Extending UGA’s Reach

UGA Cooperative Extension broadens online delivery

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.”

Peaches growing on a tree

UGA Extension expanded its virtually programming to include topical webinars. Gardeners interested in backyard fruit production learned how to properly establish fruit crops, such as peaches, through the UGA Extension Backyard Fruits webinar series, which had more than 1,000 registrants.

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.”

Continued learning

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.

Fulton County Extension staff and volunteers distribute food at mobile farmers market.

Fulton County Extension staff and volunteers prepare to distribute produce bags through curbside pickup at a Fulton Fresh mobile market stop in Atlanta.

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.”

A student gets hands-on experience while learning about a turtle from an environmental educator protected by an acrylic barrier at Rock Eagle 4-H Center.

A variety of educational experiences are offered through the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education Program. At Rock Eagle 4-H Center, students this fall participated in a modified herpetology class which involved multiple safety adaptations including the use of face coverings, frequent hand washing, acrylic barriers for separation and using the outdoors as a classroom without walls.

In Morgan County, 4-H staff enlisted the help of middle and high school 4-H members to plan and organize “Camp in a Box” packed with more than 20 activities youth could complete at home. They raised nearly $1,400 to fund the virtual camp for 86 students to participate in an interactive, fun-filled, weeklong “road trip” to featuring interactive content from all five 4-H centers around Georgia.

Tift County 4-H'er Emmy Toews

Tift County 4-H’er Emmy Toews took on a poultry project during lockdown this spring, building a chicken coop and raising chicks to show in the fall.

Tift 4-H’er Emmy Toews took on a poultry project during the COVID-19 lockdown this spring with the help of her father, Michael Toews, assistant dean of the UGA Tifton Campus.

“We built our coop and run during the shelter-in-place mandate and received our chicks from a local 4-H contact. We built the wire show cages this summer with the specific goal of showing poultry for the first time at the upcoming 4-H livestock show,” Michael Toews said. “Backyard chickens have become a great hobby for her. It is gratifying to see how UGA Extension continues to safely reach youth during this difficult time.”

Digital collaboration

Producing new online content has increased opportunities for collaboration among an already tight-knit group of Extension specialists and agents across the state and beyond.

Poultry science Extension specialists who previously held fee-based poultry housing workshops for 100 to 125 individuals on campus, with additional attendees via webinar, have held eight free weekly webinars. These have reached more than 8,000 people with 5,800 live viewers and nearly 3,000 more watching recordings.

“It’s been sort of an explosion of interest,” said Michael Czarick (BSAE — Agricultural Engineering, ’83; MS — Agricultural Engineering, ’87). “We’re reaching smaller farmers, a broad and more diverse audience than was held before.”

He and his colleague Brian Fairchild have seen their reach expand to 40 states and 77 countries. Their email list, which they use to announce workshops, has doubled in number of subscribers through their website, poultryventilation.com.

Extension specialists and agents have shared their expertise about trending topics to employees statewide and answered questions via webinars. Subjects have included specific health information related to COVID-19, working and parenting at home, personal finance, gardening and many others. These resources are available at extension.uga.edu/emergencies.

For a four-week backyard fruits webinar series, Fannin and Gilmer County Agent Ashley Hoppers collaborated with Josh Fuder from Cherokee County Extension, Ashley Brantley from Muscogee County Extension and colleagues from Southeastern universities to present sessions on commodities from berries to specialty fruits. Hoppers was amazed at the level of participation — each session had an average of 300 participants and more than 1,000 people registered for the sessions.

Faculty have found that online sessions have attracted both local audiences and participants from all over the U.S.

“It has been neat to see who has tuned in and to see this level of engagement. It’s very humbling, actually. I had no idea this program would be embraced like it has,” said Hoppers, who surveyed participants to see where they were tuning in from, including an attendee from Italy.

Ask the experts

The webinars and increased digital content have served a public relations role for Extension as well, reaching audiences that were previously unaware of Extension and its many offerings.

“I think it is growing our base in a way that was unanticipated. Through this program alone, having an online presence is engaging with new audiences. They are tuning in and then becoming interested in finding their own local office,” Hoppers said. “UGA Extension is a statewide entity and we are letting people know that Extension exists in their own home counties and that Extension is here and ready to help regardless of where they are located.”

People aren’t just listening, they’re engaging and following up as well.

“I’ve been surprised how many people actually choose to turn their camera on,” said Warren. “For a lot of people, they like to learn something and do something, but it’s also a time to make connections and even see other people that they know in some cases, especially since we’re not doing a lot of that right now.”

Agents and specialists field dozens of questions during and after the virtual sessions.

“Loads of people are really appreciative of what we are doing,” said Czarick. “We probably get 30 to 50 emails afterward with follow-up questions and feedback, and we answer 50 to 100 questions during the webinar through the chat.”

Extension employees and offices are also ramping up their social media presence and reach during this time by posting events, videos and tips. Although many offices were already on social media platforms, they have seen more interest from followers, already reporting over 1 million direct engagements on social media alone this year.

“We’re reaching way more people with this online way of doing things,” said Hoppers. “The trade-off is that face-to-face human interaction that is the bread and butter of Extension — having that personal engagement is important — but there is definitely room for technology in our future programming.”

For a list of upcoming local and online Extension programming, visit extension.uga.edu/calendar.

Find virtual event recordings on the Extension YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/ugaextension or contact your local UGA Extension office by visiting extension.uga.edu/county-offices.