eXtension: A High Tech Resource for Improving Financial Security

Article excerpt

This Showcase Session described the objectives and content of a new Cooperative Extension Internet-based information delivery service for consumers interested in personal finance topics. Financial Security for All (FSA) was among the first wave of eXtension Communities of Practice (abbreviation: CoPs). Financial security is the ability to meet day-to-day expenses while saving and investing for tomorrow (e.g., emergencies and retirement). eXtension (pronounced ee-extension) provides just-in-time information and learning opportunities to people via the Internet at every hour of every day year-round (Meisenbach, 2006). Creating eXtension content are Communities of Practice (CoPs), which are virtual groups of subject matter specialists who collaborate online to review existing Extension publications, create new documents, answer consumer questions, and maintain current resources.

Communities of Practice are networks of people with a common interest in a subject or problem who collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and develop innovations. CoPs develop social capital (e.g., building relationships and sources of support) and can, thus, play a significant role in organizational outcomes. Interested parties make connections and collaborate without the expense of in-person meetings and without regard for institutional structures and hierarchies. CoPs are informally bound by what they do together and the shared communal resources that they develop over time (Wenger, 1998).

Initially funded through state and federal dollars, and eventually with additional resources from nongovernment partners, eXtension is designed to complement placed-based Extension education. With Ask the Experts (ATE) and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) features, anyone with Internet access can connect with unbiased, timely, and science-based learning opportunities. Learners benefit by easily accessing the expertise and resources of Extension professionals nationwide. They receive current, unbiased, research-based information and answers to specific questions.

Through a process called skinning, a graphical user interface that allows Web developers to create different looks for Web site windows, a learner's first interaction will be with the logo of their local and/or state Extension office, even though the resource may originate from a land-grant university anywhere in the nation. For more details about eXtension, go to http://about.extension.org/about and http://about.extension.org/wiki/Mission.

The Financial Security for All Community of Practice

Following a national call for proposals, the FSA CoP was selected as a pioneer CoP to lead eXtension work because a number of online personal finance learning tools were already developed and widely used through the initiative Financial Security in Later Life (see www.csrees.usda.gov/fsll). The leaders of the FSA CoP collaborated to respond to eXtension's call for proposals and assembled a team of professionals to create and maintain content. The FSA CoP officially began when eXtension awarded it a start-up grant in 2006.

The FSA CoP is comprised of nearly 100 university faculty and state, regional, and county Extension professionals, representing 43 states and one territory, and 1994 (Native American Community Colleges, 1862 (Original Land Grant Universities), and 1890 (traditionally Black Universities) institutions. Members will be added as the CoP develops, including representatives from other institutions, businesses, agencies, and organizations as appropriate. CoP members must verify their support of the vision, goals, and guiding principles of eXtension.

Financial Security for All CoP Communities of Interest

Three distinct Communities of Interest (CoIs), or learner groups, were developed as part of the FSA CoP. A Community of Interest (CoI) is an informal group of people who share a common interest or passion, such as particular cars, pets, or hobbies. …