Lessons for Cooperative Extension

I’ve been an active user of the Web for some 13 years now — since 1996.

Shortly after I got started with Web surfing in the mid-1990s, I cultivated a fascination with an intellectual topic that was dominated by one guy, a Brooklyn lawyer, who had posted a cornucopia of FAQs, resource lists and external links related to his specialty on a very nondescript page.

He complemented this material with online interaction on a USENET group he had created using his vast knowledge of UNIX (As it turns out, he is a polymath of sorts:  a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics from Dartmouth who later enrolled at Yale Law School to pursue a legal career.)

Years have passed and I’ve moved far beyond this particular intellectual interest, but I still remember it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.  With the comparatively primitive technology available in the 1990s, this guy, this very smart, creative guy, provided his audiences with a body of knowledge as vast as it was compelling.  But he also provided something more: A shallow learning curve.

Knowledge that would have required years to obtain, moving from one book another — and only then if I were lucky enough to live near a well-equipped library — required only a few months of intensive online reading.

I was fascinated and captivated by the whole thing — hooked to the very marrow of my bones.

Looking back, roughly 15 years later, I realize I owe this fellow a significant intellectual debt.

And as we press ahead into the brave new world of Web 2.0, there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.

Years ago, this exceedingly bright Web pioneer was providing his audience with rich context.  Within this comparative crude medium, he established himself not only as a rich source of information but also as the DEFINITIVE source.

With the vastly improved technologies available today — blogging, Twitter, and Facebook — this is what Cooperative Extension must do:  provide our audiences with the deep context they seek. 

In a few rare cases, especially those in which we still enjoy distinct comparative advantages, we must do something more: We must provide not only deep context but also strive to serve as something akin to the definitive source.

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