Monthly Archives: April 2011

Lessons from William and Kate

I’m an American.  Like many of my compatriots, I have a hard time grasping the appeal of the monarchy in this democratic, egalitarian age.

Nevertheless, desiring to spend some quality time with my daughters, I bounded out of bed this morning at 3 a.m. to watch the Royal wedding.

I ended up drawing some lessons from it — the wedding, that is — lessons for Cooperative Extension’s future.

To be sure, there are some interesting parallels between the British monarchy and Cooperative Extension.

The monarchy once wielded an immense amount of power and influence, much as we did within a different context.

Now it’s striving to adjust to a new era in which it commands considerably less power and influence.

To a significant degree, so are we.

The monarchy has been improvising furiously since at least the English Civil War.

They’ve improvised their way through all manner of social, cultural and political upheavals and through a series of murky, unwieldy institutional arrangements that would make an ordinary American’s head spin.

Despite it all, they have secured an enduring institutional presence throughout the world. The monarchy even managed to adapt to the decline of the British Empire by carving out new realms and new working relationships within the Commonwealth context that eventually emerged.

That’s part of the genius of the monarchy, I suppose, and that’s partly why I ended up drawing lessons and even a measure of inspiration from the wedding.

We are an old institution — granted, not as old as the British monarchy — that has been improvising its way through murky institutional arrangements for more than a century.

We started out a patchwork of outreach movements that was  cobbled together and joined with the nation’s land-grant universities.   Eventually, we evolved into one of the most successful outreach programs in history, one that ultimately formed an integral and vital component of the land-grant mission.

As it turned out, these murky institutional arrangements provided rather ideal conditions within which we could adapt and grow over time.

In a manner of speaking, we’ve constructed our own realms reaching from the grassroots all the way up to the national level.

Much like the 21st century monarchy, we are being called upon again to rethink our identity and our mission as we forge new partnerships within a radically altered context.

It’s also worth reflecting on how the wedding marks a significant departure from the past: the first union between a senior royal prince and a commoner in some 350 years. The sight of the young prince marrying an attractive, assertive, self-confident commoner has breathed new life into a millennium-old institution.

“The monarchy is back!” proclaimed one obviously delighted British-born CNN correspondent.

I hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, a journalist or columnist will offer a similar characterization of Cooperative Extension. That, of course, will depend on whether we learn to improvise — to blend old with new  — to build a 21st century outreach model that incorporates the very best elements of the model we constructed during the previous century.

That is the take-home message I carried away from this early morning event: that the times are  not only changing but are also calling on us to undertake a radical departure of our own — a radical departure from the way we currently view  the world and our place in it.

Will we summon the courage to undertake that departure?

Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.

Tamara and Sam: Portraits of 21st Century Extension Educators

What will an engaged, networked Extension educator look like within the next decade?  Equally important, how will he or she set the benchmark for social media use in the future?

For purposes of illustration and in the interests of advancing the boundaries of imagination, I will employ a time-honored technique: storytelling — only in this case, the characters are entirely fictitious.

Tamara, the Creative Oddball

I’ll start with my main character, a young Extension educator named Tamara.

Tamara is one of those creative oddballs who enlighten us every bit as much as they mystify us.

Teachers recognized something special about Tamara at an early age — a precocious, creative brilliance that she eagerly, if not manically at times, poured into her art classes and school plays.

Ironically, though, these sparks of brilliance didn’t carry over to her school work.  Teachers noted an inability to focus on classroom work.  Her grades suffered. For a time, the teachers even considered testing  her for ADHD.

Tamara Finds Her “Element”

All of this changed in 7th grade when Tamara was exposed to hands-on horticulture for the first time through a plant science project suggested by Rick, an Extension horticulture agent temporarily on loan to 4-H. Rick saw a part of himself in Tamara. He had dealt with a similar struggle balancing his creative passions with the need to slog through standard classroom work.

As Rick had hoped, the plant science project sparked a change in Tamara’s life.  It not only sparked a change: It took hold of Tamara, becoming an all-consuming passion. Much to her teachers’ and parents’ delight, this passion spilled over into all areas of her life.

While she didn’t know it at the time, Tamara had encountered what world renowned educational expert Ken Robinson describes as “the element,” which forms when personal passion and talent are fused.  For Tamara, hours spent with plants seemed like the passage of mere minutes.

This exposure began to open doors for Tamara.  The insights she garnered from working with plants carried over into conventional classroom work, notably biology and chemistry.

By her senior year in high school, her vastly improved grades, coupled with her SAT scores, enabled her to secure a full scholarship to study horticulture at her state land-grant university.

Following college and graduate school, Tamara was offered several lucrative jobs in the nursery/greenhouse industry. She turned all of them down with scarcely a second thought.  Money was never an issue with her.  Rick’s selfless, idealistic professionalism and his all-consuming passion for and connection with plants, had left an indelible impression on her.  For that matter, so had the circle of equally dedicated, idealistic Master Gardeners with whom Rick worked.  She cherished all the times she had spent with them, puttering around greenhouses, transferring plants to local gardens and sharing the almost mystical contentment that comes from watching them grow.

She wanted to be an Extension educator like Rick.

Much to her delight, Tamara eventually landed her dream job as a regional Extension agent specializing in home gardening and pests in a medium-sized metropolitan area. A big part of her job would involve working with Master Gardeners to organize local beautification and educational projects on behalf of adults and youth.

Professionally speaking, Tamara had arrived.

Tamara, the Trendsetter

Even so, like many 23-year-old professionals bearing freshly printed graduate diplomas, she thought she had mastered everything required to excel in her work.  She was also determined to set an organizational benchmark every bit as memorable as that of her mentor, Rick.

After reading about the implications of social media, she became passionately convinced that adopting social media technologies was critical to the future of Cooperative Extension work.

She intended to lead by example.  Soon after taking the reins of her new job, Tamara developed a gardening blog that covered all aspects of her field — one, she hoped, would develop into a definitive source for gardening information in her region.  She links the blog to her Flickr account, which she uses to collect images of new varieties, planted diseases, and invasive species — anything of potential interest to her clients.

She also uses a social bookmarking web service, which has enabled her to compile a staggering resource list encompassing links to trade journal articles and online books.

In addition to operating a Facebook page with other local horticultural Extension agents, Tamara also has developed a hefty Twitter following.  She tweets throughout the day, passing along observations about emerging home gardening issues, responding to client concerns, and questions and sharing links to timely articles.

With the zeal comparable to a 19th century Methodist circuit rider, Tamara started out with every intention of becoming the vanguard of the engaged, networked, 21st century Extension educator.  She was determined to disabuse her fellow educators and clients of all those outmoded, 20th century notions about knowledge dissemination.

She believes that networked Extension educators will have a unique and valuable role serving as aggregators, using social media tools to assemble critical resources on behalf of their clients, and as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts.

Sam, the Benign Antagonist

Tamara’s zealotry was tempered a bit after a few weeks of association with the benign antagonist of this story:  Sam, age 52, an area crops specialist whose office is located next to Tamara.  Ironically, Sam, the son of a long-serving and beloved county Extension agent, had charted a considerably different career path at Tamara’s age.

Majoring in agronomy at Tamara’s alma mater in the mid-1970s, Sam had undertaken a lucrative career in the agricultural industry following graduation, though always with the hope of retiring early so that he could pursue his real passion: working with farmers as an Extension educator, just as his father had.

He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Five years after ascending the corporate ladder and becoming a regional vice president of a national farm supply company, Sam resigned at 37 to undertake the biggest gamble of his life: to invest all of his life savings into starting his own farm supply company.

The gamble paid off:  less than a decade later, he sold it for a small fortune, though large enough to enable him to live off it comfortably while preparing for his long-awaited second career as an Extension educator.

After enrolling in graduate school at age 45 and securing a master’s degree in agronomy, Sam finally closed the circle, securing a job as a regional agronomy agent and following in his father’s footsteps.  He was assigned an office in a regional Extension center that ultimately would be located next to Tamara’s.

“Brainiac” Meets “Pop”

Weeks after her arrival, Tamara formed a tight professional bond with Sam.  They ultimately became known among their colleagues as the “odd couple.”

He called her “Brainiac.” She called him “Pop.”

From the start, Sam took a deep paternal interest in Tamara.  He admired her earnestness and idealism, especially her willingness to forgo material comforts to pursue her passion — something he simply could not bring himself to do as at the same age.

For her part, Tamara, something of a shy, introverted intellectual, admired Sam for his people skills — those traits that comprise what is widely known today as emotional intelligence.

Tamara marveled at the ease with which Sam connected with new clients, stakeholders and partners at a deep personal level.  Her exposure to Sam opened up new insights into Extension work that she had never previously considered.

Sam helped underscore to Tamara that Extension work is as much about forming a bond with clients —understanding and even empathizing with them — as it is about delivering a product.

As Sam is so fond stressing, half the challenge of Extension work is “getting into his growers’ heads.” By that he means that through years of building close, empathetic relationships with clients, Extension educators can develop a kind of sixth sense, learning how to anticipate their clients’ needs even before they are able to articulate them.

As he’s stressed to Tamara time and again, the most outstanding Extension educators sooner or later cultivate this sixth sense.

Thanks to Sam’s influence, what she initially undervalued — field days, conferences and workshops — she now prizes as valuable ways to connect with her clients and to articulate their needs.

She’s also learned how this intimate person-to-person interaction can enhance her social media outreach work.  Thanks to Sam, she now better understands how the real-life insights she garners through face-to-face contacts can help her refine the sorts of information she shares with her wider audiences through social media channels.

Conversely, she is beginning to appreciate how the global perspective gained through dialogue with her social media contacts will enable her to provide her local clients with a wider, multidisciplinary perspective.

Sam has provided Tamara with something equally valuable: a genuine reverence for the constellation of values that define Cooperative Extension work — as he sees them, values just as relevant to the 21st century as they were a century ago.  He has helped her understand that her success as a networked Extension educator will be measured by how well these traditional values are balanced with the demands of the wired world.

A Two-Way Friendship

Yet, this is far from a one-way relationship: Sam had acquired a few lessons of his own through association with his young friend.

Early in their friendship, Sam had struggled to suppress a chuckle or two when Tamara embarked on one of her passionate jeremiads about why Extension was doomed unless it got serious about social media adoption.

He initially had not only tended to dismiss social media but also feared that it would dilute the intimacy between educator and client that has always underscored Extension work.

However, that didn’t stop Sam from closely observing Tamara’s approach.  Over time, he has even cultivated his own appreciation for the role social media technologies could play in enhancing his own outreach efforts.

While not as far-reaching as Tamara’s, Sam’s efforts are impressive, certainly for a middle-aged man in the middle of a second career.

He has developed his own agronomy weblog that updates area growers about all facets of farming from an agronomic perspective.  Much to his surprise and considerable satisfaction, his stereotypically homespun, self-deprecating writing style has garnered a wide following among row-crop producers throughout the Southeast.  More than once, his pieces dealing with crop projections and the challenge of balancing sustainability with farm profitability have even been carried by major farm-trade publications.

Like Tamara, Sam has also developed an appreciation for the role aggregation and curation increasingly will play in the future of Extension work — an appreciation not only reflected in his weblog but also in the social bookmarking he’s adopted to complement his blog.

In their own unique ways, Tamara and Sam are setting professional benchmarks for other Extension professionals.

Despite their vastly different temperaments, ages and life experiences, they comprise the vanguard of a new type of Extension professional: the engaged, networked Extension educator of the 21st century.

Seven Reasons Why We Need Extension in the 21st Century

My recent blog entry, “Seven Reasons Why We Need Extension in the 21st Century,” is now an official Alabama Extension publication and is available online in a visually attractive .pdf format.

Please feel free to distribute this new publication at local offices and official Extension functions.

Steven Johnson’s Lessons for Cooperative Extension

William Hogarth painting of a spirited political dinner at an 18th century restaurant tavern.

After reading Steven Johnson’sWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” a third time through and taking meticulous notes, I’m more convinced than ever that it should serve as one of the manuals, if not the principal manual, for Extension’s transformation into a 21st knowledge organization.

I hope you are as equally convinced after reading this.

Johnson devotes much of the book to debunking the longstanding notion that good ideas stem from eureka moments.

Ironically, we humans have invented all sorts of metaphors to describe these eureka moments — aside, of course, from “eureka moments,” “flashes of insight,” “strokes of genius” and, my favorite, “epiphanies.”

As it turns out, though, this understanding is far off the mark, Johnson contends.

“As rhetorically florid as these [metaphors] all are, they don’t strike at the truth because they depict ideas as a single thing — something that happens at an illuminating moment,” he says.

Actually, ideas begin as networks at the most elemental level — our brains.

A new idea is essentially a network of neurons firing in sync within a human brain — “a new configuration that has never formed before.”

That’s only half the story.  As Johnson and others have discovered, good ideas emerge within similar sorts of external networks, which mimic the internal environment of the human brain.

The trick — that is to say, the optimal way to ensure the formation of ideas — is to place oneself into an environment where new external networks are likely to form.

Johnson describes these environments as liquid networks, rather boisterous places which closely resemble William Hogarth’s painting of a densely crowded tavern room where a political dinner is being held.

“This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas are likely to come together, where people from different backgrounds were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions,” he says.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has supported this view.

For example, researcher Kevin Dunbar employed a “Big Brother” approach to determine whether monumental breakthroughs in scientific laboratories really were the result of eureka moments — those sparks of brilliance that allegedly occur as scientists peer through microscopes.

As it happens, most good ideas occur around the conference table — the weekly lab meetings where everybody assembles and shares their latest data and findings.

Indeed, Johnson says one of the challenges of the future will be building more of these spaces — spaces where individuals behave much like those in Hogarth’s classic painting.

For my part, I’m both inspired and disturbed by the views Johnson presents in his book and his TED lecture (posted below).

He’s right to argue that one of the preeminent concerns of organizations in the future will be creating the optimal conditions in which these sorts of liquid networks can thrive — that’s the inspiring part.

The part that disturbs me is best expressed by this question: Is Cooperative Extension up to the task of building liquid networks in the 21st century?

I’ve stressed a time or two in this forum how Extension once dominated the knowledge landscape.  Borrowing Johnson’s terminology, we once excelled in building optimal networks, not only among ourselves but on behalf of our clients.

What were the agricultural societies of the 18th and 19th century other than attempts to build these optimal learning environments?   For that matter, what were Seaman Knapp’s experimentation with cotton demonstrations, Washington’s use of farm conference’s and P.O Davis’s development of radio listening clubs other than attempts to optimize not only the spread but also the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Even so, how well equipped are we to nurture these environments in the 21st century?   Granted, we are still constructing networks but are we making adequate use of emerging Web 2.0 technologies?  Even more important, are these networks as efficient, open and responsive as they should be — efficient, open and responsive enough to merit continued support from our stakeholders?

As I see it, that remains the million-dollar question — literally.

Sugata Mitra’s Shattering Discovery and Its Implications for Extension

Virtually all of us in Cooperative Extension know that our 100-year-old outreach model is under the proverbial gun and that something must be done, some strategy or new way of thinking employed, to stave off extinction.

Believe me, after viewing Newcastle University Prof. Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED lecture, I’m more convinced than ever that this new strategy or way of thinking had better come sooner than later.  Mitra’s remarks not only underscored the hard realities we face as an organization but also filled me with an even grimmer sense of urgency.

A few years ago, Mitra, a world-renowned educational technology expert, came up with an extraordinary idea.

He embedded Internet-accessible computers in remote villages throughout India and ultimately in locations throughout world to see how children with no previous exposure to computers or the Web would react.

The results pointed to something equally as extraordinary: The kids learned from the computers by themselves, with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra shared from one village showed an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet.  In another village, children, after only four hours of exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

All of these experiences, Mitra says, demonstrate the awesome power of collaborative learning.

“Groups of children can learn to use the computer and the Internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

Buoyed by these initial results, Mitra resolved to push the envelope, to see what other challenges children could overcome using Web 2.0 technology.

In a Hyderabad-based experiment involving children who spoke English with a thick regional accent, he turned over a computer equipped with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

Initially the computer responded to the children’s thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalls.

However, upon his return a couple of months later, he discovered that the children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

In what is now called his Kalikkuppam Experiment, Mitra set out to determine whether Tamil-speaking Indian children in a remote village could learn biotechnology on their own, even though all the online instruction was in English.

Two months later, he noted that the children had increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher who employed the “granny method” of teaching —merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement— Mitra observed that the average score increased to 50, which is “what the posh schools in New Delhi with trained teachers are getting,” he said.

Some of the most remarkable results of all were secured in Turin, Italy, in 2010, only minutes after Mitra walked into a class of Italian-speaking ten-year-old children and wrote the following phrase in English on the chalkboard: “How did dinosaurs die out?”

“The children asked, ‘What?’ I said do it,” Mitra recounted.

The youngsters secured the answer after 15 minutes by typing the English phrase into Google for the Italian translation and then Googling the translated Italian phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more challenging question in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra recalled.

The parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are unmistakable.  As a matter of fact, Clarke was an eager follower of Mitra’s efforts before his death, drawing two lessons from them: first, that a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be, and, second, that if children have interests, education happens.”

For his part, Mitra says these experiments have driven home one critical insight, which he hopes to investigate more closely in the future.

Based on his research, Mitra believes that education, thanks to the advent of Web 2.0, now bears all the hallmarks of a self-organizing system — one in which “learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

He describes a self-organizing system as a structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Ponder Mitra’s insight for a moment: Education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Simply put, people, using online resources, are fully capable of learning on their own without human intervention.

Speaking of shivers, if this insight has not yet sent a shiver up your spine, it darn well should.

Presenting Our New Video Annual Report

We just finished posting Alabama Extension’s first-ever video annual report to our youtube site.  This year’s theme: “Sustainability-Plus: Living and Working Better – and Greener.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I passionately believe that sustainability efforts represent the future of Cooperative Extension for a variety of reasons. Yes, we have a critical role to serve in building a new scientific agricultural model that will incorporate elements of the old farming model as well as sustainability principles of the 21st century.

However, the sustainability concept encompasses so much more — the reason why we have coined the term sustainability-plus.