A 12-Point Recovery Plan for Extension?

Internet Map

A map illustrating the dense network connections of the Internet.

I’m an unrepentant movie buff.  I can’t get enough of old movies, virtually all types of movies, and I catch myself every day mentally replaying scenes from some of my favorite flicks, much as one would an endearing old tune.

One film that will remain deeply etched in my mind is “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” starring Susan Hayward, an exceptionally well-acted biopic about the late singer/entertainer Lillian Roth.

Through a series of unusual misfortunes, beginning with a psychologically domineering and manipulative stage mother, Roth developed a debilitating alcohol addiction.  The movie depicts the horrific downward spiral that followed until Roth finally summoned the courage to follow AA’s 12-Point Recovery Program.

Oddly, that movie popped into my mind in the course of reflecting on Cathann Kress’s very considerate and thoughtful reply to a piece I posted last month titled “The Coming Extension Extinction,” which has ignited some impassioned discussion within Cooperative Extension ranks in the weeks since it was posted.

Dr. Kress’s response eloquently expressed a theme reflected in many of the other critiques I’ve received within the last few weeks.  She contends that the digital imperative does not present Extension with any sort of existential crisis.  We can have our cake and eat it too.  We can still do what we’ve always done so well — reach people with meetings and workshops, even as we gear up to address the digital challenges.

Addictive Extension Behavior?

With all due respect to Dr. Kress’s thoughtful comments, that’s the part that not only worries me but also reminds me of Lillian Roth’s perennial struggle with addiction.

In some respects, our fixation on traditional delivery methods resembles a self-destructive addiction. My fear is that this pattern of thinking amounts to a kind of psychological entrapment. It presents too many of us with the excuse to stick with business as usual — in many cases, to lapse into what my father often described as “Let George do it-style” thinking.

“I’m already past the midpoint my Extension career,” says the typical forty-something Extension professional.  “I’ve built a strong program reaching my people through workshops and field days. Let the younger agents worry about all this digital stuff.”

And considering that the median age of Extension professionals is likely well past 40, this kind of entrenched mindset will exert even more corrosive effects in the future.

Extension Needs a 12-Point Recovery Program

This brings me back to AA and the Twelve-Point Recovery Program.  In a real sense, Extension needs to flesh out a series of systematic steps toward recovery — some strategy to break us of this ironclad commitment to older delivery methods.  And along with this, we need to conceive ways to reach the growing numbers of younger clients for whom face-to-face encounters are not considered as convenient or as valuable as virtual interactions.

And allow me to raise once again the added challenge of generative capacity. The massive sharing and social collaboration made possible by networking enables information to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

The Golden Rule of Success

That is why success in the 21st century is succinctly expressed in this corruption of the Golden Rule: He who builds the most adaptive, fluid and generative networks rules.  Success in the digital era is all about who builds the most fluid and adaptive digital networks, the most highly reciprocal and generative networks — networks that are responsive to the needs of contemporary learners, especially younger ones.

We can’t secure this kind of generative capacity through old delivery methods.  Why? Because they are not generative enough — they no longer generate adequate volumes of information. To put it another way, the networks constructed via these older delivery methods simply aren’t scalable for growing numbers of people, especially younger people.

Yes, as I’ve said before, there is a place for traditional one-to-one delivery methods.  Even younger people occasionally want to enhance their virtual interactions with one-to-one engagement.

But make no mistake, the future is digital.

The future belongs to those who not only appreciate the awesome power of generative capacity but who actively harness it.  The future belongs only to those who build highly fluid, highly generative, digital networks.

‘Nuff said.

Have a nice day.

5 responses to “A 12-Point Recovery Plan for Extension?

  1. Great followup to your previous post, Jim. You’re spot on. Allow me to provide some support, as well as insight, for your comments by giving several real-life examples of barriers to tech adoption that we’ve come across during our Educational Technology pilot project in Ohio over the past year and a half.

    Barrier #1: “Will I get credit for creating digital content? How will this fit into my P&T (promotion and tenure) process?” The answer to this currently is – “I don’t know.” As an Ed Tech, nothing frustrates me more than having this issue be given as both an excuse to not make the digital first transition, and have to simultaneously admit that this is a valid excuse due to our work culture.

    Barrier #2: “If technology does not neatly fit into our P&T process, I’m going to spend the next three weeks developing a program that may attract no more than a handful of people. Because I’ll actually get credit for that.” Enough said.

    Barrier #3: “Where is the log-in to our new blogsite? If I can’t find it I’m just going to give up.” In the name of all-out transparency, I witnessed a tenured Educator throw her phone across the table during a blog author training because she couldn’t find the WordPress logo to log in. We have had several Educators who do prefer to hand the “tech stuff” to the younger professionals. They try for 5 minutes, get frustrated, and give up. The main issue with that? Younger professionals still look to the more seasoned program staff to lead the way. Many aren’t diving into online spaces (at least professionally) head-first until they see their colleagues do the same, for many reasons.

    Barrier #4: Continuing to require program staff to “be-all” and “do-all”. Personally, I feel the most important question we should be asking ourselves going into these next 100 years is, “What is the Extension brand? No, really, what is it?” We can’t possibly stand out from the crowd (especially in digital spaces) if we continue to deliver programming in all four program areas and focus on every single topic that could affect a human being over their lifetime. This is why 100 years after Extension was created people still do not know who we are or what we do. How long do we want this to continue? In a digital world, not having an even somewhat identifiable brand will most certainly spell our extinction.

    The other aspect of barrier #4? = An Educator in Ohio is now expected to be: skilled in grant writing, research, teaching, working with the public, writing for publications, curriculum development, social media, video creation, blog writing and editing, branding, publication development, leadership, team management, and the list goes on and on. They need to be a communications specialist, educational specialist, content specialist, marketing specialist, etc. simultaneously. I would challenge everyone with this question – does such a person exist? If an Educator has expertise in curriculum development, should we expect that they be just as skilled in video creation? Should they be? This has been a major frustration of new Extension professionals in our state who have come, not stayed very long, …and gone.

    Extension’s future will be reliant on how well we define what “program staff” specialize in.

    Should we focus on the content – or on the delivery? If the answer is delivery (which it is in my mind since our main role is to educate), then we move to online spaces and decrease the importance in grant writing, research, and content creation – leave that up to the faculty at our Universities.

    There are more barriers and issues we’ve faced in Ohio over the past 18 months that I haven’t mentioned above, but with the issues also comes hope. We’re extremely lucky to have the leadership support we do in Ohio for digital and online content creation; the creation of positions solely focused on Educational Technology in Extension was a stepping stone to bigger and better things to come. We still have a lot of work to do. And there are many – MANY – like-minded Extension colleagues around the United States that I have met through the new eXtension Educational Technology Learning Network who have the ambition, creativity, skills, and knowledge we need to truly move into digital spaces, do it well, and create quality digital content.

    Thanks to Paul Hill (@4Hpro) for reintroducing Jim’s November post to me tonight via Twitter and leading me to this recent post.

    I’m looking forward to more thoughtful conversation and kudos to Jim for keeping us honest.

  2. Both of your posts are dead on. Many of the books I have been reading over the past few years have been pointing to the same conclusion that active participation in a digital world is not an option. http://tei.sunyjcc.edu/?p=204. This must start with the leadership. In the book Rework, the authors pointed out that the CEO would not send an intern to deal with other business leaders, yet, we assign the responsibility for social media to the lowest paid. https://tubarks.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/book-review-rework/ Everyone has a responsibility to digitize, curate, and share content in this new world.

  3. I agree with your points, but now what can we do? I am a MG on the National EMG Social Media Team, former Distance Learning administrator. I agree that digital delivery is essential and am committed to delivering it. I need less debate and more clear instruction. All too often I see people whining and not enough doing. HELP US pseudo-techs get instruction on how to create videos for YouTube, for ex. Give us one funded position committed to teaching and monitoring these things and we will help Extension do the rest!

    In the meantime, I’m learning on my own as best I can.

  4. Always enjoy your posts, Jim. Way to poke the sleeping giant! Let’s see if I can get him to wince a little and wake him up. 😉

    I appreciate Jamie’s response. She brings up some valid points, the barriers are very real for many. Fortunately, I don’t have most of those barriers because I’m not an official “educator” nor program staff. I provide technical support and training for Extension faculty and staff, but I see my role much more than that. In order to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk, and I do that by not only telling people how to use technology and the internet, but actually do what I believe everyone in Extension should be doing – being innovative, engaging people online, being creative, marketing, being disruptive, even being controversial and a rebel sometimes (but a nice rebel ;)).

    We are up agains’t marketing power houses, a Tsunami of free flowing information and people bypassing traditional educational avenues. In order to survive, we need to stand out, be different, work different, think different. We need to be a Purple Cow (read Seth Godin’s “Purple Cow” for reference).

    Because I don’t have to worry about peer review and have the support of forward thinking leadership, I have the flexibility to work non traditionally. I can respond quickly to a changing environment on the fly, adapting to what is happening right now, not in 10 years. I’m able to experiment, even fail, learn from my mistakes and move on, all in the time that it takes most people to get coffee. Am I insane, crazy, or both?! Absolutely! But “normal” doesn’t get you noticed. Being risk adverse doesn’t allow you to rise above the din of sameness. I’m not saying throw all caution to the wind, but being too conservative can sometimes cause more harm than good.

    I keep hearing people saying, “We need to make a needs assessment and develop a strategy.” Fine. Here it is:

    Needs Assessment
    People don’t “need” us. We need to come together to find solutions to the world’s biggest problems. And by “we”, I mean the public and us. There is no such thing as an “expert”, we are all in this together and need to work collaboratively. “Cooperative Extension” – are we cooperating?

    Strategic Plan
    Forget about 3-5 year plans. The world is changing way too fast to keep up with in that time period. The plan should be to connect and engage online with individuals and communities who share our values and hopes for creating better lives, better communities and a better world. This means connecting daily, making it a priority and willing to go the extra mile. I totally agree with Stan that we need to be actively involved online. Everyone one of us, whether it is in our PD or not (and it really should!).

    This is not a 9-5 job. Its not even a job at all, it is a MISSION! If you are not passionate about helping people, collaborating with others, willing to constantly learn and share, then you are in the wrong place.

    We need to redefine who a learner and an educator is. We all are both. My responsibility to “teach” is no less than anyone with a certificate or degree and even someone with a Ph.d can learn a thing or two (maybe ;)).

    Idealistic, wishful thinking? Perhaps. But if you never reach for the stars, you’ll never get there.

    Ok, I can hear the critics now, “But what about budgets and funding silos, university policies, government regulations, and…etc.?” Yes, well, I’m tired of hearing reasons why we “can’t”. Jim, Stan, I and others have given reasons why we should. Now let’s work on how we “can!”.

    – “Rebel” with a cause. 😉

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