The eXtensionAUS pilot - what it can do for you
Author: Katherine Hollaway and Richard Vines, Department of Economic Development (Victoria) | Date: 10 Feb 2015
Take home messages
- A nationally coordinated extension system can ensure timely access to credible research from across Australia.
- eXtensionAUS is a national pilot project focused on testing the eXtension model from the USA (www.extension.org) for the Australian grains industry.
- Working as a community eXtensionAUS can use a proven model to support the collaboration of experts to provide information faster, in more accessible formats, to more people, and provide opportunities for two-way conversations for the Australian grains industry.
- Pilot participants to date have valued easy access to technical information, being able to build their professional networks and learning to work in new ways using online tools.
- The twitter accounts @AusCropDiseases and @AuCropNutrition and the website www.extensionaus.com.au have been particularly popular eXtensionAUS products to date.
- ‘Ask an Expert’ allows you to get your questions answered by nationally coordinated teams of expert.
The eXtensionAUS pilot is working in two subject areas: crop nutrition and field crop diseases.
Today’s agronomist or farmer needs to be many things: crop specialist, marketer, mechanic, GPS expert, and so on. They also need to be a super sleuth in seeking out information and finding key experts to assist with making decisions.
Finding the right information and knowing who to trust can be challenging. The old linear model of state agency integrated research, development and extension (RD&E) has been replaced by multiple information providers (Figure 1, Primary Industries Standing Committee 2014).
New opportunities like YouTube and Twitter are now supplementing traditional extension tools like factsheets, newsletters and grower meetings. New ways for information providers to reach their audience are developing.
These opportunities are also occurring at a time when extension and capability building staff represent only six per cent of national grains RD&E (Primary Industries Standing Committee, 2011). There is also an ongoing challenge to deliver research information to public and private D&E providers. This has put increasing pressure on research staff to add an extension role to their workload and made it more complicated for information users to find the information they need at the right time.
Mick Keogh, Executive Director of the Australian Farm Institute discussed these points further when cited in Beilharz, 2014.
"It's particularly noticeable in the grains sector, but really right across agriculture, that since about '97 or '98, the rate of productivity growth, even taking into account the centennial drought, has slowed. The difficulty is that we've moved away from a public extension model, to one that's now ostensibly a private one. So if we look at the cropping sector, for example, there's around about 2,500 private agronomists and advisers working with farmers around Australia, but only 50 public sector agronomists or advisers. So we've switched across, and in doing that, I think we haven't thought fully about what's an effective communication channel. We still do a lot of research in the public sphere, so how do we get that information from a public institution into a private sector?"
In this context, the eXtensionAUS pilot is showing the eXtension model has much to offer.
Conceptually, the US eXtension model is based on the idea that people are looking to solve real challenges and find reliable answers in real time, without any vested interest in whether those answers come from government agencies, universities, industry groups or others (Jones and McCarthy, 2013). A proviso is that information is understandable, reliable and applicable to their context. Also they have found that people working collectively provide greater benefit to all stakeholders than people working separately.
There are opportunities to enable better knowledge capacity between the public, private and community stakeholders in the Australian grains industry. With these broad opportunities and constraints in mind, the Grains Research and Development (GRDC) and the then Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (now the Department of Economic Development) decided to develop a pilot collaboration with the eXtension Foundation in the United States (eXtension, 2013) with the support of the Grains National RD&E Committee.
This commitment has led to the establishment of two Communities of Practice (CoP), one in field crop diseases led by the Department of Economic Development (Victoria) and one in crop nutrition led by Department of Primary Industries (New South Wales). Each Community of Practice is a network of experts.
The pilot has been running with the two CoP since February 2014 and the website (www.extensionaus.com.au) has been 'live' since July 2014. To December 2014, the two CoP have created over 100 posts and had over 6,000 visits to the website site by more than 3,000 individual users. To date, pilot CoP participants have valued the easy access to technical information, being able to build their professional networks, improved collaboration and learning to work in new ways using online tools.
Launch of eXtensionAUS pilot project
Part of the benefit of piloting the US eXtension model has been the adoption of a variation of the US individual and business contributors’ agreements. These agreements provide individuals and their organisations a 'licence to operate' and work together on developing and linking to content and testing the use of social media tools. Under the agreements, this can occur without the need to seek respective institutional/organisational approvals for each piece of content published or social media interaction. This in itself has provided a significant productivity and innovation advantage to both CoPs.
Fundamental to understanding the intent of the eXtension initiative is that to develop knowledge you must take action. In eXtension actions occur as the CoP facilitate the development of learning networks; this is a key objective of the model. As users of the eXtensionAUS tools take action and interact with the experts behind them, they form Communities of Interest (CoI). This community interaction contributes to the building of the learning networks. This two-way flow enables both the experts and the end users (CoI) to work together and to continuously improve how they do business together.
The eXtensionAUS experience during the beet western yellows virus outbreak provides a key example on how these types of processes can occur.
How eXtensionAUS works - beet western yellows virus (BWYV) case study
In June-July 2014 news spread that substantial damage to canola crops was occurring in the Lower North and Mid North of South Australia caused by the Green Peach Aphid transmitting (BWYV). State based agencies in the GRDC Southern Region swung into action; a coordinated message was developed, media released and community meetings organised.
The eXtensionAUS Field Crop Diseases CoP saw the outbreak of BWYV as an opportunity to test the value of prompt and flexible information delivery and interactivity that e-extension could provide in Australia.
The eXtensionAUS website was updated with an article (www.extensionaus.com.au/beet-western-yellows-virus-in-canola/) outlining the BWYV outbreak and links to resources for identification and management, including the latest news from CropWatchSA and PestFacts south-eastern.
Members of the community sent canola samples to their local state departments who arranged for virus testing at DEPI Horsham. While test results were useful for individuals to understand what was happening in specific paddocks, the growing data set quickly demonstrated the extent of the disease. eXtensionAUS CoP experts used the locations provided with samples to map the spread and the map was posted to the eXtensionAUS website. Initially based on SA and Victorian data, experts in NSW and WA then saw merit in having a national map to show the spread of BWYV to the north and importantly the lack of BWYV in the west. The map soon became the most visited page on the eXtensionAUS website and was updated throughout the season. This demonstrates a CoI forming around the CoP.
The eXtensionAUS Field Crop Diseases twitter account (@AusCropDiseases) was used to highlight BWYV resources from other agencies and eXtensionAUS; to update on the extent of BWYV; and to alert people to newsletters, radio interviews and community meetings on the outbreak.
The first tweet to achieve broad interest was the notification of a community meeting run by NSW DPI at Wagga Wagga. A tweet with a link to the event flyer was sent out a week ahead of the meeting. The number of ‘click throughs’ and ‘retweets’ exceeded all previous posts.
Given the meeting was held in a single location in NSW it provided an excellent opportunity to collate resources to be made available to others using e-extension tools. eXtensionAUS organised a video interview that was published on the eXtensionAUS Field Crop Diseases YouTube channel (http://bit.ly/1k7aciV) and the slidedecks from both NSW and SA were also published on Slideshare (www.slideshare.net/AusCropDiseases/presentations). Links were included to help users to navigate between Youtube/Slideshare and the eXtensionAUS website.
Given the number of resources available on BWYV the average super sleuth (farmer or advisor) could be forgiven for becoming overwhelmed. To assist, a key role of eXtensionAUS was to 'curate' resources to assist information users to navigate the maze of information. Field Crop Diseases used Scoop.it! (http://www.scoop.it/t/beet-western-yellows-virus), an online scrapbook, to collate key management resources, news articles and related issues into a single resource for people who wanted to understand the breadth of the issue. Over time this grew to a collection of 37 resources selected for what they could add to the BWYV story with minimal repetition for users.
The response to eXtensionAUS resources was excellent particularly given that the peak of the BWYV incident was only within the first two months of the eXtensionAUS website launch.
With the outbreak of BWYV, the visitor numbers per day doubled to peak at 523 page views on July 23rd. Outside the project landing page, the most popular page on the website so far has been the 'Spread of beet western yellows virus' which has had 1,456 page views (8.49 per cent of total page views for the site).
Achievements thus far
During the start-up phase of the eXtensionAUS pilot project and since the launch of the resource website (www.extensionaus.com.au), CoP members have begun to test a range of social media and content publishing tools. For example, in the period between early July and November 20, 2014 @AusCropDiseases, @AuCropNutrition and @eXtensionAUS made 422, 485 and 331 tweets and have secured 477, 461 and 369 followers respectively.
The top 5 crop nutrition YouTube videos had 375 views and field crop diseases YouTube videos had 171 views. Over 100 content updates were published on the eXtensionAUS resources website. This content attracted 5,939 sessions, 2,788 different users, 17,174 page views, with an average of 2.89 pages visited per session and an average duration period of 3 minutes and 33 seconds. 53.1 per cent of viewers were returning visitors. Of the total sessions, viewers were from Victoria (47%), New South Wales (28%), South Australia (11%), Western Australian (7%), Queensland (5%), Tasmania (1%) and other (1%).
eXtensionAUS has also trialled the use of the 'Ask an Expert' module (http://bit.ly/AskanEX) to allow information users to ask questions and access expert advice. 'Ask and Expert' uses a web-based form that, when completed, results in an email alert directed to the most relevant expert based on subject and geography. In responding to questions, the dialogue that emerges can be brief or ongoing. This approach to asking and answering questions can be tailored to suit both national and regional issues. To November 2014 each CoP has received nine questions each.
The most common activities undertaken by CoP members when surveyed are:
- learning new technical information (75%);
- keeping up-to-date Australia wide in respect to subject areas (72%);
- expanding their professional networks (72%);
- learning to work in new ways in online environments (70%);
- using YouTube (65%);
- using Twitter (65%);
- using Google Docs (65%); and
- 64 per cent have recommended eXtensionAUS resources to others.
The biggest change in skills to date is in the use of social media with large increases in uptake and use of Twitter, YouTube, Video Meetings, Google Plus (and associated tools) and webinars from pre to post pilot involvement by CoP members.
Assessment on the ability for it to strengthen knowledge exchange and the efficient delivery of grains extension, information and decision support services using web-based platforms is ongoing, but the results to date are encouraging.
The project has involved a large number of collaborations and there will be ongoing advantages such as working with the GRDC Push Notifications Project should the project continue.
Future opportunities for you
If you are an 'expert' or key contact in the area of Field Crop Diseases or Crop Nutrition you should consider joining and contributing to a CoP. You will be able to secure access to trusted knowledge and networks, which could become critical to the future competitiveness of your business. In this way you and your personnel can develop new capabilities associated with working in new ways in online environments and accessing contemporary and timely knowledge.
The e-extension tools used will continue to develop as the project continues to learn more about what works in the Australian agricultural sector. The proven tools ready for you to access are:
- eXtensionAUS Crop Nutrition (bit.ly/1DzvwdC); and
- eXtensionAUS Field Crop Diseases (bit.ly/1k7aciV).
Contact details for each community are available at http://www.extensionaus.com.au/contact-2/
E-extension tools are becoming common place amongst state agencies, farmer groups, community organisations and private companies. However, there is a great deal of scope to better integrate collaborations and delivery channels and to assist information users to access and navigate advice best suited to their needs.
A nationally coordinated extension system such as eXtensionAUS can support national RD&E strategies and research programs to efficiently provide access to expert advice with consistent and reliable messaging.
Interim evaluation findings have indicated that 'The US model does have application to the Australian grains industry' (Roberts, 2014). Reported benefits of this approach in the first six months include:
- timely and ease of access to trusted information to support effective decision making
- learning about how to set up and operate an on-line learning service and
- increased networks and cross institutional linkages to develop extension packages.
The goodwill generated by the project so far has given the funders the confidence to pursue additional funding for the ongoing support of the two established CoP beyond the conclusion of the pilot in March 2015, and to fund two additional CoP focused on weeds and insect pests.
The project has also provided valuable insights as to how new ways of collaborating and working are most likely to evolve. To secure shared benefits from public investment in RD&E activities we need coordinated and sustainable investments in capability development such as undertaken by eXtensionAUS. Such capabilities include:
- on-line support systems
- day-to-day development and maintenance of video materials
- easy to use web interfaces, and acknowledgement of internet access constraints
- technical support to enable the provision on-line learning models
- national leadership and coordination
- a critical level of commitment from a core number of industry subject matter experts
- web marketing and engagement and
- CoP management including workflow planning, publishing plans, peer review, publishing processes and audience focussed content curation services.
But above all, continued vision and commitment is required to support the integration of the eXtension model into the workflow of sector and cross sector national RD&E initiatives, such as the Grains National RD&E Strategy.
The grains industry does need to consider new opportunities that can bring about improved outcomes for growers and the greater industry. The opportunity for real time information exchange between farmers and research and development experts, coordination of sources of information and decision support tools, streamlining the task of finding information, providing peer reviewed, quality and reliable information and customised responses to individual issues and needs is recognised as being able to make a real difference to primary producers and their advisers.
There is recognition that some good collaboration already exists in the Australian grains industry; but there is potential that the eXtension model can increase collaboration and make extension to targeted areas of the grains industry more effective and efficient. With an increasingly connected agricultural community that is embracing new technologies as infrastructure and bandwidth improve, prospects for harnessing online systems improve daily1.
In that context the opportunity for real time information exchange between advisers, farmers, researchers and the industry more broadly is extrmely important.
1. GRDCs 2013 Information Products and Services Needs Survey found that 93% of growers and 100% of advisers are gathering research information to aid farm and crop management using electronic devices such as computers, smartphones or tablet devices; 81% of growers and 98% of advisers use websites for gathering farm and crop management information and 81% of growers and 84% of advisers use mobile technologies. In the same survey 41% of growers and 70% of advisers said they would be fairly or very interested in participating in an online forum where farm or crop management questions could be put to researchers and other experts. Numbers were highest among younger grower, ‘innovatives’ and those in an expansion phase.
- Beilharz, N., (2014) Farming research and development makes huge shift from public to private hands. ABC Rural, 3 December [WWW document], (accessed 22 December 2015)
- eXtension, (Dec 2013). Australia to pilot eXtension. [WWW Report], (accessed 2 Jan, 2015)
- Jones, M. and McCarthy, G., 2013. Business Consultancy: Support systems for cross institutional and cross jurisdictional learning networks, Prepared for the Department of Primary Industries, eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, May 2013.
- Primary Industries Standing Committee – Research Development and Extension sub-committee (2011) Grains industry. National Research, Development and Extension Strategy. April, p. VI. [WWW document], (accessed December 2014).
- Roberts, K., 2014. Evaluation of eXtensionAUS. A Draft Report prepared for ORM Pty Ltd. Report accessed 2 Jan, 2015)