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Jeff Hino

Jeff Hino, learning technology leader at Oregon State University, shows a tool available for difficult questions the Ask an Expert program receives. (Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

As of Friday afternoon, an Internet-based service offered through Oregon State University’s Extension Service has helped to resolve 3,565 questions since March 2011.

Ask an Expert is a national program created by Cooperative Extension System that is used by 74 universities. The OSU-based program has caught the attention of thousands of local, national and international advice seekers in a variety of categories, including forestry, family, business and community. About 60 percent are about horticulture.

“Our questions are at least 50 percent more than this time last year,” said Jeff Hino, learning technology leader in extension and experiment station communications, and coordinator of OSU’s Ask an Expert.

Ask an Expert was established to further national efforts to move Extension into an Internet age, he said. In over a year, OSU’s Ask an Expert has become the fourth most-used within the national program.

The program is like a personalized version of an Internet search engine. Instead of users getting connected to numerous potential online resources through a computer-based matching system, humans are connecting users to human experts in their locality.

OSU Extension has a presence in all 36 Oregon counties — and experts in every county as well.

By clicking the Ask an Expert logo on the side of the extension service webpage, users are taken to several blank fields where they can type in a question and their county of residence. They also can upload a maximum of three 8-megabyte images to add contextual information to their inquiry.

“Monitors look at the question, assign it a category, and then assign it to a person,” said OSU administrative program specialist Karen Zimmermann.

The only identifying information users are required to provide is an email address for responses.

“It is anonymous unless they choose to include their name,” Hino said.

The theme “Get good at it” that frequently marks the site suggests the 131 faculty experts and more than 30 unpaid master gardeners in the program are well-versed in their area of expertise.

“One of our most prolific master gardeners happens to be an excellent question-answerer,” Zimmermann said.

Jean Natter, the master gardener to which Zimmermann referred, is a volunteer expert in the metro area. She has answered 188 questions in the past six months and has an average response time of 20 hours.

While the OSU program guarantees an answer within two business days, the national program’s goal is a set 48 hours.

“But we’ve been doing better than that,” Zimmermann said.

According to Hino, Oregon State’s program has caught the attention of programs around the country for the way it runs certain technical aspects.

While many other states’ Ask an Expert systems have a separate widget for every county represented, Oregon has one.

“Instead of 36 different widgets, we have one. They all come into one central receiving area,” Hino said. “We can really have the best expert advice available in an efficient way.”

And, Hino said, not only are the answers provided quickly, they are conversational.

“Answers are generally written as if I’m talking to you,” Zimmermann said. “In layman’s terms.”

Users have the opportunity to respond to the experts’ answers if the question was not clearly understood, or if the questioner wants some follow-up.

Zimmermann said that because the program is funded in part by Oregon taxpayers, extending its reach to a larger audience is a priority.

So, she created “Question of the Week,” in which particularly interesting, timely or frequently asked questions are displayed on the website to increase access to users who might have the same question.

Hino said that because the program has partly replaced traditional phone calls and walk-in questions, it isn’t costing additional out-of-pocket money, outside of up-front development.

“So it’s ‘in-load’ so-to-speak,” Hino wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette-Times. “It also has opened up a whole new audience who prefer the ease of submitting questions online.”

At A glance

Horticulture might be the focus of most of the questions to Ask an Expert (33,708 in the horticulture category nation-wide), but OSU experts have received some questions that seemingly fit into their own category:

Q: Are Twinkies good for me?

A: All food can fit into a healthy diet, but foods high in solid fats, added sugars and highly processed should be kept to a minimum.

Q: Is beer a good fertilizer for my lawn?

A: It could be, but it seems there are more effective ways to get rid of beer — like the food share.

Q: How do I can bacon?

A: We have not yet seen home preservation instructions for dense meat and dairy-based products that meet safety and quality standards we require before we distribute the information.

Q: What is the lifespan of a hummingbird?

A: Although the general thought is that, once a hummingbird survives its first year, it may live another 3-4 years, there are some records. One lived to the age of 12.

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