Working Differently: Oregon State Ask an Expert Success

Administrators and staff at Oregon State University Extension have adopted, shaped and marketed eXtension’s Ask an Expert so it’s inviting not only to Oregon residents, but to OSU Extension staff as well. Jeff Hino, Extension Learning Technology Leader, and Sandy Reichhuber are the behind the scenes folks who work to manage the system, get Extension staff involved and showcase the results.

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In April, Jeff donned his ”Question Man” coat, and recognized OSU Extension faculty and staff for their outstanding participation in the first Ask an Expert Awards ceremony. In addition to certificates, the top three performers each received an iPad Mini courtesy of Scott Reed, Director of OSU Extension Service. Hino noted that OSU Extension leadership is fully supportive of Ask an Expert and considers answering online questions as important as those asked in an office or over the phone. “So, it was an easy sell to get support from the top to give away prizes with the awards,” said Hino.

One faculty member and one Master Gardener volunteer received “Outstanding Performer” awards. A third award went to an Extension wildlife specialist for the outstanding Question of the Year. The top performer awards were based on the number of questions answered, the turnaround time for responses, the quality of the answers (succinct but linking to additional Extension information) and engagement. The Question of the Year award recognizes a faculty member for the quality of answers and commitment to the program independent of how many questions they answer. “Otherwise only horticulture folks would get awards,” said Hino, alluding to the disproportionate number of gardening questions received by Ask an Expert.

2013 OSU Ask an Expert Outstanding Faculty award winner Ross Penhallegon and Outstanding Volunteer award winner  Jacki Dougan with project coordinator Jeff Hino

2013 OSU Ask an Expert Outstanding Faculty award winner Ross Penhallegon and Outstanding Volunteer award winner Jacki Dougan with project coordinator Jeff Hino

Oregon’s maverick approach to Ask an Expert is also evident in how the system is set up. While many states’ Ask an Expert systems have a separate widget for every county, Oregon has only one. This geometry means all questions can be efficiently assigned independent of county staffing, and hence be more efficient, and take better advantage of expertise around the state. Hino and his colleagues stress that because the program is funded in part by Oregon taxpayers, reaching a larger audience is a priority. Ask an Expert has partly replaced traditional phone calls and walk-in questions, as well as reached a new online audience. “It’s the new normal,” said Hino. “These questions can serve as a rapid needs assessment on topics that OSU Extension can respond to with a news release or a publication.”

Perhaps an Oregonian never gets around to submitting a question, but he or she can read the featured Question of the Week, prominently displayed on the OSU Extension Service website where a new question and answer is added each week ( http://extension.oregonstate.edu/extension-ask-an-expert/featured-questions.)

But OSU Extension doesn’t stop there. Staff create animations from fun questions (http://youtu.be/2LeSHIwH_yM). And, they see Ask an Expert 2.0 as interactive enough to take on some of the qualities of social media, and regularly feed questions and answers to Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

The impact of the OSU marketing campaign has paid off, as the program continues to grow in size, popularity and impact since the Oregon Ask an Expert widget went online in March 2011. More than 131 faculty experts and more than 30 unpaid Master Gardeners currently answer questions in Oregon. Ask an Expert: it’s all about working differently in Extension today.

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