Looking Over Our Shoulder

Dave King, Associate Provost, Outreach and Engagement
Dave King, Associate Provost, Outreach and Engagement
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I had an interesting experience recently. A week or so ago I spent the evening in Portland behind the one-way mirrors of the focus group rooms in the OSU Food Innovation Center.  We were observing two focus groups discussing their impressions about Oregon Extension.  One group included people with some experience with Extension programs, and the other included people with no recognition of Extension at all.  As always these kinds of "looking over your shoulder" opportunities can be fascinating. 

In the "affiliated" group, their experience was across the gamut from an individual who had been in an Extension program "some time ago" to a currently active Master Gardener. The "non-affiliated" group was interesting because it included people not just off the street looking for the honorarium and light dinner, they were people who are active in community efforts, just not Extension.

Both groups were asked—separately, of course—what they thought of when they heard the name Oregon State Extension.   Reactions in the affiliated group were singular as they talked about the areas of Extension each of them knew about, similar to the story of the group of blind people grabbing parts of an elephant.   On the other hand, the unaffiliated group started focusing on how they thought the University might reach out to people, using what they knew most about OSU—teaching.  They began to describe ways that people could get access to new learning programs. Some were versions of what they might have seen in other places, such as UC Extension in California that is mostly face-to-face continuing education. Most of the concern they expressed was how you would get "all the way" to Corvallis if you lived in Portland.  When later in the session they were asked what they would say if they knew that "Extension had faculty members and a presence in every county in the state?," the response was, "Impressive."

Later in the evening, when the groups were exposed to the concept of the Centennial celebration of 100-years of Extension in Oregon, the response was underwhelming at best. Neither group was much intrigued by the idea.  Both seemed to wonder more about the future than the past.  It seemed to be a classic, "What have you done for me lately?" response.

Interestingly, however, both groups were more positively disposed to the Centennial section of the new Extension Web site. Two factors seemed to surface.  One is they saw the Centennial materials in context, with photos and description.  The other is the issue of access vs. distribution.  If we try to send them information about the history of Extension, they might not be so receptive.  If, however, we provide a place to get access to the information as they see fit, that is more of interest. 

These are just my personal observations from the far side of the one-way mirror.  It will take much more in depth analysis to really figure out what some of the ideas raised really mean to us. There were two more sessions after Portland, in Bend and Medford.  We are now assembling the input from all sites and plan to use the information to frame ways to raise awareness of Extension.  Rule Number One in any communication effort like this is "Know Your Audience." That’s what this is all about: Following Rule Number One.     

Dave King
Associate Provost
Outreach and Engagement