public launch of eXtension, a Web site chock full of the sort of advice, research and information that people traditionally looked to their local centers to provide. If farming and agriculture as a whole were akin to the medical profession, this would be its WebMD.
“This is extension in the 21st century,” said James J. Zuiches, vice chancellor of extension, engagement and economic development at North Carolina State University.
The site, which many who work at land-grant institutions refer to as part of a broad "e-extension" agenda, isn't just an online encyclopedia of information useful to farmers. To start with, it isn't a one-way conduit: Professors and other experts from the 74 participating universities nationwide collaborate online to compile and refine offerings in dozens of resource areas -- from agrosecurity to entrepreneurship to manure management -- with more to come. And it isn't just for farmers, either: The site offers advice on family caregiving, parenting, gardening and technology.
Now, the services once popular to people in a certain locality have expanded to a national, and even international, audience. Anyone who needs to read about how to, say, keep financial records for his or her farm can find an article written jointly by a professor of agricultural economics and an area assistant in farm management. Those with questions can post a comment, or in a separate section of the site, send a question that will be answered personally by an expert.
The site also features calendars of events and important dates filtered by type and region, and the site itself can be co-branded with a participating land-grant university, so that a user from a particular ZIP code can also find links to news and other materials from that institution and geared to that particular community. Some content is available in Spanish, and certain topics feature regular webcasts.
Behind the scenes, collaborators from institutions across the country work together with the site's backend tools, allowing them to update wikis with possible content, organize themselves into groups focusing on specific issues and answer users' questions. So eXtension isn't just a public-facing service; it provides a way for experts and researchers to pool their resources at the same time.
Those scholars, professors and local practitioners form into "communities of practice," groups that work to serve their constituent "communities of interest" -- those who raise livestock, grow crops and run businesses, said Dan Cotton, the eXtension project's director. “In some cases, some of the communities have formed because they were already working together," he explained. "In several instances, these are new communities that are being formed, and that’s exciting.”
The site itself is part of an ongoing initiative organized and supported by the eXtension Foundation, with funding from the participating institutions as well as from charitable organizations and seed money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. Further coordination comes from the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which separately works with local extension programs to manage specific issues. The site's various communities of practice have been developing content since the fall of 2006, until a critical mass was deemed ready to launch as a whole this year.
With an ever-growing audience -- in the hundreds of thousands of visits a month, and 40,000 questions asked so far -- the project is just getting started. Later this month, most of the existing communities of practice, plus some still under development, will meet in person in Kentucky to discuss their collaborations and the future of the initiative, said James Wade, NASULGC's director of extension and outreach.
As the site increases in popularity, it has the potential to alter people's relationship with their extension programs, which in many regions that have a strong connection to agriculture are the most tangible and visible connection to the state land-grant institution. On the one hand, a central Web presence could vastly broaden the target audience for extension services -- not just geographically, but demographically as well. People in the United States who would otherwise see little use in visiting or calling an extension officer might see useful information from the eXtension site turn up in a Google search on, say, fertilizer types.
At the same time, as more people migrate to the Web, existing extension resources might have to be either reallocated or rethought. Zuiches said that state cooperative extensions have been "downsizing over time" and that migrating to a centralized, online approach would be "more efficient in communities with larger groups of people." Cotton added that budget pressures have limited the ability of extensions to meet the needs of their state constituents. But, he said, they've also realized that their audiences are not necessarily confined within a particular state, and that led to calls for collaboration and economies of scale.
"I think the extension out in the counties is going to continue to be very important, and I see this as an augmentation, not a replacement," said Peter McPherson, NASULGC's president. "And for sure, you need the people on the faculty."
He continued: "The bottom line is that the county extension structure, in my view, will continue to stay in place, but people's functions are gradually changing some, and technology is enabling us to communicate more regularly and more broadly than we did in the past, through things like e-extension."
That communication won't only be between users and providers, or farmers and experts. The technology itself, McPherson suggested, could lead to a more direct way of communicating to legislators the necessity of extension programs.
"This is a quantifiable explanation to the body politic of the impact of extension, which we always had trouble doing. How many people do you really reach? Hits on the Web page is going to be doing it just right."
Already, the project is looking ahead to the next technological frontiers: access to content via mobile phone, and Second Life, a prospect that could not only replace but mimic the traditional extension experience.