The Coming Extension Extinction

tar pit

What must Cooperative Extension do to avoid consignment to the digital tar pit?

There is a longstanding and very cynical corruption of the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules.”

In the digital learning world, it works a little differently. Only those who build the most fluid and adaptive digital networks — networks that are highly reciprocal, generative and, most important of all, responsive to the needs of contemporary learners — will survive and rule in the future.

As a few of you may know, I retired last September from the Cooperative Extension System.   Frankly, I don’t regret my decision. It appears, based on some experiences within the last few years of my career, that Cooperative Extension, despite its long and illustrious history, is one of those entities consigned for for digital extinction.

Frankly, as I consider all that is happening, I hold out little hope.

A Lumbering Dinosaur

Quite honestly, Cooperative Extension is a living, breathing dinosaur lumbering around only because there is still an available food source within its reach: a few legislators and funders still willing, however reluctantly, to support antiquated delivery methods.

Shortly before I retired, my very gracious department head called me into his office to conduct an impromptu exit interview. “If you could reinvent the Cooperative Extension System, what would you do?”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Devote the overwhelming bulk of funding within the next decade to transform Extension into a bona fide digital delivery system.”

As I see it, this transformation should be undertaken with the same seriousness with which an emergency room staff struggles to resuscitate a dying man.

The future of Cooperative Extension lies in developing the apps and other online digital technologies that will engage a new generation of learners within highly fluid networks — learners who consider traditional forms of delivery as passe or, at the very best, enhancements to digital delivery methods.

For most Extension educators, the next question is likely to be this: “What happens to the Extension grassroots educators?”

A Newly Conceived Role for Educators

Quite honestly, I think the times are calling on us to completely reconceive the role of grassroots Cooperative Extension System professionals.  As painful as this new reality may seem, the primary role of grassroots Cooperative Extension professional in the future will be serving primarily as technical professionals supporting the apps and other digital technology conceived, designed and distributed via their state headquarters or in cooperative with other Extension and land-grant university entities.

To be sure, an agent’s educational background in, say, agricultural education, will be helpful in this new role.  And, yes, there will still be the need for traditional Extension agents to continue reaching older client groups with traditional methods.  And, admittedly, there will be the continuing need for Extension professionals to lend a hand to clients who, for whatever reason, occasionally must go off the grid and experiment with some technique or learning methods for which digital delivery methods are unsuited.

But make no mistake: Digital delivery methods are the future.  Either Cooperative Extension undertakes a wholesale transformation very soon, or it will be completely swamped by this digital tsunami.  I’m reminded of that riveting scene of the astronauts in the new science fiction thriller Interstellar who have a difficult but essential technical task to complete before they are completely swamped by the extraterrestrial tsunami-force wave.  Cooperative Extension is in a remarkably similar predicament.

Will We Adapt Quickly Enough?

But will we adapt soon enough?  Frankly, I have serious doubts.  A couple of years ago, a close friend related an unusually unsettling story to me.  While she was paying a visit to her state Extension director, she pointed out an Extension specialist who had gone to great lengths in warning other Extension professionals about these threats to Cooperative Extension’s survival.

Through blogging and other digital techniques, he had managed to carve out a reasonably large national following and, along with a handful of other intrepid Extension professionals, had even managed to spark a dialogue in Cooperative Extension ranks.

“Well, that’s good,” the Extension director replied, “but we don’t pay him to do that.”

Reflect on that statement for a few moments: “We don’t pay him to do that.”

If one phrase in the future is likely to constitute the most fitting epitaph for a failed educational movement, it is that one. At the risk of sounding exceedingly blunt, if not impertinent, state Extension directors all across this country had darn well better start paying people to think their way through these challenges — and soon.

But again, I harbor serious doubts that they will.

Attend any Extension planning meeting anywhere in the country and the main topic of discussion is inevitably about workshops — workshops, workshops, workshops — and, oh, mind you, check your e-mail for accompanying pdf forms and press releases!

And, if these workshop planners are really technically savvy (for Extension professionals) they’ll remind everyone to be sure “to report these workshops through their appropriate social media channels.”

As I said, our leadership and much of our rank and file are lumbering dinosaurs inching their way to the tar pits.

Is there a way out?  We had better get busy finding it.

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6 responses to “The Coming Extension Extinction

  1. I agree, we need digitalization of extension materials, use of social media networks. We also, however, need to be in the field, meeting with farmers, hosting meetings, and engaging traditional extension methods. It’s silly to think one form of education is going to do it- I learn best when issues are presented in multiple forms- why wouldn’t anyone else?

    This isn’t all or nothing. It’s a marriage of extension techniques that are needed. Farm visits and questions from phone calls provide content for blog entries, which provide content for twitter. These entries answer questions other farmers have (remember the saying that if you have a question, ask it b/c someone else is thinking the same?), reducing overall effort, efficiently using time allowing us to serve more farmers.

    Extension is not dead. Extension is not dying. The need now is greater than ever. What’s dying is the passion of extension faculty engaging new challenges, stepping out of our comfort zones. That’s a personnel problem, not the problem with the mission of land-grant based extension programs. So if it dies, there is no one to blame except ourselves.

    It’s not going to die on my watch.

  2. Amen. Mine either. I must admit that I am confused by the divergent points of view expressed in the April 4 and November 18 blogs. The April post talks about the human infrasrructure and the November posr seems to be exactly opposite.

    I find Extension professionals to be highly creative and effective change agents that are engaged in their comminuties and deeply valued by the clientele. I also find that they seldom just one one method of delivery and in fact use several. They are not at all opposed to the digital interface but often have to maintain both traditional and non traditional methods.

    I think we have to commit as Extension professionals to find the appropriate application of technology, where it can leverage our human and knowledge resource and understand where it cannot.

    Extension must certainly evolve, and there is much progress to be made in the digital area. In a world of Google and Wikipedia, we have to be more than just information. We must figure out how to interact in the online spaces in ways equvalent to our traditional f2f methods. If the digital dimension is to mature, we must learn how to build trusted relationships with those with whom we interact.

    Thanks for the blog and the stimulating ideas. If we stumble it Extension, and we will, I truly hope it is not due to complacency.

    Jimmy Henning
    Associate Dean fornExtension
    University of Kentucky

  3. A coda to your dead-on post, Jim:

    Where are the extension professionals in those vibrant online communities surging up all around them, in which people plan, discuss, self-organize, and self-educate to solve local and regional problems collaboratively?

    I lurk in a lot of online communities rich with discussions of topics familiar to extension folks, but I almost never spot an extension participant active in the group. As you say, they don’t get paid to do that.

    Usually, these online participants know each other in the real world, where both their problems and the solutions exist. But they find social media and other online forums provide exceptional multi-party communication tools that no amount of workshops and fact sheets can deliver.

    The diversity of voices in a given online community may not all possess the sorts of technical credentials extension requires of its professionals, but each brings specific, intimate, and valuable knowledge of the local situation and the challenges at hand.

    Equally important, each individual participant, in turn, connects the group to his/her unique, robust information and support networks.

    Sadly, most extension “programming” still assumes a one-way leadership role for extension educators and specialists. “Our experts have what you need. Get it here.”

    Ordinary people now have online access to many research databases, and are helping each other analyze and critique the findings relative to their needs. In some instances, they conduct their own real-world experiments, with or without outside expertise, and share what they’ve learned with peers around the world.

    Enough for now. Enjoy that retirement, Jim.

  4. There’s been lots of chatter in social media (and around water coolers, I’d guess) about this- I’m glad to see it being discussed. I agree with others that it’s not either/or- people want easier access to information and the research in library science points that out more and more (stay tuned for my blog this week for more on that) – but they also want an experience which is hard to have with only a digital presence.

    I think it helps us clarify that we need to get sharper about our role and purpose- and enhance our digital access while focusing the experience of extension for our constituents. Plus it’s always good to do what one of my friends calls “naming our Voldemorts.” In the Harry Potter movies- the bad guy gains power through fear, even the fear of saying his name. My concern is that we all have Voldemorts- fears we are too nervous to even name which prevents us from really exploring how we more fully address and resolve them. It diminishes their fear-inducing power when we can name them. Kudos to Jim for naming our Voldemort.

  5. There is a perception that online and digital means content and information and that there is no human behind the digital resource. If this is our view of the future, Cooperative Extension will become less and less prevalent and and less and less relevant. Being online does not mean we are faceless and nameless. Being online does not mean not existing in a local community. We cannot continue to see being digital and online as the polarized end of our local presence. In fact, those who are creating online presence and credibility (like David Doll is and like a few other faculty and local educators) are doing both and are marrying the two. and at some point their work is not online or offline, but is just their work.

    Cooperative Extension’s future is a participatory online presence and that digital products are part of that online presence. We cannot create relationships online, be part of networks online, build credibility online (and maybe locally), extend our reach (we have a reach problem), have generative effect, and be agile and responsive without products being digital (online) and open.

    My favorite quote is “Only those who build the most fluid and adaptive digital networks — networks that are highly reciprocal, generative and, most important of all, responsive to the needs of contemporary learners — will survive and rule in the future.”

    Networks are made of people, not objects, not apps, and not content. It’s the people around those products that will continue Extension’s future. We have certainly believed that for the last 100 years. We need to extend that attitude to the online world, NOW.

    In support of Jim’s point, we cannot continue to emphasize traditional ways of working without creating a presence individually and organizationally using open and accessible products that can be discovered, shared, and built upon. If we are not doing this, our local face to face relationships will only take us so far and maybe that looks like a lumbering dinosaur.

    Let’s stop seeing the world and our local communities as digital or non digital, or online and offline. Products are digital or should be. People belong to networks and communities. I hope too that we can start seeing our presence as one presence, not an online presence and offline presence and that we are part of networks–not just networks that are based in physical context only.

  6. Great post Jim. I especially love the alliteration in the title – “Extension Extinction” is very effective. This is a critically important conversation. I tried to address this in my own blog post in July, http://imaginingamerica.org/blog/2014/07/01/the-world-is-going-digital-where-is-extension-going/.

    The public is rapidly looking first to a screen in order to get information about things they care about. In the midst of the Ebola scare, where did the public turn most frequently? Wikipedia. Public health experts recognize this and are actively editing Wikipedia topics like Ebola to insure quality content. (http://nyti.ms/1rHItbb). Are Extension Specialists editing Wikipedia topics of special interest to their constituencies? Are our professionals participating in online discussions and sharing good information in a multitude of digital formats?

    In Rock County Wisconsin, we’re piloting a project that has our local educators thinking “Digital First.” We’re providing them with a digital coach who is helping each of the team to reorient their programming so that they are thinking first about digital delivery before planning more conventional approaches. We hope to demonstrate that a robust digital presence at the local level can lead to a much larger audience for Extension.

    As Extension budgets tighten, the message is to do more with less. The digital landscape offers the opportunity to do that. We can all point to people who aren’t online, but how much longer can Extension afford to serve that population? The efficiency of digital delivery will allow us to serve more people with less resources, and our educational services will be more easily found and more widely shared.

    I find that many of our faculty and staff are eager to move more actively into the digital environment. They are already living that way in their personal lives, as are most of us. What so many of them need is the encouragement and support to spend more work time getting themselves positioned and recognized in that environment.

    Today’s senior Extension leaders are largely of the baby boom generation. We baby boomers need to recall the time earlier in our careers when we were pushing the boundaries of convention, frustrated by our elders who seemed to impede the generational progress that we were ready for. The next generation of Extension is ready to advance our work with next generation tools and techniques. Jim’s essay asks if Extension can adapt quickly enough to survive. I think we can, but only if today’s Extension leadership opens the door and invites this new approach to a digital first Extension. Let’s not stand in the way of the future.

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