In one respect, I’m not worried about the open-source challenge to Extension.
Who were Seaman Knapp, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver other than early forerunners of collaborative learning? In a sense, they were architects of open-source ecology long before this term became commonplace.
No doubt about it: Open source ecology is deeply etched into our DNA.
We often forget that that 19th century agricultural societies and expositions and Knapp’s cotton demonstrations were as much attempts to elicit the insight and feedback of growers as they were efforts to disseminate knowledge. And don’t forget that Washington conceived the Movable School concept after expressing frustration that so many farmers refused to speak up at farmer’s conferences held on the Tuskegee campus. Much like Knapp’s cotton demonstrations, the movable schools were as much about securing feedback from farmers at the grassroots as they were about educating them.
I was reminded of this reading Donald Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.
They apply a really thought-provoking term to the 21st century visionaries — entrepreneurs and university researchers, to name a few — who are striving to ensure that knowledge is shared as widely and as freely as possible among those who seek to advance the boundaries of human knowledge. They call them new Alexandrians.
The Alexandrian Greeks, as you recall, set out with one overarching goal: They wanted to ensure that all the accumulated human knowledge — all the histories, plays, literature and mathematical and scientific treatises — was assembled under one roof.
What they achieved was extraordinary for the time: They accumulated an estimated half million books in the vast library at Alexandria before it was burned in the fifth century.
In a sense, our early Extension visionaries were the new Alexandrians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: They searched for the most effective ways to ensure that all knowledge about agriculture and, later, home economics, youth development, and community resource development was made available to anyone interested in benefiting from it.
Extension educators were constructing open-source platforms long before we understood the significance of that concept.
To be sure, we’re still constructing open-source platforms. My fear is that our platforms — or, if you prefer, our open-source ecologies — are not up to the task. To put it another way, I fear that we are failing to “meet code” — the building codes of the 21st century knowledge economy.
Our platforms are not dense enough and generative enough to keep pace with others.
What do the best open-source platforms look like?
In his superb book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, Steve Johnson describes platform building as “a kind of exercise in emergent behavior.” In human knowledge terms, platforms function as “hotbeds of innovation.”
The most optimal open-source platforms create environments within which different kinds of thoughts can “productively collide and recombine,” Johnson says.
I’m more convinced than ever that Extension’s success in the 21st century will ride on how adept we become in building these generative open-source platforms.
The more generative the platforms are, the better, because these ensure the widest possible following among our clients.
As we assess our future, we should begin with an affirmation, followed by a question.
First, the affirmation: Much like the coffeehouses of the 17th century, which provided the basis for so much idea sharing and innovation, Cooperative Extension is one of history’s oldest open-source platforms.
We should derive immense pride and inspiration from that fact.
Next, the sobering part — the question: Are our platforms dense enough and generative enough to compete in the 21st century?
Do they meet code?