Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and that saving your life will involve adopting a series of far-reaching lifestyle changes.
Would you adopt these changes? Considering that your survival is at stake, yes, you probably would.
Cooperative Extension faces a disturbingly similar set of circumstances. Yes, we’ve faced many challenges over the past 100 years, though nothing like we face today.
A Radically Altered Knowledge Landscape
A few decades ago, we were the dominant feature on the knowledge landscape. But as the 21st century progresses, our once advantageous command of this landscape has steadily eroded. The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, such as printed publications and mass media as the primary sources of knowledge has been almost entirely supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge— search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies — that can be accessed literally at the speed of light.
According to New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman, we now operate in a flat world, a informational level playing field in which knowledge providers, no matter their location, are able to compete equally with other knowledge providers across the planet.
For Extension educators, one of the immediate effects of this new flat world is the steady loss of the competitive advantage we took for granted throughout the 20th century. Consequently, we face the real risk of organizational decline and possibly even extinction unless we learn how to compete within this crowded — and flattened —knowledge landscape.
The Engaged Extension Educator
The challenges call for nothing less than an organizational transformation — a transformation of Extension professionals into fully engaged educators who not only disseminate knowledge but also build collaborative relationships among people who share common interests.
The new approach will be characterized by both a high degree of collaboration and reciprocity — one in which the client becomes an active collaborator in the production of our knowledge products. By including our clients as active collaborators, we develop valuable social capital, which, in turn, will enable us to further enhance the value of our products while also allowing us to reach out to even newer audiences.
Yes, traditional Extension methods — field days, conferences, workshops, newsletters and broadcast programs — will remain vital to our mission. But despite our long and successful use of these methods, they alone will not be enough to help us survive within this radically altered landscape.
To put it another way, these methods are no long sufficient enough to accommodate our audience’s growing demand for knowledge.
The Value of Social Media
Social media — Facebook and Twitter, to name the two most obvious forms of this technology —will enable us to expand our outreach efforts and audiences in dramatic ways.
These new social media approaches will enable us to expand our outreach efforts far beyond our traditional role of teacher. In a manner of speaking, we will use these new technologies to expand our organizational portfolio, thereby enhancing our competitive advantage over other knowledge providers.
We will use these new tools to leverage our abilities, functioning as part teacher, part explainer, part problem solver and, to an increasing degree, as a catalyst whose daily observations not only spark discussion but prompt a growing number of our clients to solve problems on their own.
We would be remiss if we failed to take note of how so many Extension educators are already availing themselves of these new approaches in a myriad of ways. Horticulture educators who work closely with Master Gardeners employ blogs to update their clients on horticulture-related news and other issues between monthly Master Gardener meetings, workshops and field days. Likewise, they use social networking tools such as Twitter to supply their clients with daily observations about home gardening, to respond to client questions, to share links to timely online articles, and to connect with others who share these interests.
Among some educators, applications such as Flickr and youtube, often in conjunction with blogs, Facebook and Twitter, are used to alert clients to emerging plant varieties or to potentially threatening diseases.
Blending the Old and the New
In the midst of these changes, we must not lose sight of our traditional roles methods, which, used in conjunction with emerging social media techniques, will distinguish us from other knowledge providers.
We should understand that traditional methods will simply be enhanced and strengthened, not supplanted, by these new technologies. In fact, our success as 21st century Extension educators will be measured by how effectively we balance traditional organizational values and methods with the new demands of flat world.
For example, we must continue to build collaborative educational partnerships with other public and private entities to enhance the effect of programs and to reach new audiences.
Research-based knowledge must also remain an integral part of our outreach efforts. This is an asset that historically has enabled us to distinguish our knowledge products from others. We must never lose sight of how this kind of refined knowledge enables people to make lasting, meaningful changes in their lives.
The applied research that formed the bedrock of the Extension outreach in the 20th century will be just as indispensible in the 21st.