Extension Educators as Change Agents: Riding the Adoption Curve

Debra Davis, PhD

Do you ever feel like you teach and teach and teach and yet nobody seems to get it? What’s up with that? It could be lots of different things—it could be the subject, it could be your delivery method, it could be your audience or it could be your timing. Most likely, it’s a little of all four. Learning is about change and changing implies we do things differently from the way we have done them in the past.

As Lisa wrote several weeks back, as individuals, we struggle with change. Nobody likes it and many simply dig in their heels and refuse to do it. But as Extension educators, our job IS about change. It’s about educating our clients so that they make informed decisions that result in changes that improve the quality of their lives. Two critical components of that change process are COMMUNICATION and ADOPTION. Consider their relationship. In basic communication, there is a sender of the message, the content of the message and the receiver of the message. We are the SENDERS of the message in Extension. We deliver the content of the message using a variety of channels such as workshops, demonstrations, classes, camps, seminars, field days, social media outlets, and mass media. The individuals we target with educational programs–4-H’ers, farmers, community leaders, parents, families, etc.–are the RECEIVERS of the message. When those individuals receive new information, they have to decide what to do with it and that choice is typically based on their perception, interest and understanding of the information. They may choose to use the information immediately or they may store it for future use. Our role as Extension educators to insure that the information we are delivering is valuable to our target audiences so that they will use it or adopt it. Otherwise our efforts are for naught.

Rogers (1995) identifies five factors that influence whether a person uses the information you deliver. I’ve added some questions that your audiences might be asking themselves in each area:

  1. Relative advantage—What’s in it for me? Is this better than what I am already doing?
  2. Compatibility—How will this work with what I am already doing? Just how much will I have to change?
  3. Complexity—How difficult will this be to implement? Are there a lot of steps? Will it take more time, require more equipment, etc.?
  4. Trialability—Can I try it on a small scale or is it an all or nothing venture?
  5. Observability—Will others be able to see the benefit of implementation or adoption?

As I’m sure you have probably guessed, information for which a person perceives an economic, physical, social or psychological advantage is more likely to be used than information without that benefit. Also, information that is compatible with current practices and less complex to understand and use is more likely to be adopted. And finally, things that can be tried out on a small basis and those which have a visible result are more like to be used. Ag production is an easy example of how this works: An ANR agent tells a producer about a new crop variety which may produce a greater yield per acre and is less susceptible to pest damage. The producer determines there is a potential economic benefit; that the new variety is compatible with current production practices and requires no additional work. The producer also determines the new variety can be tried in one or two fields. Now, the producer is more likely to choose to plant it. If the neighbors then see the increase in his yield, they too will be more like to follow the other farmer’s lead. It’s a little more difficult with other traditional Extension audiences. Sometimes it’s harder to convince individuals about why they should adopt healthier eating habits or be more civically engaged. But the thought processes those individuals go through before choosing to change their behavior is inherently based upon the same five criteria that the farmer uses to decide whether or not to plant the new crop variety.

And before you get too frustrated about why some of your clients just don’t seem to be getting it, recognize that not everyone adopts an idea at the same time. Some are eager beavers jumping on every new idea that comes along and others you will most likely NEVER move from point A to point B. Your challenges are to recognize that each category requires different approaches to learning and adoption and determine where you want to spend your time. What works with one will not always work with the other. Teaching to the masses may not always be the best approach. 

Rogers (1995) identified five categories into which individuals can be lumped according to their rate of adoption. The five categories are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. When placed along a continuum for the population, they are represented by a standard bell curve, as indicated in this figure:


  • INNOVATORS are risk takers and adventurers, eager to try new ideas. 
  • EARLY ADOPTERS are the opinion leaders and typically have great respect in the community.
  • EARLY MAJORITY MEMBERS usually eventually adopt new ideas but only after intense thought and deliberation.
  • LATE MAJORITY MEMBERS tend to be more skeptical and adopt only after intense pressure or out of economic necessity.
  • LAGGARDS are the traditionalists in the group who are rooted in the past and make decision based solely on the past. They are typically suspicious of new ideas and innovations. These are the ones you may never move despite your best efforts.

As an Extension professional, your role in influencing adoption is fluid—sometimes you are the catalyst for learning; sometimes you are the solution-provider; sometime you are the problem solver and still other times you are the resource link. The one role which is constant is that YOU are the change agent.


Rogers, E. M. 1995. Diffusion of innovations. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Seevers, B.; Graham, D.; Conklin, N. 2007. Education through Cooperative Extension. 2nd ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Curriculum Materials Service.

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