Category Archives: Cooperative Extension Identity

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What Makes Cooperative Extension Unique

4-H Inquiry-based learning

4-H inquiry-based learning: an example of how Cooperative Extension strives to remain relevant to the needs of our diverse audiences more than 100 years since its inception.

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof ignited a firestorm of debate recently when he argued in his Feb. 15 column “Professors, We Need You!” that the publish-or-perish tenure process has worked to wall off much of higher education from the real issues of the day.

We can’t speak for the rest of higher education, but we can make the strong case that one facet of higher education, Cooperative Extension, effectively inoculated itself against this kind of irrelevancy a century ago.

Improvising a Professional Standard

It was a hard-fought struggle. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established a nationwide Cooperative Extension program in name but not in substance. Young people enlisted in the growing ranks of Extension educators were faced with a host of challenges in the years following passage of this legislation. None of them was provided with a how-to manual. They were being challenged to invent a professional standard literally as they went along.

The times called on them to improvise. And sometimes, this improvisation took place under exceptionally grueling circumstances.

Their traveling days were often spent slogging down muddy roads on horses or in carriages — long days that often ended in overnight stays at the home of the last farmer they had visited.

Thomas Monroe CampbellTuskegee Institute’s Thomas Campbell, the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, recalls how he was often kept awake during many of these overnight visits by voracious bedbugs.

Amid all these daily challenges, Campbell and other pioneering Extension educators developed a set of professional standards that have been passed from one generation of educators to the next.

Earned Respect

To be sure, many of these young professionals were exceptionally well-educated for their era. They possessed 4-year college degrees — a rare thing in the early 20th century — but these credentials, impressive as they were at the time, were not enough to ensure the respect of those they served.

These educators learned through experience that this respect had to be earned through the forging of close working relationships with farmers and, as Extension programming expanded over time, with their spouses and children.
The day-to-day challenges of Extension work also drove home another valuable lesson to these early educators: that Extension programming must always be results-driven — closely tied with securing tangible, positive changes on behalf of clients.

In the years following passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, three attributes of Cooperative Extension work emerged — three key characteristic that comprise the foundation of our mission: a strong commitment to research-based knowledge as the basis of our educational outreach; a strong emphasis on building positive working relationships with those we serve; and an unwavering commitment to providing relevant programs, namely programs designed to meet the practical needs of our diverse audiences where they live and work.

The Basis for an All-Consuming Passion

These three values secured Extension educators a basis on which to provide people from diverse backgrounds with the working knowledge they needed to make lasting, meaningful changes in all aspects of their lives.
People ask why so many Cooperative Extension educators develop such an all-consuming passion for their work. These three characteristics account for much of this passion.

The demands of this increasingly interconnected, global information economy are calling on the current generation of Extension educators to reassess the way our products are deliver to clients. We are being challenged to deliver the bulk of products through digital means. But even as we reassess and expand our delivery methods, the three key attributes of Extension — research-based, relevant and relationship-driven programming — will remain just as integral and vital to our mission.

They account for our uniqueness and our enduring relevancy.

 

 

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The World Extension Agricultural Educators Made

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Tuskegee Institute’s famed Extension agricultural educator Thomas Campbell standing by the Movable School, one of the earliest and most successful examples of agricultural Extension work.

By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.

In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery.  Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.

The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.

Bodies grew larger and healthier.  For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45.  By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”

The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation.  Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.

The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.

Environmental Gains

Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

For example, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.

As renowned futurist Kevin Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

The Road Ahead

What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances?  This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.

In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges.  Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,

Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.

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The Coming Digital Tipping Point

The Coming Digital Tipping Point

Newsweek and other print media are not the only entities rapidly approaching the digital tipping point – the point at which the demand for digital sources of information trump traditional sources.
(Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

A few months ago, I was gung ho about the prospects of developing a sleekly designed publication featuring compelling stories about Extension that could be placed in doctor’s and dentist’s offices and other locations around my state to better ensure that people who had never heard of Cooperative Extension would.

After reading David Carr’s New York Times piece exploring the headlong decline of Newsweek’s fortunes, I’m not as sure about my idea’s prospects for success. But this only scratches the surface of the insights I gained reading this article. Many of the issues Carr raises are relevant not only to Newsweek and to print media in general but to the future of Cooperative Extension and, for that matter, higher education in general.

In exploring the future of print media, Carr touches on one of the central themes of this weblog: Nothing in this new information order is sacrosanct, not even those institutions, such as Newsweek, that seemed sacrosanct in the last century.

Consider what’s happened within the last generation: Magazine editors once imposed rather brutal discipline on staffs numbering in the hundreds to do what technology is now equipped to do in real time — to aggregate information.

Faced with this sea change, Newsweek and other print media have undertaken valiant and, in many cases, highly imaginative efforts to reinvent themselves. Even so, as Carr observes, Newsweek Editors’ Tina Brown’s recent decision to run a cover depicting two supple female lips primed for an asparagus stem, while clever, reflects — arguably, at least — a desperate struggle by Newsweek and other printed media for relevancy.

Despite all these efforts, though, Carr perceives that Newsweek and other print media may be lurching ever closer to “the edge of the cliff,” ominously reflected in a recent report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that news circulations are down 10 percent.

Many of print media’s brightest minds perceive something fundamental at work in the marketplace: the tipping point, the final shift from print to digital delivery.

Carr even speculates that Newsweek and other magazines may be on a downward spiral that not even its digital iterations may reverse, bringing them ever closer to what Carr, with a bit of Gibbonian flair, describes as “the imminent end of the print artifact.”

In the midst of this decline, as in all periods of decline, a handful of optimists express hope that this downward spiral will be reversed at some point.

Yet, this tipping point appears to be occurring in the places where news magazines like Newsweek once held pride of place: doctors and dental offices, until recently oases of magazine consumption.

Carr recalls a recent doctor’s visit in which he noticed that every waiting patient, without exception, was glued to a smartphone screen.

There are some ominous lessons here for Cooperative Extension, and not only because of our century-long investment in printed publications. Aren’t we rapidly approaching our own tipping point — the point at which people will opt for digital sources rather than the traditional forms of outreach delivery that have defined Extension work for the last century?

Among many memorable quotes, Carr serves up one that should give all of us pause: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at it.”

Likewise, couldn’t someone argue just as legitimately that it doesn’t matter how Extension educators conceive and present their programs if growing numbers of information seekers are opting instead for digital sources?

Carr raised another point that has stuck with me: the insistence of one Newsweek financial analyst on the enduring value of the Newsweek’s brand.

“Every bit of this research tells us that it is a solid, global brand,” contends Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive Corporation, which remains the sole corporate underwriter of Newsweek.

Haven’t we heard similar arguments in our ranks? Haven’t we been reminded time and again that despite all our challenges that we still possess a brand name that remains viable?

Granted, I still place tremendous stock in our brand. But Newsweek’s dilemma nonetheless should serve as an invitation for a long reflective pause within our ranks.

Look at it is this way: If we, like Newsweek, are fast approaching a tipping point with no strategy for addressing what lies beyond how valuable is our brand name — really?

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.

News Media Relations: The Fundamentals

We’ve entered a new age of demassification, one in which laypersons arguably have as much access to communications media as the professionals who have spent years learning how to make efficient use of them.  Even so, there is still a place for traditional media – newspapers and broadcast media.  Yes, within this increasingly flattened communications landscape, these older media still have a significant role to play in helping Extension educators disseminate messages to their diverse audiences.  With this in mind, I’ve just completed an online video to complement my online publication, one aimed at helping media professionals cultivate close, productive relationships with media gatekeepers, the people who decide what is news.

The Key to Extension’s Survival in One Word

Trump Tower, Chicago

Extension's 21st century charge in one word: platform - building efficient, generative platforms of the 21st century.

One of Cooperative Extension’s most astute social media users, Dr. John Fulton, recently drove home a critical insight to me: that many of us beating the drums for rapid adoption of social media within Extension ranks are consistently missing the mark.

We talk incessantly about the critical need for adopting social media, but we’re not instilling our educators with the bigger picture.

Make no mistake about it: Many educators are yearning for this bigger picture. In dealing with budget crunches and a host of other challenges, they’re wondering why they should be making all this fuss about social media. Why should they stop long enough from all these other pressing demands to learn all this stuff?

Why? Because it’s not just about adopting social media. That’s important, yes, but the bigger issue is mastering this in order to become platform architects of the 21st century.

If Extension’s survival could be summed up in a word it’s that one — platform.

Adopting social media is a critical first step, but it’s only that — a first step.  The end goal is building the most generative, open-source platforms of the 21st century.  That’s what we’re missing.

Learning how to conceive, build and nurture these platforms is our charge for the foreseeable future.  Equally important, we must learn how to collaborate among ourselves and our audiences to build these new platforms.

As one of our administrators aptly described it recently, much of this will involve learning how to “pull” instead of “push” — the reason why the old plan-and-push Extension model ultimately must be replaced with a new outreach model that underscores the value of active collaboration with our clients.

Detractors of this view undoubtedly would contend that we’re already in the platform-building business — that we were building platforms long before this term became fashionable.

I agree.  Our predecessors built one platform after another — corn and tomato clubs, which begat 4-H; boll weevil eradication efforts, which led to everything from crops entomology and crops scouting to crop dusting and Delta Airlines. Decades ago, Cooperative Extension functioned as one of the most efficient and generative platforms on the planet.

We can lay claim to scores of platforms, some of which are still functioning today.

The problem is that our platform, the Cooperative Extension platform, is no longer generative enough to compete with the other platforms being built by other 21st century platform architects.

Simply put, our platform is failing to meet code — the building code of the 21st century knowledge economy.

We must retool our outreach methods to ensure that we’re up to this new task.

Policymakers and public intellectuals strongly emphasize the value of building technological infrastructure to ensure America’s competitive survival in the 21st century.

They have every reason for doing so.   Technological infrastructure has contributed immensely to American economic and scientific leadership, but so has human infrastructure — the sort of human infrastructure that Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

Yet, there is every bit as much need for human infrastructure — the sort of infrastructure Extension professionals routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We Extension educators have immense potential for building human infrastructure in the 21st century. We can still serve a valuable role enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0 technological infrastructure.

But reaching this potential will require a complete rethinking of how we develop and deliver our products.

It will require nothing less than learning how to ensure the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

It will require nothing less than our learning how to become platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

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.