Perspectives Online

Internet initiative connects people, communities with university information

For decades, people have turned to their county Cooperative Extension centers for problem-solving answers related to food and agriculture, natural resources and much more. Today, a rapidly expanding Web network is complementing that local service by pulling together best-of-the-best information on a variety of topics through a single portal.

Known as eXtension, the initiative provides the public with access to objective, research-based knowledge from a source they know and trust, says Dr. Kevin Gamble, eXtension's N.C. State University-based associate director for information technology.

In coming months, the portal is expected to grow rapidly as decision tools, video conferences, individual learning modules, chat rooms, frequently asked questions (FAQs) and other products are added on topics ranging from gardening and landscaping to youth literacy in science, engineering and technology.

Involving 74 land-grant universities with more than 15,000 extension workers nationwide, the project provides Cooperative Extension with a new way to collaborate and to reach more people with the most up-to-date and in-depth knowledge available.

According to Rhonda Conlon, the state director of Extension Information Technology, North Carolina Cooperative Extension is helping lead the way, with around 250 employees contributing to the site's development.

The project is organized around so-called communities of practice, which are groups of experts in particular areas. Three communities - those related to horses, personal finance and wildlife damage - have already made information available at eXtension.org, and around 20 other communities of practice are gathering content.

Several N.C. State University faculty members are helping steer those communities. For example, Drs. Luci Bearon, Jackie McClelland and Sarah Kirby, from the Department of 4-H and Family and Consumer Sciences, are among the leaders of the family caregiving community. Dr. Geoff Benson, from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, contributes to communities related to the dairy industry and organic agriculture. And Dr. Todd See, Department of Animal Science, is leading an effort to make the existing Pork Information Gateway available through eXtension.

The pork site, developed with funding from a national checkoff program, includes more than 200 fact sheets, 2,000 FAQs and other tools in topics ranging from swine nutrition to waste management.

"We think this project will make it easier for us to provide producers with the information that they want, when they want it," See says. "With the gateway, we are able to pull together in one place information that can be seen as credible and trusted."

Gamble, eXtension's IT director, sees eXtension as a way to put new tools into the hands of extension educators while at the same time reaching out to the millions of Americans who turn first to the Internet for information and education but who aren't familiar with Extension's county programs.

- Dee Shore