Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Plant and Environmental Science

Committee Chair/Advisor

Michelle Parisi

Committee Member

Carlyle Brewster

Committee Member

Thomas Dobbins

Committee Member

Dale Layfield


The COVID-19 pandemic brought online learning to the forefront with the need to define online learning with best practices. Clemson University Extension conducted a retrospective observational study compiling survey data from virtual extension agents and supervisor’s conducting online programs. A literature review analyzed terminology for online learning to obtain a standardized definition to define online learning for Clemson Extension Services programs; evaluate and identify through literature strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges (SWOC) of on-line learning; determine and identify online learning competencies for instructors, assessment and evaluation; and analyze and evaluate response data from virtual extension agents delivering online programs in Extension. Qualtrics survey data was analyzed using mixed-method quantitative and qualitative data for interpretation.

Virtual agents’ quantitative data proved 44 weeks agents averaged 8 hours of formal and informal direct education each week utilizing synchronous and asynchronous education, reached an average of 225 people each week with an average efficiency of 32 people per hour of instruction served. Virtual agent weekly summaries were coded for themes from the literature review on best practices using Atlatis.ti coding software. Evidence emerged supporting best practices with 8 semantic domains and subcategories were: advantages disadvantages, competencies, course structure, professional responsibilities, professional qualities, program delivery method, and program implementation.

Virtual agent’s supervisor summary proved data using 3-point Likert scale with top pros and cons for the role. Pros were agent job satisfaction/retention, programming despite office space, and all-team resources. Cons were stakeholder access, consumer in-person access and unfair to other agents. Open-ended comments provided asking should the virtual agent role continue, nine supervisors stated yes or maybe with to continuing modification with only one stated no to continuation. Open-ended data presented a common theme agreeing to the virtual agent role with modifications for improving it with a detailed position descriptions and to ensure stakeholders understand this is to broaden the Extension role and not change the current roles. When giving virtual agents the means to develop an effective course with best practices while implementing the supervisor’s modifications, the VAE role can continue to improve for the population and citizens of Clemson University and South Carolina.



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