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.