Towards a Fully Engaged Cooperative Extension Model

Rockwell's County agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Portrait of an Extension agent at work.

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.

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7 responses to “Towards a Fully Engaged Cooperative Extension Model

  1. I do believe that the social networking is the key to getting the message out to everyone!

  2. Pingback: Transforming Cooperative Extension into an Axial Organization « Mission Extension: The Weblog

  3. The idea of using social media to add value to (as opposed to supplant) the things we already do needs more attention. In this context, SM becomes a set of tools that help us leverage our current work. This frame makes SM and related tools less foreign and more attractive.

    Your last section addresses this well, but I still think many in Extension are reluctant to dive into SM because they see little connection between it and the work they know.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Pingback: Extension’s Future in an Age of Austerity « Mission Extension: The Weblog

  5. Excellent material. Working on my doctorate in graduate school and working as a county Extension agent in Texas. Wanting to hone in on the use of some of our technology sites such as: Dinner Tonight! at http://healthyliving.tamu.edu , Nebraska Lincoln’s Alice Henneman, and others. With our clientele facing the many challenges of daily life – growing gas prices, homes decreasing in worth, and no increase in salaries – not to mention the time committments of today’s family, Extension has to admit that clientele will need to have access to us in other ways besides face to face. Thanks for you information. If you have additional sources related to any that I have said, please share with me via email. It would be most appreciative. ~Dee Lee

  6. I work for UMaine Extension, and am earning my MA in Educational Technology. Found your blog as I start research for a project on Extensions’ use of collaborative learning online, and came across this post.
    Having been schooled during the 60’s – a period of individualism in education – collaborative learning is something that I am slowly coming to understand and appreciate. I agree with you that, “The challenges call for nothing less than . . . 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. ”
    Like SM, using technology to develop collaborative educational partnerships, not only with other public and private entities, but with the clients we have in the past “served”, will require some transformed thinking by Extension professionals. This type of collaboration with our clients has always been present in an informal way in our face-to-face encounters. Technology now allows us to magnify this to encompass many more people collaborating at the same time, in both informal and more formalized ways.
    We need to be ready now with the mindset and technical skills to make the most of these opportunities. The issue of slow/no internet connection in rural areas is being addressed, and as these communities come online, our presence and capabilities become even more important.
    I’ll be reading your past posts and subscribing to the site. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Why Cooperative Extension Should Use Social Media | Ashley N. Andrews

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