AKEN Week: Alda Norris on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Extension Evaluation in Alaska

Greetings from the Last Frontier. I’m Alda Norris, webmaster for the Alaska Evaluation Network (AKEN) and evaluation specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service (CES).

The faculty and staff I work with at CES are experts in a variety of fields, from horticulture, entomology and forestry to economics, nutrition and child development. That adds up to quite an interdisciplinary organization! Our diversity makes for fantastic collaborations, as well as complicated syntheses. Lucky for me, my PhD is in interpersonal communication, which applies across the board.

Lessons Learned:  Ask people to tell you the inspiration behind their projects. Every group has a story to tell.What common goals bring these people together?Inquiring about the “why” and not just the “what” of a program really benefits capacity building efforts. I got to know CES better while writing a Wikipedia entry. Hearing and reading about the contributions Extension has made in Alaska since the 1930s deepened my understanding of what led up to each of our program’s current priorities and logic models.

  • Help yourself with history. Too often we are mired in a static view of where an organization is now, rather than having an appreciation for how it has changed, and continues to change, over time. Even in a “young” state like Alaska, there is rich historical data we can learn from.
  • Boost your evaluation planning by gathering information on your/the client organization’s “story” from a variety of sources. Talk to emeritus professors, compare the org chart of today to past decades, and comb through newspaper archives. Becoming familiar with past waves of change is very helpful in understanding the meaning behind current missions, goals and structures (and people’s attachments to them).

Hot tip: Communicate about communication! Add a question about communication preferences to your next needs assessment. Don’t assume you know what level of technology and form(s) of interaction your colleagues and clients are comfortable with. Before you do a survey, figure out what modes of communication the target population values. For example, if oral history is a large part of a sample group’s culture, how well will a paper and pencil form be received?

Rad Resources:

  1. The National Communication Association (NCA) can help you step up your message design game. Take advantage of free advice from experts on verbal and nonverbal communication by reading NCA’s newsletter, Communication Currents.
  2. AnyMeeting is a freetool that you can use to reach a wider audience. With it, you can host online meetings and make instructional videos, both of which are really handy when working in a geographically diverse setting. AnyMeeting also has screenshare clarity in its recordings that Google Hangouts lacks.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Alaska Evaluation Network (AKEN) Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from AKEN members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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