Monthly Archives: November 2011

Our World and Welcome to It

The Jesup Wagon, developed by Tuskegee educator and Extension visionary Booker T. Washington, was an early example of curating.

Recently a long-tenured and highly distinguished Extension educator related to me that he vowed early in his Extension career never to write a refereed journal article, focusing all of his efforts instead on cultivating close working relationships with his clients.  As he saw it, cultivating these relationships and serving his clients as a trusted, valuable resource was more important than building a curriculum vitae.

He’s remained true to his promise for decades.  Over the course of his career he has conducted all types of applied research on behalf of his growers, all of which have provided immediate benefit to his clients.

I couldn’t help thinking of him today rereading Brit founder Britanny Morin’s spot-on article about the curated Web.

For those of you in Extension who think we’ve reached the end of our tether, take heart. If Morin is right — and I believe that she is — we are nearing our second life.

Why? Because we’ve have taken the first steps on a knowledge landscape that conforms remarkably closely to the values of Cooperative Extension work.

If you think about it, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington not only articulated the core values of Cooperative Extension work but also those that define life in the 21st century.

Morin’s piece reminded me of that.  As she relates in her article, the Web, despite its vast strides in organizing and prioritizing knowledge, is still a daunting, if not threatening presence, to millions of Web surfers.

All those algorithmically generated pages lead some surfers to wonder: Is this really what I’m looking for? What if these results are not specific enough?

Not surprisingly, the late Steve Jobs anticipated this, Morin observes.

“I think we need editorial now more than ever right now,” he said at last year’s D8 conference.

For her part, Morin agrees, so long as one distinguishes between editors and curators.

“These days, anyone on the Web can be an editor, but not everyone can be both an editor and a curator,” she says.

Yes, we need editors.  They serve an indispensable role improving the content provided by others.

However, it takes a special person indeed to be both an editor and curator, Morin contends.

Curators choose among different difference sources of information to provide the best ones available, often adding new ideas and perspectives.

Simply put, editors refine, while curators define.

Ever since curating was employed within a Web context, I’ve been struck by how closely this concept resembles the Extension educator’s role.  As Morin so aptly describes it, curators “find the best pieces of this content and evolve it into a bigger picture or idea.”

Curators sure sound like Extension educators to me.

This brings me back to those visionaries Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington.  What were Knapp’s crop demonstrations and Washington’s Jesup wagons other than early forms of curating?

As she sees it, though, curators provide something even more significant: a trusted source, someone to whom people can “relate to and trust, and who have expertise, real-life experiences, and the ability to filter and share bold perspectives.”

Are you beginning to get the picture?

By now, I hope you’re seeing why I remain such an unrepentant optimist about the future of Extension work.

I have seen the future, and it is Cooperative Extension.  I have seen the men and women of this brave new world, and they are Extension educators.

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Building a Cadre of Cooperative Extension Public Intellectuals

Rodin's ThinkerTime after time as I was growing up, my mother would remind me of the old maxim “actions speak louder than words.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing about the paramount need to produce a cadre of Extension public intellectuals.  Recently, I’ve felt the urge to follow my mom’s old maxim and back up those words with action.

I and a couple of colleagues put the final touches a draft proposal to develop a nationwide training effort with the goal of producing a cadre of Cooperative Extension public intellectuals.

Yes, I know: Public Intellectual is a highfalutin’ term. Even so, I think an understanding of public intellectuals and the role that they necessarily must serve in our own ranks is critical to our future.

Public intellectuals are essentially defined as the thinkers, usually journalists and academics, who not only articulate but also offer constructive solutions to the most pressing public policy issues of the day.

Two critical concerns inspired this proposal: first, the fact that Extension’s longstanding role as a scientific vanguard is under serious threat.

One example of how this threat is played out is the growing disdain, especially among many of this nation’s public intellectual class, for what has historically been known as scientific farming practices.

A fight is ensuing between those who believe that scientific farming techniques present a dire threat to the environment and those who, despite a few misgivings about current practices, are nonetheless convinced that scientific farming methods will continue to secure for us what they have in the past: a sufficient, highly diverse and cost-effective food supply.

Most of us associated with agricultural outreach understand the acute suffering that would accompany a wholesale abandonment of scientific farming methods.  The problem is that legions of ordinary Americans do not.

Without a doubt, the farming model that emerges within the next few decades will be a hybridized one, incorporating elements of the older model as well as many characteristics of a more sustainable model, though scientific farming practices will comprise the cornerstone of this new model.

Ordinary Americans need to understand this.  Moreover, they need to know the high stakes associated with these issues.  That is why I believe the times are crying out for a cadre of Extension public intellectuals: educators with the requisite training and communicative skills to put such complex issues into perspective on behalf of rank-and-file Americans.

Cooperative Extension’s history has uniquely equipped us for such a role. We have built an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, not only showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use but also building consensus for change.

As I see it, though, this longstanding vanguard role has not been developed to its fullest potential — the second reason behind this proposal.  While we have been highly effective players at the grassroots throughout much of our 100-year history, we have not carried over this success to national levels of discourse.  Simply put, we have not been as successful engaging this nation’s leading public intellectuals at major daily newspapers and networks and, more recently, influential social media venues.

We need to begin cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We must train a new national cadre of Extension educators to become spokespersons in the fullest measure of this term — people fully equipped to capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about food-and-fiber issues and other highly complex, largely misunderstood issues — public intellectuals.

This cadre of spokesperson must be trained to become effective social media users, skilled op-ed writers and highly effective and compelling speakers — simply put, a vanguard of educators fully equipped to engage other intellectuals at the levels of discourse and to provide insights in deeply enriched contexts.

Lessons from Campus Radio

“No one brings a radio to their dorm today.”

If any sentence best expresses the sweeping changes that have overtaken campus radio within the last 20 years, it’s this one.

The observation was made by a recent Yale graduate who helped his university develop its online-only campus radio station while he was a student.

In one sense, this almost seems inconceivable to me, a broadcast-film-communication major who cut his teeth on campus radio while a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the early to mid-1980s. It underscores one of the great realities of this new order: that no technology is sacrosanct no matter how seemingly ubiquitous or indispensable.

A generation ago, who would have imagined that a radio station could be perceived in any way other than as a jock sitting in a cramped studio amid mikes, mixing consoles and spinning turntables and broadcasting over a FCC-prescribed segment of bandwidth?

This stereotype has been all but shattered.  As the New York Times’s Kyle Spencer reported last Sunday in a fascinating account of the evolution of campus radio, stations are transforming themselves into “multimedia platforms they believe that students with unprecedented tech appetites actually want, and it’s changing the ethos, content and vibe of collegiate stations.”

Campus radio, like so many other media in these tumultuous times, is busily engaged in stitching together platforms or, as the case may be, stacking one atop another.  But why shouldn’t they? If, as the article relates, students are coming to campus with smartphones, iPods and tablets on which they can listen to music via a multitude of apps, shouldn’t these stations be evolving to meet these changing needs?

What does this possibly have to do with Cooperative Extension, an entity that in historical, temperamental and philosophical terms has little in common with campus radio?

Everything.

The less engaged Cooperative Extension is with Smartphones, Ipods, and tablets, the more these technologies will be tied up in other uses. Here’s another way of looking at it: Each of these technologies represents a potential diversion away from time that otherwise could be invested in Cooperative Extension-related subject matter and programming.

To their immense credit, many of those associated with campus radio have taken this critical lesson to heart.  They understand that within this new communications environment, “luring listeners and keeping them entertained is a matter of survival” — small wonder why they transforming their stations into multimedia platforms.

The times are calling on us to acquire a platforms mindset too. We must learn how to conceive and build platforms that work in tandem with others or, when the need arises, to build them on top of obsolete ones.

We must take other lessons to heart too, especially the critical understanding that these new platforms will create new challenges as well as opportunities.  They will alter our organizational “ethos, content and vibe” much as they have campus radio stations and in ways we can now scarcely imagine.

We not only have to be prepared for that new reality but also comfortable with it.

We must also learn how to improvise as we never have before in our history — when the need arises,  altering and even dismantling and rebuilding platforms to better conform with emerging technological needs.

Likewise, we must  learn how to conceive and design apps to meet our users’ rapidly evolving technological needs.

We’ll also learn how to tailor these platforms to reach niche audiences, whether these happen to be defined by special needs or interests.

One of our great challenges in the future will be learning how to balance the demands of our traditional stakeholders and clients with those who are reached, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through these new outreach platforms. Extension programs have been traditionally rooted in communities and states. Over time, though, these rapid changes will lead require a considerable rethinking of what defines local.

Another lesson that already has been driven home to collegiate radio will also be driven home to us with a vengeance:  Like techno-savvy college students, our clients no longer will be dictated to.

Why? Because technology has liberated them.

The Two Critical Concepts of the 21st Century: Generative Capacity and Collaboration

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project has inspired calls for a more open, collaborative scientific model.

Okay, pardon this passionate outburst but I want to reaffirm something — something I’ve banged on about ad nauseam for the past couple of years: the absolutely indispensable influences generative capacity and collaboration will play in our future.

An article I devoured earlier this morning confirms why these two concepts will likely provide the standard on which public and private entities alike will rise and fall within the 21st century knowledge economy.

Oh, and pardon the unwieldy term “generative capacity.” I simply can’t come up with anything that better describes what will likely be one of the two principal preoccupations for the foreseeable future. I owe Steven Johnson for this term.

Simply put, the massive sharing and social collaboration that has accompanied networking has enabled all forms of thinking, formal and informal alike, to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

Much like the 15th century Gutenberg Press, networking is changing all facets of how we develop and share knowledge.  Even science, the principal source of refined, formal knowledge, is proving to be no exception.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University Tim Gowers engineered a remarkable demonstration of the significance of generative capacity to scientific inquiry when he used his personal blog to solicit the help of people around the world in solving a highly complicated mathematical problem.

His effort, cleverly dubbed the Polymath Project, proceeded on the relatively straightforward premise that online tools can be used to enlist disparate brains into a temporary but greatly enhanced cognitive intelligence.

Within weeks Gowers’s problem was solved as mathematicians from sundry perspectives and with varying levels of expertise weighed in with insights.

Granted, not all of Gowers’s collaborative efforts have met with similar success, but his efforts have been successful enough to lead a number of observers to conclude that this networked approach to problem solving represents the future of science.

As the title of an Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal article aptly observed, “The new Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share” — or, in other words, collaborate.

In fact, that rather clever title underscores how these two factors, generative capacity and collaboration, will be inextricably linked in the future.   Borrowing the lyrics from that beloved Sinatra classic, “Love and Marriage,” what unfolds over the next few decades will only underscore that “you can’t have one without the other.”

Collaboration is the critical guarantee of generativeness (again, excuse my digression from standard English).  They work hand in hand.  Optimal generative capacity can only be ensured within open, fluid networks, which are secured only through optimal levels of collaboration.  One of the principal preoccupation of all knowledge providers in the future will be building fluid learning environments — platforms as I prefer to call them — that strive to secure the highest levels of collaboration and generative capacity.

For what it’s worth, I’m personally convinced that science will prove no exception.   Yes, there is resistance.  Proprietorship has been a defining characteristic of science for the last three centuries.  It will take years to divest scientists of the increasingly antiquated notion that writing for professionally refereed journal articles is more valuable to the future of human progress than open sharing of knowledge within extended networks.

Even so, the advent of a new, open and networked scientific model that ensures the fullest measure of generative capacity by securing optimal levels of collaboration is inevitable. As the WSJ article stresses, the immense potential of “discoveries not yet dreamt of” is simply too valuable to ignore.

Generative capacity lies at the heart of this immense potential, and as growing number of scientists will learn, it will only be secured through maximum levels of collaboration.