Category Archives: Future of Cooperative Extension

Why Alabama 4-H Understands the 21st Century Like Nobody’s Business

Alabama 4-H educators are mastering inquiry-based learning methods to provide Alabama young people with the fluid learning environments they will need to succeed in this new globalized economy.

The further I advance into middle age, the more I’m convinced that a few things in life really are simple — not necessarily easy, mind you, but simple in terms of understanding their fundamental nature.

For example, I think a few very gifted and insightful science and tech writers, notably Steven Johnson, have successfully identified the key factors that account for the West’s technological triumph over the past century.   At the heart of all lies a strong commitment to openness.

As Johnson contends, the roots of this openness can be traced to the coffeehouses of the 17th century — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed: 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.

Unfortunately, within the last few decades, American education has lost sight of this fundamental insight.

Fortunately for us, a few educational trailblazers, Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra and educational speaker, author and adviser Sir Ken Robinson are pointing the way back to them.

I’m proud to report that another group of educators much closer to home are also pointing the way: Alabama Extension 4-H administrator Lamar Nichols and the educators and professionals of Alabama 4-H.

Having spent the last couple of days at their annual priority team meeting, I think it’s highly likely that they will be remembered decades from now as vanguards — people who set the standards for youth educators in the 21st century.

They understand the implications of this emerging information/technological order as few others do.

The world is changing. We all know that.  Digitization is the reason for much, if not most, of these changes.  We know that too.

Yet, contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not only about adopting iPhones or learning how to tweet.

Technological adoption is only part of what we must do.  At the heart of it all is the critical need to understand the different kind of society that is emerging from all these technological changes.  While it’s partly about technological adoption, it is most of all about learning to think and act in a fundamentally different way.

To put it another way, it’s mostly about how to create optimal learning environments— ecosystems of knowledge in which people are to able share ideas freely and openly and that bear a strong resemblance to those raucous coffeehouses of the 17th century.

Alabama 4-H understands the dire importance of restoring this understanding of the fundamental factors that drive human innovation and progress.   What 4-H educators call inquiry-based learning provides the same thing as 17th century coffeehouses: fluid knowledge environments where ideas can be exchanged freely and with the greatest chance of their mating and mutating into even bigger ideas.

4-H educators understand that creating these kinds of environments among young people will be critical to ensuring that rising generations of young people develop a working knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, to use a highly appropriate acronym — factors that will be key to this nation’s global competiveness over the next century.

They’re creating these fluid learning environments to complement what is being taught in the state’s science and math classrooms.

The introductory material presented to each participant set the tone of the meeting:  “For our economic future, it’s not sufficient to target college grads and advanced degree holders for the STEM workforce — our nation’s economic future depends on improving the pipeline into STEM fields for high school grads as well.  As a nation, we need to strengthen the STEM workforce pipeline and in Alabama, we just need to strengthen workforce pipeline — period.”

By addressing this critical need, Alabama 4-H educators, in addition to setting a benchmark for other 4-H youth development professionals, are drawing us closer to a vision of the new model Extension educator of the 21st century.


Four Defining Traits of the New Model Extension Educator

Seeing, setting and articulating goals within networked, collaborative settings will be critical skills of 21st century Extension educators.

I’m not one to oversimplify, but I’m beginning to believe that the four most desired traits of Cooperative Extension professionals in the 21st century will be the ability to see, to set goals, to articulate, and to innovate.

To increasing degree, Extension educators in the 21st century  not only will be challenged to perceive emerging trends but also how they relate to current challenges — to see, in other words — then to set goals and to articulate them in ways that inspire others.  Finally, they will collaborate with others to develop and to achieve the most innovative solutions.

(Note: I’m highly reluctant to use “client” in this context because I’m more convinced than ever that there is no such thing in this networked world — only collaborators.)

One of this nation’s leading innovators and achievers, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, helped me see this.  Indeed, if anybody deserves credit for laying out a clear vision for 21st century Extension educators — new model Extension educators, as I prefer to call them —it’s Donovan.

Incidentally, to all you young Extension professionals who aspire to attain the front ranks of your fields: Donovan’s interview with New York Times features editor Adam Bryant should be considered required reading.

Donovan related in the interview how he taught himself over many years to draw on the talents of others while simultaneously inspiring them — a skill he first began honing when he was elected captain of his hockey team.

You must “look at a landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly” — simply put, to see, to set goals and to articulate.

As I see it, this will be the essence of Cooperative Extension work in the future: perceiving the emerging trends and challenges that likely will grow out of them, then inspiring and working with others within extended, mostly virtual, networks to develop creative solutions.

As Donovan observes, “You have to have the antennas for picking out what’s important.”

That’s where our specialized training and unique perspectives will benefit us.

Most of you have heard my old saw about Extension educators undergoing a transformation from normative to nodal professionals within the next few years.  They will no longer be the norm setters they have in the past but nodes operating with vast networks.

Even so, within this new networked environment, our backgrounds, coupled with the fact that we are temperamentally extroverted people working within a historically extroverted organization, uniquely equip us to function in this new nodal role.

We will be much better equipped than others to perceive trends and to work with others to flesh out workable solutions.

Yet, as Donovan stresses, there’s more to it than simply perceiving trends and setting goals.

At some point in their careers, successful innovators learn to develop team skills — as Donovan says, they learn that “giving credit away, deflecting credit, [is] an effective thing to do.”

It’s not about keeping score, it’s about playing for results, he says.

Donovan’s interview also underscored the enduring value of two other traits: working hard and drilling deep.

Needless to say, hard work has and always will be a distinguishing trait of outstanding professionals, but so is drilling deep — as he describes it, viewing every experience as an opportunity “to gain the broadest set of experiences I can.”

He’s absolutely right: Those who take the time to develop multiple perspectives — or borrowing from Dan Pink, those who cultivate right-brained in addition to left-brained cognitive skills — will be the best-positioned, best equipped professionals of the 21st century.

“Nanovating” the Cooperative Extension Mission

The Nano, developed by Tata Motors, has revolutionized Indian car ownership and should serve as a lesson to U.S. car manufactures - and, for that matter, to Extension.

Several years ago an enterprising Indian automaker achieved the unthinkable: It  found a way to make a car as cheaply as a motor scooter — an awesome feat in a nation that had looked to scooters as a principal means of transportation.

The tiny car, developed by Tata Motors and known as the Nano, sells for a mere $2,100.

Tata Motors, in the course changing the face of Indian car ownership, also drove home some vital lessons that American companies had best take to heart, argue Kevin Frieberg, Jackie Frieberg and Dain Dunston, authors of Nanovation:  How a Little Car Can Teach the World to Think & Act Bold.

So should we in Cooperative Extension.

Indeed their article about nanovation, which ran recently in the Washington Post, is every bit as pertinent to the future of Cooperative Extension as it is to American auto manufacturing.

Few public or private entities see paradigm shifts in the making.  What little of it we see, we regard with vague dread.

As the three authors stress, though, like it or not, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, one that is calling on us to undertake three critical steps: to question the unquestionable, to do more with less and to go to the intersection of trends.

Questioning the Unquestionable

In all professional honesty, the first step usually is one of the most dreaded within Extension ranks. As much as I love this organization, as much as I cherish its longstanding commitment to change and innovation, I’m often troubled by the legions in our ranks who are not only risk-averse but question- averse.

They don’t grasp one of the emerging truths of this new information order:  Questioning the unquestionable, far from being a frivolous waste of time, more often than not constitutes a way around organizational impasse.

That’s right: outlandish questions produce serendipitous insights, which, in some cases, even lead to great conceptual leaps. If you doubt that, read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, especially the section dealing with the immense insights that emerged from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University following the Sputnik launch in 1957. (I’ll say no more in hopes that it prompts you to read the book!)

Outlandish questions should be encouraged in our ranks.  Indeed, I can only imagine how much further down the road we would be if more of us were willing to question the unquestionable.

Never forget that Cooperative Extension is the product of a series of outlandish questions that challenged the conventional, not to mention elitist, educational thinking of the 19th century.

Doing More with Less

We hear it constantly: All that ceaseless carping about how budget cutting is forcing us to do so much more with less.

Here’s where I will go out on a limb and question the unquestionable: Why not regard these losses instead as creative spaces in which to develop with new ways of innovative thinking?

If Tata Motors has demonstrated one thing, it is that we can do more we less.  Working with fewer resources does not mean we have to be less creative. As the authors stress, Land Rover, which is now owned by Tata Motors, found a way to reduce their vehicles by 1,100 hundred pounds without reducing interior space.

Crises offer opportunities to undertake the first step: to question the unquestionable — to ask probing, sometimes unpalatable, questions about how we do business.

We  should view doing more with less as not as calamities but as opportunities to become creative by exploring new ways of engaging and serving our clients and in ways that are not only more relevant to their needs but that also complement the technology already available at their fingertips.

It’s a tall order, I know, but by asking the right questions — and by that I mean asking outlandish questions — we can achieve the unthinkable.

Going to the Intersection of Trends

As the Nanovation authors stress, those who survive will be those who not only concede a paradigm shift in the making but who also strive to understand how it will play out.

Granted, as any automaker would concede, it’s currently impossible to get 50 percent efficiency out of a gallon of gas. Even so, they can’t deny what’s happened with computers: the electricity required to run a computer has halved every 18th months.

As the three authors stress, the best positioned car manufacturers are those who already conceive of future in which in which fuel efficiency increases by the same geometric rates.  They’re already looking ahead to the intersection of the trends critical to their future.

As it turns out, Extension professionals aren’t required to make such a conceptual leap, because the factor that drives our future — the rates of knowledge transfer — are already occurring at such a pace.

We have already arrived at our intersection of critical trends.

In one sense, our next step is simple — not necessarily easy but simple.  Our outreach methods must be transformed to complement this new reality.

But the question remains: Are we primed to take the next critical step?

Better Living through Realism

The late Dr. M. Scott Peck observed that the healthiest people tended to be those most grounded in reality.

Over the course of his career, the late psychiatrist and bestselling author M. Scott Peck noticed a recurring pattern among his patients:  The ones most likely to recover tended to be those most grounded in reality — realists, in other words — while the patients least amenable to his help were those furthest removed from reality.

He also noted that the most unreachable clients tended to suffer from acute forms of narcissism, often in the most extreme form: malignant narcissism.

Peck’s insights have stuck with me for more than a quarter century after reading his first book, “The Road Less Travelled,” which I highly recommend to those of you who have not yet had the good fortune of reading it.  In fact, they’ve proven to be some of the most valuable insights into human nature I ever acquired in the course of my reading.  Getting real — striving to conform one’s daily life as closely as possible to reality — isn’t necessarily the key to happiness, but I’m fully convinced that it’s a hallmark of sound mental health.

Recently, I came across two items, one that highlighted the personal philosophy of one highly successful executive, the other that explored the traits of the most conspicuously unsuccessful executives.  Both, I believe, underscore the enduring value of Peck’s insights.

All of us Extension professionals would do well to read them and take their lessons to heart.

The first item, a New York Times interview with AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, demonstrated the strong correlation between realism and long, highly successful careers.    Successful executives, like mentally healthy people in general, don’t fear reality but embrace it. They invite criticism and surround themselves with talented subordinates who do not cringe from offering straight talk.

Donovan was fortunate enough to have acquired an appreciation for realism relatively early in his career.  He also developed an enduring appreciation for another trait closely associated with realism: Selflessness.

In terms of creativity and innovation, he ultimately learned that fretting over accolades proves entirely self-defeating.

“If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits,” he says. “I remember the day I realized that, and I probably never again need to involve scorekeeping in anything I did.”

Along the way, Donovan also developed an affinity for giving away roles.  He began assigning roles with which he had grown comfortable and proficient to other members of the team.   His gratification came from seeing the results that followed as more people stepped up to the plate to contribute their own unique insights and talents.

“I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.”

Okay, I’ll admit it: My throat tightened a bit when Donovan related the stages of his career.  Early in his career he set out to be smart, while later in life he has striven to be wise. It’s a critical distinction.

At roughly the same time I read Donovan’s interview I also surfed onto another piece that complemented it — actually, contrasted would be a better term within this context.

In “The Seven Traits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives,” Forbes contributor Eric Johnson discusses the eight traits cited by Dartmouth College Business Professors Sydney Finkelstein that typically consign CEOs and their companies to mediocrity, if not extinction.

I was struck by how all of these maladaptive traits all stem from an failure to grasp reality.

Finkelstein noted that the most unsuccessful executives typically overestimate the degree to which they control events.  Not surprisingly, they also tend to view others in their companies as agents responsible for implementing their personal company vision — little wonder why they often viewed their companies as extensions of themselves rather than as enterprises that should be carefully nurtured.

Delusional thinking and behavior are often expressed in other ways too, Finkelstein noted.  Poor executives tend to be enamored with those stereotypical superhuman CEOs who deal with multiple crises through independent snap decision-making on their own, seldom consulting knowledgeable associates.

Another troubling hallmark of these executives: Their ruthless elimination of anyone whose views didn’t conform to their own.

Fortunately for us, there has been a strong, longstanding institutional disliking within Cooperative Extension for these types of  traits. We have always valued selfless collaborators and team builders over lone narcissistic wolves.  Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that the values that Donovan and other visionaries have embodied over the course of their careers will likely be the defining traits of the new information order.

The better we understand these values, take them to heart and practice them in the course of our everyday work, the better equipped we will be to navigate our way through this new order.

Our World and Welcome to It

The Jesup Wagon, developed by Tuskegee educator and Extension visionary Booker T. Washington, was an early example of curating.

Recently a long-tenured and highly distinguished Extension educator related to me that he vowed early in his Extension career never to write a refereed journal article, focusing all of his efforts instead on cultivating close working relationships with his clients.  As he saw it, cultivating these relationships and serving his clients as a trusted, valuable resource was more important than building a curriculum vitae.

He’s remained true to his promise for decades.  Over the course of his career he has conducted all types of applied research on behalf of his growers, all of which have provided immediate benefit to his clients.

I couldn’t help thinking of him today rereading Brit founder Britanny Morin’s spot-on article about the curated Web.

For those of you in Extension who think we’ve reached the end of our tether, take heart. If Morin is right — and I believe that she is — we are nearing our second life.

Why? Because we’ve have taken the first steps on a knowledge landscape that conforms remarkably closely to the values of Cooperative Extension work.

If you think about it, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington not only articulated the core values of Cooperative Extension work but also those that define life in the 21st century.

Morin’s piece reminded me of that.  As she relates in her article, the Web, despite its vast strides in organizing and prioritizing knowledge, is still a daunting, if not threatening presence, to millions of Web surfers.

All those algorithmically generated pages lead some surfers to wonder: Is this really what I’m looking for? What if these results are not specific enough?

Not surprisingly, the late Steve Jobs anticipated this, Morin observes.

“I think we need editorial now more than ever right now,” he said at last year’s D8 conference.

For her part, Morin agrees, so long as one distinguishes between editors and curators.

“These days, anyone on the Web can be an editor, but not everyone can be both an editor and a curator,” she says.

Yes, we need editors.  They serve an indispensable role improving the content provided by others.

However, it takes a special person indeed to be both an editor and curator, Morin contends.

Curators choose among different difference sources of information to provide the best ones available, often adding new ideas and perspectives.

Simply put, editors refine, while curators define.

Ever since curating was employed within a Web context, I’ve been struck by how closely this concept resembles the Extension educator’s role.  As Morin so aptly describes it, curators “find the best pieces of this content and evolve it into a bigger picture or idea.”

Curators sure sound like Extension educators to me.

This brings me back to those visionaries Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington.  What were Knapp’s crop demonstrations and Washington’s Jesup wagons other than early forms of curating?

As she sees it, though, curators provide something even more significant: a trusted source, someone to whom people can “relate to and trust, and who have expertise, real-life experiences, and the ability to filter and share bold perspectives.”

Are you beginning to get the picture?

By now, I hope you’re seeing why I remain such an unrepentant optimist about the future of Extension work.

I have seen the future, and it is Cooperative Extension.  I have seen the men and women of this brave new world, and they are Extension educators.

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.

Lessons from Campus Radio

“No one brings a radio to their dorm today.”

If any sentence best expresses the sweeping changes that have overtaken campus radio within the last 20 years, it’s this one.

The observation was made by a recent Yale graduate who helped his university develop its online-only campus radio station while he was a student.

In one sense, this almost seems inconceivable to me, a broadcast-film-communication major who cut his teeth on campus radio while a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the early to mid-1980s. It underscores one of the great realities of this new order: that no technology is sacrosanct no matter how seemingly ubiquitous or indispensable.

A generation ago, who would have imagined that a radio station could be perceived in any way other than as a jock sitting in a cramped studio amid mikes, mixing consoles and spinning turntables and broadcasting over a FCC-prescribed segment of bandwidth?

This stereotype has been all but shattered.  As the New York Times’s Kyle Spencer reported last Sunday in a fascinating account of the evolution of campus radio, stations are transforming themselves into “multimedia platforms they believe that students with unprecedented tech appetites actually want, and it’s changing the ethos, content and vibe of collegiate stations.”

Campus radio, like so many other media in these tumultuous times, is busily engaged in stitching together platforms or, as the case may be, stacking one atop another.  But why shouldn’t they? If, as the article relates, students are coming to campus with smartphones, iPods and tablets on which they can listen to music via a multitude of apps, shouldn’t these stations be evolving to meet these changing needs?

What does this possibly have to do with Cooperative Extension, an entity that in historical, temperamental and philosophical terms has little in common with campus radio?


The less engaged Cooperative Extension is with Smartphones, Ipods, and tablets, the more these technologies will be tied up in other uses. Here’s another way of looking at it: Each of these technologies represents a potential diversion away from time that otherwise could be invested in Cooperative Extension-related subject matter and programming.

To their immense credit, many of those associated with campus radio have taken this critical lesson to heart.  They understand that within this new communications environment, “luring listeners and keeping them entertained is a matter of survival” — small wonder why they transforming their stations into multimedia platforms.

The times are calling on us to acquire a platforms mindset too. We must learn how to conceive and build platforms that work in tandem with others or, when the need arises, to build them on top of obsolete ones.

We must take other lessons to heart too, especially the critical understanding that these new platforms will create new challenges as well as opportunities.  They will alter our organizational “ethos, content and vibe” much as they have campus radio stations and in ways we can now scarcely imagine.

We not only have to be prepared for that new reality but also comfortable with it.

We must also learn how to improvise as we never have before in our history — when the need arises,  altering and even dismantling and rebuilding platforms to better conform with emerging technological needs.

Likewise, we must  learn how to conceive and design apps to meet our users’ rapidly evolving technological needs.

We’ll also learn how to tailor these platforms to reach niche audiences, whether these happen to be defined by special needs or interests.

One of our great challenges in the future will be learning how to balance the demands of our traditional stakeholders and clients with those who are reached, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through these new outreach platforms. Extension programs have been traditionally rooted in communities and states. Over time, though, these rapid changes will lead require a considerable rethinking of what defines local.

Another lesson that already has been driven home to collegiate radio will also be driven home to us with a vengeance:  Like techno-savvy college students, our clients no longer will be dictated to.

Why? Because technology has liberated them.