Ask Extension Pilot Program

The eXtension Foundation is seeking volunteers to pilot the upgraded Ask An Expert platform, dubbed Ask Extension, to test features and provide input on user experience for long term improvements. Historically, Ask An Expert has served Cooperative Extension as a digital outreach tool to connect millions of U.S. citizens with you – their local Extension experts. The upgraded Ask Extension provides significant improvements in terms of enhanced ability for clients to dialogue with the expert, create accounts to view their entire history of questions and answers, and for experts – expanded permissions to allow groups to control access to their questions. Experts and clients are also able to respond using email without having to log into the Ask Extension platform, making it more convenient for spontaneous responses. Further, the forms through which clients ask questions will reside on institutional or group websites, each carrying their own branding rather than through a central eXtension site.

To become a pilot group for the new Ask Extension upgrade , fill out the form and join us at https://askhelp.extension.org/become-a-pilot-group/

Background

eXtension’s Ask an Expert system began in 2006 as one of the core services provided to all land grant universities.  From the beginning, the underlying technology has remained the same, although a number of enhancements were deployed over time. For many Extension programs, this has served as a key educational outreach tool in responding to specific individual educational needs. In the past 14 years, this system was created, hosted, and serviced by eXtension application developers. This has resulted in the creation of a repository of a half-million questions, answered by more than 7,700 experts. Many of these questions are available to the general public to search. In 2019 ask.extension.org received almost 10,000,000 unique pageviews, and for the peak summer season, 1,160 experts handle about 11,000 questions per month.

To leverage this important national digital asset, eXtension launched two new projects with funding from its USDA-NIFA New Technologies for Ag Extension cooperative agreement. ,  Building an artificial intelligence platform that provides information from a wide range of Extension educational resources, and  modernizing the current Ask an Expert system. 

Over the past 10 months, the eXtension Engineering Team including Mark Locklear, Ben MacNeill, and Larry Lippke, along with a team of current Ask an Expert users from several institutions, have been working with staff from Eduworks to design and develop the replacement Ask an Expert component, known as Ask Extension.  In June this team of users alpha-tested and provided quite valuable feedback. Indeed, there are more, mostly administrative changes that remain to be done, but we are ready to begin the next pilot phase of the testing and rollout of Ask Extension.  

Since the beginning of Ask an Expert, there have been two primary gateways through which the public has been able to ask questions. One is the very broad, general interface currently available at https://ask.extension.org. With this gateway, questions are directed to experts based primarily on the subject of the question and the location of the customer. The second gateway is through group-specific widgets that are embedded on group websites.  For example, several states have chosen to deploy county specific widgets on county Extension websites, in which all questions are directed to county Extension educators within those respective counties. In other cases, a subject matter department (e.g., horticulture, entomology, etc.) may have a widget on its departmental website, inviting questions specific to that respective subject matter.

Current Pilot Details

In this upcoming phase of the rollout of Ask Extension we are looking for groups using widgets who are willing to engage in our pilot test. This first phase entails our working with individual groups and updating their existing widgets to receive questions in the new system. This approach allows us to test the scaling of the new system and work out any interface and workflow issues experts might encounter. We are also looking for new groups that do not yet use such widgets but would like to give it a try. You can view an example of this widget at https://askhelp.extension.org/widget-demo/.

If your group is interested in participating in this first phase, we’ll provide new widget code to be installed on your site. When questions are submitted via this new widget they will be processed in the new system. Your group might still get questions in the existing Ask an Expert system if the questions come in through the broad ask.extension.org gateway or if they are reassigned by someone to your group. This means your experts may potentially need to work in both systems during this pilot. But, all the work done in the new system can be considered permanent; i.e., all questions asked and answered will remain and become part of the permanent repository when the full rollout is complete.

Next Steps

More information about Ask Extension and the planned transition to this new system is available at https://askhelp.extension.org. But we specifically invite you to apply to be a pilot group by completing the form at https://askhelp.extension.org/become-a-pilot-group/. After you’ve submitted your information we will follow up to discuss the next steps for your group prior to going live in the new system. We look forward to working with you on this transition.