Category Archives: Future of Cooperative Extension

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.

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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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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.

 

 

Transforming Cooperative Extension into a Platform-Ready Knowledge Organization

condo-constructionSitting in on a media interview recently filled me with some new insights into the critical need to render Cooperative Extension not only platform friendly but also platform ready.  And by “ready,” I mean an organization that is not only congenial to platforms but also fully equipped to be early adopters and, in some cases, innovators of open-source platforms.

Indeed, this interview not only filled me with new insights but also with a resolve to drive home this critical truth: Cooperative Extension’s very survival depends on our transforming ourselves into a platform-ready organization.

What Are Platforms?

In human terms, platforms are the outgrowth of open, freewheeling communications environments.  One notable example: the coffeehouses that emerged in 17th century Britain.  These coffeehouses turned out to be fluid environments of information exchange that provided the basis for new ways of thinking and acting.  Over time, they gave rise to a host of open-source platforms, conceptual foundations on which far-reaching intellectual, scientific and technological innovations were built over the course of years, decades, even centuries. The effects of these platforms are still felt today, r

William Hogarth's painting of a spirited 18th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

William Hogarth’s painting of a spirited 17th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

oughly 500 years later.

Needless to say, the increasing levels of social networking that have followed the advent of Web 2.0 have significantly enhanced the conditions out of which these platforms emerge.

The Interview

The interview that prompted these new insights into platforms involved a reporter from a major Alabama news outlet and Dr. John Fulton, a highly respected Alabama Extension specialist and Auburn University and precision farming pioneer, who discussed the implications of data-management to farming — not only how it will affect farmers but also how it will transform the work of Cooperative Extension educators.

Precision Farming Tractor

Land-grant educators exploring a fully equipped precision-farming tractor

Fulton contends that 2012 will be remembered as the watershed year of farm data management — the year when companies began investing significantly into improving their product and service offerings by providing farmers with ways to aggregate and curate the reams of data generated by farm-related technologies, particularly those associated with precision technology.

To put it another way, the immense amounts of data generated by all these farming technologies have reached a critical mass. In fact, farmers don’t know quite how to assimilate all this data — little wonder why a growing number of entrepreneurs have not only begun noticing this trend  but are also formulating ways to aggregate and curate it on their behalf.  The impression I get is that it has the makings of an entrepreneurial free-for-all, sort of like the mad dash for land and wealth that followed the European settlement of the Americas, Australia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Makings of an Open-Source Platform

At some point during the interview the realization struck me: This critical mass of farming data constitutes a platform, the basis on which a growing number of entrepreneurs hope to conceive and develop profitable innovations and technologies.

A Lesson for Cooperative Extension

The exchange prompted few random thoughts about the implications of platforms to the future of Cooperative Extension.

First, the data-management issue in farming is a prime example of emergence, basically how a handful of unintentional interactions eventually contribute to great leaps in thinking, which, in the course of leading to new ways of looking at things, provide the basis for new ideas and concepts and, in a few cases, to full-blown innovation.  These new insights sometimes form the basis for highly generative platforms, much as coffeehouses did in the 17th century.

Second, this farm-data trend has been playing out for years.  Yet, even many of the best and brightest in Cooperative Extension, including Fulton, scarcely noticed it until now. Consequently, this development, entirely unforeseen, has presented Cooperative Extension with some real challenges.  If everyone and his brother are trying to build off this platform — to aggregate and curate this data for the benefit of farmers — where does this leave Extension?   What will happen to us as other players manage to capitalize on this platform and others that follow, becoming better equipped along the way to aggregate and curate this data on behalf of farmers?

Third, do our current 20th century linear programming models blind us to change?  Are they preventing us from seeing platforms that are emerging all around us? I think a strong case could be made that they do. These obsoleting programming models —obsoleting is probably a too generous word in this context — are hampering our ability to adapt to the demands of this highly generative information landscape emerging around us.

These points prompt a series of questions, some rather thought-provoking:

  • Could professional training enable us to recognize a platform when we see one?
  •   Is it possible to equip Extension educators with the skills to perceive platforms in the making?
  • Through heightened awareness, is it possible not only to recognize these emerging platforms but also to capitalize on them before they develop into full-fledged platforms?
  • For that matter, is it possible to recognize the environments in which these platforms are likely to emerge so that we can build platforms ahead of everyone else?

Some Parting Thoughts

I suspect that an ability recognize and emerging platforms when you see one is s skill, arguable a critical 21st century job skill, which can be cultivated as readily as other job skills. For the sake of our survival, I think it is incumbent on Extension educators to cultivate an ability to recognize emerging platforms.

This begs the question: If the ability to identify emergent platforms represents a critical new job skill, what kind of professional training would enable Extension professionals to readily acquire these skills? For that matter, how could Extension’s work environment be reconfigured to foster these skills?

One thing of which I’m reasonably certain: We need to formulate ways to incentivize platforms-based thinking — for starters, to reward people who develop the capacity to know an emergent platform when they see one. And remember: This is not something that we can opt to do but that we must do for the sake of our survival.

We must also focus on the specific ways that linear programming models hamper us not only from seeing but also from fully capitalizing on the emerging platforms around us. Likewise, we should identify the most optimal ways to instill our employees with an understanding the nuts and bolts of platforms, not only how these provide the basis for all manner of innovation but also how many of these innovations may ultimately form the basis for even newer, more generative platforms.

What are some of the things that can be undertaken immediately to render Extension not only more platform-ready but also more platform-friendly?

Aside from extensive retraining within our ranks, I think we also should explore ways to create more innovative physical space — in other words, transform Extension working environments to more closely resemble the open, free-wheeling environments that drive innovation.

All of us must also understand how potentially disruptive all of this will be and how it will affect our day-to-day work.  While some of us this sort of talk unsettling, we shouldn’t be surprised by it at all. Platforms not only provide the basis for far-reaching innovations but, in some cases, sweeping transformations, a few of which many threaten many, if not all, facets of our work.

Granted, it’s a bitter pill for many of us, but like it or not, that is the new reality of the 21st century.

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.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Beaver

BeaverNote: This is an essay version of the notes I prepared for the the concurrent session “The Extension Educator’s Role as 21st Century Platform Builders” presented at the 2012 National eXtension National Conference, held Oct. 1-5 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Many thanks to my colleague and co-presenter, Dr. Anne Adrian.  I am deeply indebted to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, for many of the ideas explored in this text.

Introduction

What do two preeminent physicists and the father of html (hypertext markup language) coding have to do with a beaver?  That’s easy: All four are platform builders.  They built things that other people — or, in the case of beavers, other species — build on and use.

What is a Platform?

There are a lot of different ways to define a platform.

One thing they all generally share in common: They typically begin as rather desolate places that are transformed into hubs of activities.

In biological terms, platforms, such as beaver dams and coral reefs, provide the building blocks for dense ecosystems.   Dam building not only enhances the life of beavers but also provides habitats or foraging opportunities for a number of species: wild ducks, geese, kingfishers and swallows, to name a few.

To an increasing degree, science writers and other social critics are gaining a deeper appreciation for how human-constructed platforms provide the bases for further tinkering and innovation.

Among techies, a platform is a computerized system on which other developers can add hardware devises and software applications for particular purposes.

However, famed science writer Steven Johnson also uses the term to describe the sorts of open, freewheeling communications environments that produce significant, often far-reaching intellectual, scientific or technological innovations.

There have been lots of them throughout human history.

One early forerunner of platforms: Seventh-century coffeehouses — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed from this interaction: The ideas exchanged within those highly fluid environments ended up mating and mutating into new ideas.  Many of these ideas formed the basis for huge strides in scientific innovation which, in turn, secured immense material benefits for billions of human beings over the next 300 years.

Why Are Platforms More Important than Ever Before?

More than ever in human history, we are beginning to understand that the knowledge ecosystems that grow out of these platforms confer tremendous advantages in terms of creativity and innovation.   They have driven human beings to higher levels of achievement. In fact, building these platforms and assuring that they remain the most open and generative as possible will be critical concerns in the 21st century for all sorts of entities, public and private alike.

The last half century provides some remarkable insights into how platforms, by driving creativity and innovation, have contributed to huge leaps in scientific progress and achievement.   Some notable examples include the Applied Physics Laboratory’s response to the Sputnik crisis, and Tim Berners-Lees invention of html.

The efforts of a couple of physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, to tract the 20 megahertz signal of the orbiting Sputnik in 1957 led to the development of global positioning satellite technology, which, in turn, provided us with Google maps and even the ability to post restaurant reviews on yelp.com.

The work of Tim Berners-Lee is another prime example of the long-term advantages a platform can confer on humanity.

Berners-Lee essentially built a new platform by stacking a series of older ones.  His genius was using hypertext markup language to pull various computer applications together — or, invoking the platforms analogy, to stack one platform on top of another.

The Worldwide Web, which html made possible, is only one IT-related example of platform stacks.  Others include Youtube, stitched together from Adobe’s Flash platform, the programming language of Javascript and other Web elements.

Cooperative Extension can point to its own rather impressive history of platform building and stacking.  In fact, we were platform builders more than a century before this definition was conceived.  In our earliest days, we not distinguished for the innovation and creativity we could bring to bear on problems but also for the way these contributed to highly generative platform stacks.

Extension itself is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

Extension educators also helped build some of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

What’s Missing Today?

We have been building platforms, highly generative platforms, throughout our history.  The problem is that the kinds of platforms we have built and continue build are not open and generative enough to meet the building codes of the 21st century.

Why? Because we live in a world in which people are not only better educated but also better equipped to empower themselves and to build their own platforms without the assistance of highly credentialed educators.

The highly generative capacity of new information media have only accelerated the trend away from more conventional forms of conventional outreach forms of educational outreach.

That’s our challenge.

Online Engagement is Integral to Our Success but Only Part of It

Online engagement and the accelerating rates of social media adoption that accompany it are good things but we what we need most of all in Cooperative Extension is a change of mindset.  We’ve got to learn how to combine our traditional outreach methods with social media techniques to assure that our platforms are the most open and generative as possible.  But we’ve also got to understand how these new platforms will transform of clients from consumers into prosumers.   In fact, they will no longer be clients at all but people who are actively involved in the design and planning of our educational products — prosumers.

They will actively collaborate with us in building these new open, generative platforms.

Our 21st Century Charge: Transitioning from Programs to Platforms

While we have been platform builders from the beginning of our history, factors have forced us to deliver many of our products in linear ways.  We are currently defined by how we deliver programs  rather than by how  well we develop ecosystems — platforms — that assure optimal levels of sharing, serendipitous insights and innovative thinking can occur.

In the future, we increasingly will be valued for the quality of our platforms.  The more open and generative these platforms, the better.

We helped build a global scientific farming model that has fed billions over the past century using older platforms.  The human infrastructure we have provided within the last century has facilitated the sharing of critical knowledge in much the same way that railroads and interstate highways have facilitated delivery of the nation’s manufactured goods from place to place.

The good news is that there is a stronger emphasis than ever on building technological infrastructure to secure the most optimal levels of creativity and innovation.

The bad news is that we will no longer be a critical component of this infrastructure unless we find a way to build more open, generative platforms.

Simply put, surviving in the 21st century will require our developing a more open-ended approach to outreach.   We shouldn’t find that imperative all that threatening: historically speaking, we are simply being called to close the circle, to return to our roots.

One critical need we will serve in the future will be helping our audiences deal with the tidal waves of words, symbols and data pouring out of their laptops, iPads and smartphones minute by minute, hour by hour. One of the most prized skills in the future will be the ability to collect vast amounts of information and assemble it into forms that they can use — the reason why our learning to be aggregators and curators will be an important part of platform building in the future.

In the future, we will be valued more for the open-ended platforms we build than for the programs we create.

What Will an Extension Platform Builder Look Like in the Future?

Let’s imagine for a moment a techno-savvy 23-year-old Extension horticulture agent — we’ll call her Tamara — who determined to set the world her on fire her first day on the job.

Soon after taking the reins of her new job, Tamara developed a gardening blog that covered all aspects of her field — one, she hoped, would develop into a definitive source for gardening information in her region.  She links the blog to her Flickr account, which she uses to collect images of new varieties, planted diseases, and invasive species — anything of potential interest to her clients.

She also uses a social bookmarking web service, which has enabled her to compile a staggering resource list encompassing links to trade journal articles and online books.

In addition to operating a Facebook page with other local horticultural Extension agents, Tamara also has developed a hefty Twitter following.  She tweets throughout the day, passing along observations about emerging home gardening issues, responding to client concerns and questions and sharing links to timely articles.

With the zeal comparable to a 19th century Methodist circuit rider, Tamara started out with every intention of becoming the vanguard of the engaged, networked, 21st century Extension educator.  She was determined to disabuse her fellow educators and clients of all those outmoded, 20th century notions about knowledge dissemination.

Yet, she has not confined herself exclusively to virtual interaction with her clients — quite the contrary. Thanks to the influence of an older agent named Sam, what she initially undervalued — field days, conferences and workshops — she now prizes as valuable ways to connect with her clients and to articulate their needs.

She’s also learned how this intimate person-to-person interaction can enhance her social media outreach work.  Thanks to Sam, she now better understands how the real-life insights she garners through face-to-face contacts can help her refine the sorts of information she shares with her wider audiences through social media channels.

Without being fully aware of it, Tamara is transforming herself into a platform builder.

The serendipitous insights she’s gained from interaction among large global horticulture audience have also help Tamara cultivate a deeper perspective about ways to enhance profitability of her local fruit and vegetable growers as well as the local farmers’ market.

Conversely, she is beginning to appreciate how the global perspective gained through dialogue with her social media contacts will enable her to provide her local clients with a wider, multidisciplinary perspective. A number of older Master Gardener clients who are not adept at or are unfamiliar with the emerging communications technology are nonetheless impressed with the level of insight she brings to her conventional field days and workshops — insights she’s gained from working with a wider audience.

Both her conventional and virtual audiences alike are impressed at the skills Tamara has developed as an aggregator and curator.  Just as the two-way interaction with her diverse audiences has helped her refine her knowledge and to formulate new perspectives on age-old questions,  Tamara’s skills as an aggregator and curator have enabled her audiences to make connections and to gain new insights into their work.

Sam has provided Tamara with something equally valuable: a genuine reverence for the constellation of values that define Cooperative Extension work — as he sees them, values just as relevant to the 21st century as they were a century ago.  He has helped her understand that her success as a networked Extension educator will be measured by how well these traditional values are balanced with the demands of the wired world.

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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?