University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents and specialists were quick to shift much of their in-person programming online at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, and they have been overwhelmed and gratified by the enthusiastic response they have received from the public.
As the world adjusted to working and meeting online, there was also a surge of interest in digital learning. Extension faculty and staff delivered 8,644 distance-learning programs between January and mid-October 2020, reaching nearly 152,000 participants.
“To me it’s been a really great experience. I’ve had people email me saying they have enjoyed the online format because they usually weren’t able to come in person,” said Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent Kim Toal (BSES — Environmental Resource Science, ’07; MS — Plant Pathology, ’10), who previously organized weekly on-site seminars in Fayette County. “We try to do weekly themes and offer a mix of programming on vegetables, ornamentals, etc. Native plants and pollinators have been really popular.”
The response to online delivery has been much higher compared to previous in-person meetings for some programs. Toal reported an average of 30-40% increase in attendance to online sessions compared to face-to-face meetings.
Camden County ANR Agent Jessica Warren has seen a similar jump in numbers for her Lunch and Learn series that has attracted anywhere from 25 to 60 people each week, doubling or tripling the previous average number of participants. The online programs have allowed them to reach more people than they would be able to accommodate in the local Extension office.
“When we started working at home, I thought I wouldn’t hear from anybody, but it’s just the opposite,” Warren said. “It’s also less of a commitment to take a lunch break and learn something online (than to attend in person).”
While UGA Extension was already using online platforms for professional development and meetings, the broader shift to digital delivery has changed the way many agents and specialists will use technology for much outward-facing programming.
“In an effort to continue to provide educational content to the citizens of Georgia during the periods of reduced mobility and social interaction, Extension significantly increased its use of digital learning technologies,” said Mark McCann, assistant dean for Extension in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “A popular method has been through online webinars. This a platform that UGA Extension has used frequently in the professional development of our faculty and staff over the past several years.”
However, McCann emphasizes that UGA Extension will continue to provide the hallmark, in-person services producers and the public rely on.
“In the agriculture and natural resources program area, it really has been a balance of online education with the essential in-the-field diagnostics and guidance of agents and specialists supporting production agriculture. We have continued to process critical soil and water samples and return results to growers,” he said.
The overwhelmingly positive response from the public has served as a case study for virtual Extension programming. A new task force has formed within the organization to look at the long-term strategies for digital engagement with clients around the state.
“We are taking a deep dive into how we deliver digital programming and digital content,” said Laura Perry Johnson (BSA — Animal Science, ’87; MS — Animal Science, ’89; PhD — Animal and Dairy Science, ’93), associate dean for Extension. “We will be looking at registration and e-commerce, platforms, training for our employees, marketing and evaluating our impact in this area.”
Although some programs were reaching new clients, others sought to keep existing constituents engaged via remote learning due to social distancing guidelines.
Extension nutrition specialist Ali Berg and Family and Consumer Sciences agents also transitioned the popular Diabetes Prevention Program online, delivering 158 online sessions to participants. In the same time frame, participants lost a collective 496 pounds and logged nearly 3,000 hours of physical activity.
Even with limited in-person activities such as mobile farmers markets in Atlanta, staff provided recipe cards and information about online Extension resources like UGA SNAP-Ed’s Food Talk program to educate consumers about healthy preparation methods and lifestyles. Fulton Fresh also developed a kids market companion program complete with recipe kits, video tours and at-home science experiments.
Keeping students engaged
The statewide lockdown came just as many Georgia 4-H’ers were set to give their Project Achievement presentations, but local, district and state competitions continued virtually. Environmental education staff at the 4-H facilities created content to engage students through the spring and fall “Mountains to the Sea” series.
Georgia 4-H also had to cancel its popular in-person summer camp, but 4-H agents did their best to keep students from missing out on the fun. Agents and staff around the state organized a statewide collection of online summer activities called “Set Sail with Georgia 4-H” and continued the initiative into the fall with “Blast Off with Georgia 4-H.”