Category Archives: Open-Source Platforms

Striking a Blow for Prosumerism in Cooperative Extension

Broadcasters were among numerous professionals in the previous century trained to make optimal use of limited bandwidth.

As an old broadcast guy, I’m fully capable of droning on about bandwidth.

Bandwidth essentially can be defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

In the mid-1980s, while I was studying radio, television and film in college and graduate school, virtually everything boiled down to a question of bandwidth — not surprising considering that the old information order dominated by print and broadcast media was seriously plagued by bandwidth limitations.

Way back then, print and broadcast media were the primary ways through which people could communicate with large numbers of other people.

My task as a broadcast student was learning the most optimal ways to push information through this comparatively constricted bandwidth to the masses — needless to say, the same challenge facing my print counterparts who were training to become journalists.

We essentially were being trained to become dissemination experts — people who knew how to take large amounts of information, winnow it down and present it ways that made optimal use of limited bandwidth.

For that matter, so were aspiring educators of the time.

Looking back, it was a bit of a heavy experience, and while I’m by no means the product of an elite education, I admit succumbing once or twice to the feeling that I was preparing myself for a lofty role.

So much has changed in the last quarter century. Indeed, if you think about it, with the advent of the Internet and, more recently, Web 2.0, the bandwidth issue has been all but resolved.

To a degree, I saw these changes coming.  Somehow, I had stumbled onto and zealously read the works of futurist Alvin Toffler way back in the early 80s.  Toffler offered a compelling argument that the mass media-dominated information order in which I was being trained ultimately would be replaced by one that was considerably more demassified and open.

The massive expansion of communications outlets that would follow this demassification would empower large numbers of people to become communicators on their own.

That’s precisely what has happened.  As I’ve related before within this forum, I first noticed it in the mid-1990s after surfing onto the pages of Jim, a Brooklyn attorney and independent scholar who used his knowledge of UNIX and html to develop one of the most comprehensive and influential political sites on the internet.

In time, Jim ultimately leveraged this influence to become one of the nation’s most influential independent scholars and public intellectuals.  Many others have empowered themselves in similar ways.

There is an important lesson here for Extension educators.

We’ve got to understand how this new communications order has transformed our diverse audiences. Growing numbers of them are no longer clients in any conventional sense of the word.

They are no longer clients, no longer consumers but prosumers who will actively collaborate with us in the planning, development and delivery of our knowledge products.

They have liberated themselves in ways we professional communicators and educators could have scarcely imagined a generation ago.

To a significant degree, they are now our equals, people who are fully capable of using the advantages of these new media to learn on their own and empower themselves.

They no longer need dissemination experts like me.

Small wonder why the old plan-and-push communications and outreach model is as dead as a door nail.

It largely accounts for why we in Extension must become comfortable with platforms, the fluid ecosystems in which ideas are discussed and exchanged and that serve as the bases for supporting present and future innovation.

The platforms of the future will be characterized by the active collaboration of Extension educators and clients — or, I should say, former clients.

Building these sorts of platforms and actively collaborating with our former clients will ensure that we remain in the 21st century what we were in the 20th: educators at the cusp of innovation and change.

 

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Skepticism is Fatal: A Case for Social Media Adoption

Like it or not — and, frankly, many of us don't — a new Extension communication and outreach platform is being constructed on the old one.

Skepticism: I run across it occasionally as I discuss the absolute importance of social media adoption to the future of Cooperative Extension.

A few Extension educators steadfastly maintain that the learning curve required to master social media is not only too time consuming but also that social media have the potential of eroding personal contacts with their clients.

I think they’re wrong.  They’re wrong because the old way of doing things is untenable.  It’s untenable because a new platform is being built on the older 20th century outreach platform that our forebears first began building a century ago to serve our clients.  Yes, face-to-face contacts will continue to play an integral part in this new platform, though part of something even bigger.

Note that I use the term platform instead of more common terms such as models and networks.  I think it more accurately describes what we’re dealing with today. Platform is a more apt term to describe the open, highly fluid ecosystems of knowledge that form the basis for present and future innovation, many of which are being built — or stacked — on older ones.

That’s precisely what’s happening within Extension: a new outreach platform is being built on the old one. This fact holds some disturbing implications for those in our ranks who have not adjusted the new platform — it means that, professionally speaking, they in the basement.

This explains why social media adoption is more than simply a professional add-on or option.  It’s critical to our survival.  We’ve got to acquire the skills to operate effectively within this new outreach platform.

If we don’t acquire the skills — if we don’t become fully engaged, fully networked professionals — we will not survive the future.

A Fatal Illusion

As I see it, the people who resist social media adoption suffer from a kind of fatal illusion.  They mistakenly assume that the old 20th century communications order will carry over into the future or, at least, that enough of it will remain to ensure their survival.

Things are not working out that way. Granted, some elements of the old outreach platform will comprise parts of the new one.  Even so, the new platform that is emerging bears scant resemblance to the old one and operates on several entirely new premises and expectations.

Also, the old platform was seriously hampered by bandwidth limitations— bandwidth essentially defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

Because of these limitations, the old approach required information brokers.  The task fell to people like us to plan and push educational programs down to our clients through this relatively narrow bandwidth — small wonder why plan-and-push delivery methods comprised the cornerstone of our 20th century outreach platform.

However, “that was then and this is now. “ The Internet and, more recently, social media, have all but swept away this old information order.

Something remarkable has followed: liberation.  The people we once knew as clients are liberating themselves from Extension educators and other information brokers.

They are liberating themselves by learning how to seek and retrieve information on their own.  They are no longer routinely turning to us and other traditional information brokers, such as reference librarians, for essential knowledge.

Think about it: These liberated audiences are no longer clients in any conventional sense.  They are no longer passive subjects waiting to be enlightened by professional educators.  They are developing their own venues for intellectual exchange with or without professional educators.

As futurists and social critics Steven Johnson and Matt Ridley have stressed time and again in their writings, the wellspring of human progress stems from fluid, open environments — the places where ideas in the course of meeting, mating and morphing produce new insights and innovations.

That is precisely what is taking place among these newly liberated clients: They’re building their own platforms: fluid networks where they  are engaging, discussing, sharing serendipitous insights and providing valuable feedback.

Like it or not — and, frankly some of us don’t — these liberated clients are creating their own highly fluid, open-source learning environments.   New media are enabling them to carry on open, highly generative, highly rewarding exchanges without us.

This new reality should drive home a hard truth to all of us: By turning our backs on these open, highly generative discussions, some of us are depriving our ourselves of many of the critical insights that will influence our professions in the future.

Refusing to adopt social media is like exiting off a high-speed six-lane Interstate Highway onto a service road and driving at a snail's pace.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring these emerging social networks is like exiting off a six-lane, high-speed Interstate onto a two-lane service road and driving at a snail’s pace.

We’re behaving like tortoises instead of hares. And forget all the endearing folklore associated with tortoises:  Within this new communications environment, hares will always trump tortoises.

The hares shall inherit the earth.

Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension

The key to Extension’s survival can be expressed in one word: platforms.  Social media adoption is critical to our future, but it is only the first step toward the overriding goal of learning how to build the most generative, open-source platforms of the twenty-first century.  Please see my new Alabama Extension publication (EX-128) titled  “Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension” and view my recently posted youtube video, which is featured below:

Extension as an Emergent Platform — and What It Means for Our Future

London Skyscraper

Extension's challenge in the 21st century: Foster optimal conditions for the formation of the most generative platforms of the future.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, should serve as a primer for Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization.

Our transformation rides on how well we grasp the central lesson of this book: that many of the greatest intellectual advances in history have been generated by emergent platforms, the complex systems that arise from relatively simple interactions.

Cooperative Extension is one such platform — one that has not only advanced human knowledge but that has also provided the basis for other emergent, highly generative platforms.

As Johnson stresses, much of our understanding of emergent platforms stems from what we’ve learned from software design and Web development.

He notes that the most generative platforms come in stacks. One of history’s most significant examples of such a stack is Tim Berners-Lee’s ingenious innovation, which we know today as the Worldwide Web. Indeed, the Web is a kind of archeological site comprised of layer upon layer of platform made possible by the Internet’s open protocols — small wonder why “platform stack” is now a term commonly used in modern programming circles.

Other stacks followed the Web, notably youtube, which was stitched together with elements of the Web, Adobe’s Flash platform and the programming language Javascript, Johnson observes.

Yet, similar kinds of platform occurred long before the Web.  Johnson relates the story of two young scientists at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University whose responses to the Sputnik crisis produced one of the most generative platforms in history, one that contributed to GPS and, ultimately, to many of the technologies that define 21st century life.

Cooperative Extension is a highly generative platform in its own right. Indeed, speaking as an Extension history buff, I’m struck by the stark resemblance of Extension’s development to that of the Worldwide Web and accompanying Web 2.0 platforms.

Extension 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.

In another stark similarity to 21st century Internet platforms, Extension was shaped by late 19th and early 20th century forerunners of hackers — and, yes, I’m using this term in the commendatory rather than the derogatory sense —self-taught laypersons, beginning with Seaman Knapp, who helped refine and retool outreach methods, much as 21st century hackers have stepped up to enhance the usefulness of everything from Google Maps to Twitter.

In generative terms, Extension turned out to be one of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century, producing or contributing significantly to a host of other platforms.  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.

I’ve spoken in the past of the need for a radical overhaul of our outreach model.  But radical in this context does not imply thoroughgoing or wrenching insomuch as a harkening back to our roots.  Extension educators were building open-source, highly generative platforms long before this term or the underlying concept were conceived.

Our challenge will be to foster the most optimal conditions for the emergent platforms of the future — platforms efficient and generative enough to thrive within this the highly demanding 21st century knowledge environment.

Here’s the good news: Our transformation, while far from easy, is simple — simple in the sense that it requires an understanding of where we have been in order to understand where we’re going.  Despite numerous setbacks of late, we possess an institutional legacy that uniquely equips us with this understanding.

Colleagues have asked me why I remain doggedly optimistic in the face of all this cutting and downsizing.

This is why.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.

More Thoughts on Fostering Emergent Platforms within Extension

Is Extension up to the task of helping build the emergent platforms of the 21st century?In spite of all the justified concerns about the economy and spiking fuel prices, we live in unusually exciting times.

I really mean that.  The rapid acceleration of intellectual exchange that has followed the advent of the Internet and, more recently, of Web 2.0 has enabled some of the world’s brightest thinkers to gain deeper insights into the factors that drive human progress.

I personally derive immense optimism from that fact.  I think the enhanced clarity garnered from these new insights not only will help us surmount these current challenges but will also help transform Cooperative Extension System into the 21st century knowledge organization it must become.

The factors that have contributed to this enhanced clarity are outlined in Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson borrows “platform,” a term commonly used in software programming, to describe those environments that provide the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

No passage in the book better expresses the optimal conditions required for the formation of such environments than the quote from William Guier and Geroge Weiffenbach, the two young scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory whose impromptu research in the midst of the Sputnik crisis contributed to one of the most influential platforms in human history.

The two credited their achievements to the open intellectual environment that prevailed at the APL in the 1950s:

APL was a superb environment for inquisitive young kids, and particularly so in the Research Center. I was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and one in which inquisitive kids felt free to follow their curiosity.  Equally important, it was an environment wherein kids, with an initial success, could turn to colleagues who were broadly expert in relevant fields, and particularly because of the genius of the Laboratory Directorship, colleagues who were also knowledgeable about hardware, weapons and weapons needs.

As Johnson points out, “APL was a platform that encouraged and amplified hunches [and] that allowed those hunches to be connected with other minds that had relevant expertise.”

Of course, the APL is only one of many such platforms that have occurred at different times and places throughout history, though they have tended to share a few characteristics in common:  all provided environments in which diverse types of thought could “productively collide and recombine.”

As I see it, this is our 21st century organizational charge: to recreate open-source environments that secure the most optimal conditions for mutual exchange and recombination of ideas.

There is a strong emphasis among many public commentators and policymakers on building technological infrastructure as the most optimal way to foster creativity and innovation.

Without a doubt,  technological infrastructure has contributed mightily to American economic and scientific leadership throughout history, but so has human infrastructure — the kind of infrastructure Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We still have immense potential for providing human infrastructure in the 21st century. We Extension educators can still serve a valuable role  enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0-driven technological infrastructure.  But reaching this potential will require a complete reassessment and retooling of our outreach model.

In the end, our success will depend on how adept we become at optimizing those conditions that have been shown to foster the most generative emergent platforms.

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.