Agriculture & Natural Resources

Working with webinars

Bill Brown webinarBill Brown relishes the one-on-one interaction that his role as state extension poultry agent affords. Talking with a family farmer on site and helping them solve an issue is a setting that puts Brown “in his glory” where he can immediately sense he’s making an impact.

Brown finds working with groups similarly rewarding. With in-person workshops and seminars, large and small, Brown enjoys working a room. It’s not easy to keep him behind a lectern as he presents to his grower constituency. Moving about, Brown gauges his audience’s attention, changing his delivery as warranted. As Brown will freely admit, feedback is the fuel a presenter craves.

So when Penn State University extension educator Sarah Wurzbacher invited Brown to present as a guest lecturer for their NewBio Webinar Series, Brown felt a small measure of trepidation. Speaking on behalf of a multi-agency research project evaluating native switchgrass as an alternative bedding material in poultry houses was one thing but delivering that information through a computer screen was another.

Brown felt concerned that he’d be out of his element. Nevertheless, he accepted the new experience and his inaugural webinar, recorded for public viewing, is available on YouTube below.

Though that was Brown’s first time presenting as a lecturer for a webinar, web-conferencing technology is not new for Brown, nor is its value as an outreach tool lost on the extension educator. Brown frequently offers webinars taught by colleagues at the University of Georgia on poultry topics such as tunnel ventilation and winter ventilation, and invites his poultry farmer constituents to the Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown where the presentations are projected on large dual screens.

Brown can reach a lot of people this way, especially farmers who might not have access to the technology. In these sessions, Brown is able to move about, fielding and moderating questions from his audience back to the webinar host in Georgia.

Brown understands the times are changing. “With budgets and pressures to do more with less, webinars serve a needed purpose, but it is a compromise,” said Brown, conceding that a recorded archive provides a lasting benefit and the ability to reach a potentially wider audience.

A technological trade-off

While webinars can never replace in-person contact, implementing the technology in select situations can reap many benefits.

In addition to savings on time, mileage and fuel, web-conferencing facilitates the availability of guest experts who might not otherwise be able to participate due to distance. The ability to record, archive and share once the session is completed, is also beneficial.

What is lost with personal contact is offset by convenience. Each extension professional must weigh the pros and cons of incorporating some level of distance learning into their program delivery.

Delaware Cooperative Extension began staff training with Adobe Connect software in 2012, implementing and test driving the application for internal staff meetings and professional development opportunities. Connection to other extension offices soon followed and ultimately, was integrated into programs that allowed staff to collaborate and deliver extension curriculum, such as 4-H Leader workshops, Master Food Educator training, and the six-week Annie’s Project program, to name a few. In addition, two members of the college’s communications team regularly contribute tech and communication webinars to the Mid-Atlantic Women In Ag Wednesday Webinar Series.

In 2015, Extension added Zoom as a web-conferencing application and adapted Zoom as a component of statewide Master Gardener training. When distance learning technology is incorporated into a program, care is placed to rotate audiences and instructors so that everyone is exposed to both live and remote instruction.

Doing things differently is something Bill Brown gets. As researchers began to look seriously at switchgrass as an alternative poultry bedding, Brown summarized that the proof of concept behind the new poultry idea was a solid one.

“We know that properly grown, stored, processed and spread and managed on the farm, it is a cost effective alternative to traditional bedding materials,” Brown said. He added, “We really need an entrepreneur to make some capital investments in order to get the product to farmers.”

Trying new technologies in programmatic delivery is also moving forward, with inevitable kinks and glitches to be worked out.

“I am an old fashioned guy, but I know this is important outreach tool. It was my first attempt, and I told my wife afterward, it was favorable experience,” said Brown.


Article & photo by Michele Walfred
YouTube courtesy of PSUEnergyExtension