Monthly Archives: May 2011

Extension as an Emergent Platform — and What It Means for Our Future

London Skyscraper

Extension's challenge in the 21st century: Foster optimal conditions for the formation of the most generative platforms of the future.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, should serve as a primer for Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization.

Our transformation rides on how well we grasp the central lesson of this book: that many of the greatest intellectual advances in history have been generated by emergent platforms, the complex systems that arise from relatively simple interactions.

Cooperative Extension is one such platform — one that has not only advanced human knowledge but that has also provided the basis for other emergent, highly generative platforms.

As Johnson stresses, much of our understanding of emergent platforms stems from what we’ve learned from software design and Web development.

He notes that the most generative platforms come in stacks. One of history’s most significant examples of such a stack is Tim Berners-Lee’s ingenious innovation, which we know today as the Worldwide Web. Indeed, the Web is a kind of archeological site comprised of layer upon layer of platform made possible by the Internet’s open protocols — small wonder why “platform stack” is now a term commonly used in modern programming circles.

Other stacks followed the Web, notably youtube, which was stitched together with elements of the Web, Adobe’s Flash platform and the programming language Javascript, Johnson observes.

Yet, similar kinds of platform occurred long before the Web.  Johnson relates the story of two young scientists at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University whose responses to the Sputnik crisis produced one of the most generative platforms in history, one that contributed to GPS and, ultimately, to many of the technologies that define 21st century life.

Cooperative Extension is a highly generative platform in its own right. Indeed, speaking as an Extension history buff, I’m struck by the stark resemblance of Extension’s development to that of the Worldwide Web and accompanying Web 2.0 platforms.

Extension is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

In another stark similarity to 21st century Internet platforms, Extension was shaped by late 19th and early 20th century forerunners of hackers — and, yes, I’m using this term in the commendatory rather than the derogatory sense —self-taught laypersons, beginning with Seaman Knapp, who helped refine and retool outreach methods, much as 21st century hackers have stepped up to enhance the usefulness of everything from Google Maps to Twitter.

In generative terms, Extension turned out to be one of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century, producing or contributing significantly to a host of other platforms.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

I’ve spoken in the past of the need for a radical overhaul of our outreach model.  But radical in this context does not imply thoroughgoing or wrenching insomuch as a harkening back to our roots.  Extension educators were building open-source, highly generative platforms long before this term or the underlying concept were conceived.

Our challenge will be to foster the most optimal conditions for the emergent platforms of the future — platforms efficient and generative enough to thrive within this the highly demanding 21st century knowledge environment.

Here’s the good news: Our transformation, while far from easy, is simple — simple in the sense that it requires an understanding of where we have been in order to understand where we’re going.  Despite numerous setbacks of late, we possess an institutional legacy that uniquely equips us with this understanding.

Colleagues have asked me why I remain doggedly optimistic in the face of all this cutting and downsizing.

This is why.

Post-Morrill America — and What It Means for Extension

Justin Smith Morrill, father of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, scarcely envisioned the technological world that would be secured largely through his efforts.The thought just occurred to me yesterday — and a sobering one at that: We Americans have all been Morillized.

As a matter of fact, all of us have been Morrillized to such a degree that we now live in a post-Morrill nation.

Welcome to post-Morrill America.

If you recall your history, the purpose of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was to improve the standard of living in the various American states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole by providing the laboring classes with education in the practical arts.

I would contend that Justin Smith Morrill’s vision has exceeded beyond measure and in ways he scarcely considered at the time.   To be sure, not everyone has ascended to the ranks of the middle class. Not everyone possesses a college education.  Even so, the highly technological world that to a significant degree grew out of the Morrill Act has placed all of these practical arts at the fingertips of virtually every individual in this nation.

One of my colleagues, NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, superbly illustrated this recently in his departmental weblog, “The Winnowing Oar,” with a link and accompanying comments about a 45-year-old paper mill worker named Frank Kovacs, who once dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist.  Taxing college math courses thwarted this dream, but this didn’t stop Kovacs from building his own planetarium in his free time — what he describes to visitors as the “world’s largest rolling, mechanical, globe planetarium.”

Kovacs is now an educator with his own self-constructed learning facility.

Bob is right to point out the immense significance behind one of Kovacs’s statements: “To be a planetarium director you need college, but if you build your own, you can run it!”

If any statement speaks volumes about the post-Morrill world in which we live, it is that one.  In terms of knowledge empowerment, people no longer have to wait on someone else.

As Bob so aptly describes it, “Stepping on a college campus or attending a workshop are not the only ways to pursue an education.”

Frank Kovacs has demonstrated that fact.

In a manner of speaking, all this Morrillizing has helped create a technological order in which people are now fully capable of empowering themselves.

I contend that this reality presents Extension with a fascinating question: What is our purpose in a post-Morrill world?

We live in a drastically altered knowledge landscape, one that is flat. To a significant degree, the flat world is one that Justin Smith Morrill made.

We should give him his due — for that matter, we should give ourselves ample credit for the indispensable role we served in Morrillizing America.

However, post-Morrillization presents us with a new set of challenge perhaps best expressed by this question: Where do we go from here?

We should start by reflecting on the most obvious effect of post-Morrillization: Americans are now fully equipped to empower themselves.

Yes, we remain an agency of empowerment but not in the way we were in the past.  Back to that rather unwieldy neologism: contextualizer.   In the future, we will empower people by providing them with deeper, more enriched learning contexts.  In time, we will learn that these contexts are best secured within social networks — networks that are open, responsive and dense enough to ensure the most optimal levels of enrichment.

We must construct nothing less than a new outreach model — in a manner of speaking, a post-Morrill outreach model.

Granted, we have our work cut out for us — or, as farmers would say, we have a “long row to hoe.”

Even so, I, for one, am convinced that our history and experiences uniquely equip us to undertake this transformation.

One thing is certain: Despite these challenges, post-Morrillization is no cause for demoralization.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.

A “Strategery” That Seems to Be Working

To borrow a rather memorable term from Saturday Night Live, our “strategery” seems to be working.

Several months ago, I felt inspired to undertake a rewrite of Epsilon Sigma Phi founder W.A. Lloyd’s beloved Extension Creed, written in 1922.

Tinkering with this priceless intellectual artifact of Cooperative Extension identity is undoubtedly considered an act of sheer effrontery in some quarters, and that’s precisely why I did it.

I intended for this to be a disruptive event within Extension — a way to get people focused on the imperative need to transform Cooperative Extension into the 21st century knowledge organization it simply must become.  I wanted it to spark a dialogue about the traits and skills that 21st century Extension educators must acquire to become effective change agents in this emerging global knowledge economy.

To a moderate degree, it appears to have done precisely that.

I’m indebted to two people: Carol Whatley, my department head, who graciously agreed to work my version of the creed into a beautifully rendered .pdf document, and NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, who has managed to get this debate rolling on NDSU’s “The Winnowing Oar: Web Tech in Agriculture and Extension.”

Alongside the creed, Bob was even thoughtful enough to post a word cloud, which adeptly summarizes much of what I was trying to convey.

For me, the most salient section of the creed is the penultimate phrase:

I believe that the prevailing winds of change are summoning us to do what we have always done best: to work, to teach, and to inspire through dialogue and empowerment, demonstrating to our diverse audiences the value of accepting and embracing change as an inevitable facet of life and as an opportunity to formulate new ways of thinking, living, and working.

Collaborative learning is the future. Indeed, as Bob pointed out in one of his earlier pieces, the times have produced a new social and communicative order in which leaders no longer can “hold themselves above or apart from the community.”

As I’ve stressed a time or two before, Extension’s long-time institutional experience with collaborative learning is one of our greatest strengths.  We have been the ones least inclined to play the ivory tower game.  Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired by so many Extension faculty members who have garnered national and even international reputations without ever abandoning their common touch.

That’s a big reason why my faith in this movement’s future is unwavering.

Extension’s Critical Need for Public Intellectuals

Anthony Giddens

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, one of many public intellectuals throughout the world adding their perspectives to contemporary issues of the day.

As some you undoubtedly have perceived by now, one of the focuses of this weblog is to underscore the need for our becoming different — to find ways to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, from other knowledge providers.

The thoughts I shared yesterday regarding Extension’s transformation from technological crusader to conciliator take me back to a piece I wrote last year about our acute need to cultivate a national corps of public intellectuals.

Yes, I know, it sounds a bit grandiose, but I’m more convinced than ever of this burning need. Indeed, as I see it, cultivating a committed nationwide corps of articulate, perceptive public intellectuals is a key step in our organizational transformation.  It offers an immense opportunity for creative sedition — acting within our current category while playing beyond stereotype.

What exactly is a public intellectual?  Traditionally speaking, one who deals with ideas and knowledge within the context of public discourse, usually within a mass media context, though with the advent of the Web, this role has evolved somewhat.

We need more of these people, especially within farming.  The transition from the current scientific farming model to one that combines elements of the current model with sustainable practices is destined to be a difficult one.

As I stressed yesterday, grassroots Extension educators have a huge role to fill helping producers undertake this transition — to put it another way, helping conciliate these somewhat conflicting visions. They inevitably will be borrowing a page or two from our horticultural educators, who are already dealing with a similar challenge helping their growers weigh and balance these issues.

However, this issue is playing out within a wider public context too.

Earlier this week, a New York Times digital and pop culture columnist Virginia Heffernan offered a lighthearted account of the 50-year feud between those standpat food traditionalists, commonly known as foodies, and the food techies who eagerly abandoned traditional food preparation techniques for the modern conveniences of life — can openers, microwaves and grocery store rotisseries.

It’s a lighthearted treatment or a comparatively light subject, yes, but this 50-year feud closely resembles what is taking place between the proponents and detractors of the conventional scientific farming practices.  It is a feud ensuing throughout wider avenues of public discourse between those who harbor misgivings about the implications of technology and those who, despite a few misgivings, are largely convinced that technology will lead us to a better ways of living and working.

Issues such as these are screaming to be put into perspective. Who but Extension educators are better equipped to put these issues into context?

Our history has uniquely equipped us for such a task.  We have amassed an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the great strengths of Cooperative Extension, though, to be sure, one that has not been cultivated to its fullest potential.

As our rule evolves from that of technological crusader to that of technological conciliator, the need for this corps of public intellectuals will become even more critical.

To repeat my earlier suggestion, we need to start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We should nurture their talents and inspire them to become public intellectuals in the fullest measure of that term — people who can identity as well as capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about the food-and-fiber issues that lie just ahead of us.

They must learn to become effective social media users, op-ed writers and trained speakers thoroughly equipped to engage clients and stakeholders in a variety of public contexts.

Yes, we need to be cultivating a corps of public intellectuals and promoting them with the same zeal with which Division I universities promote their star athletes.

Our organizational future will depend on them.

From Crusader to Conciliator: Extension’s Coming Transformation

"Agriculture Move Onward"

"Agriculture Moves Onward." The final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture and a testament to the boundless faith Americans once invested in the march of scientific/technological progress.

Some 100 years ago, Extension educators were crusaders in the truest contemporary meaning of that word.

We were crusaders for a cause, the cause of scientific/technological progress in farming and homemaking. Extension educators were dispatched to every rural hamlet in America to impart the message of scientific and technological progress.

In manner of speaking, we were techno-crusaders.

Perhaps no other artistic rendering better expresses our techno-crusader role than the final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.  Commissioned along with the other murals for display at the 1939 Alabama State Fair, it underscored how adopting scientific and technological practices on the farm would secure a veritable cornucopia of material goods and creature comforts.

This faith in scientific and technological achievement was not confined to Extension educators. Americans in general once possessed an almost boundless faith in science’s potential for securing material comforts and, with it, a generous measure of human happiness.

As a one of my Extension colleagues once noted, Americans as recently as the 1950s routinely passed highway billboards unabashedly proclaiming “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” without so much as blinking an eye.

Such a message today would invariably be interpreted as a twisted joke.

How times have changed: Extension educators are now struggling to navigate their way across an increasingly steep, jagged divide between techno-skeptics, who harbor a deep mistrust of technology and its long-term implications, and techies, who, despite some misgivings, generally believe that each technological advance ultimately works to secure a better life and world for all of us.

But why should we be surprised by this? Science, after all, is as much a process of refinement as it is of discovery.  With this refinement has come a clearer understanding of the environmental costs associated with scientific and technological progress.  Scientific farming practices have proven to be no exception.

To be sure, we Extension educators should take immense pride in what we have built within the last century.

As one of the world’s premier philosophers of technology, Kevin Kelly, stresses in his recent book, What Technology Wants, the highly mechanized, petrol-dependent farming model we helped construct in the last century has been indispensable in many respects.  It provided the “foundation of leisure” that promoted a drastic increase in population, which, in turn, generated the intellectual insights that define much of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, Kelly is one of a number of techno-pundits who foresee the inevitable rise of a new, more sustainable, possibly even more decentralized, farming model, though one that incorporates many of the scientific and technological attributes of the current model.

In building a new model that incorporates elements of scientific/technological farming and sustainability, the need for Extension educators will be more critical than ever.

Who but Extension is equipped for this task?  Our intimate understanding of the current scientific farming model provides us with one critical insight that many green proponents are now only reluctantly beginning to accept: replacing the prevailing farming model with a wholly sustainable model is not only impractical but impossible given the present state of science.

We have a indispensable role to play in the future not only in bridging a divide between hostile camps but also in helping articulate the elements of this new farming model, piece by piece.

Consequently, we will be called upon to abandon our traditional role of technological crusader and to accept a new role as technological conciliator.

Our new role as conciliator not only will be confined to the farm sector.  There will be an increasing need for public intellectuals within Extension — people equipped to explain to the general public how this new farming model will be expressed and how it ultimately will affect them.

Herein lies an enormous opportunity for Extension — an opportunity for profound organizational transformation.

Future generations of Extension educators may reflect on this chapter of our history as our finest hour.

Twenty-First Century Extension Creed Now Available with Creative Commons License

Along with other Extension programs throughout the country, Alabama Extension is working to spark a dialogue about the traits and skills that 21st century Extension educators must acquire to become effective change agents in this emerging global knowledge economy.

As part of this effort, we have just published “A 21st Century Extension Creed,” which essentially functions as an updating of Epsilon Sigma Phi founder W.A. Lloyd’s beloved Extension Creed of 1922.

The 21st Century Extension Creed, while affirming our links to the past, also asserts our strong commitment to the emerging values of the current century: mutual respect, openness, creativity and innovation.

This publication carries a Creative Commons License, which means that you are not only free to use this in your own state but also adapt it to your specific purposes.