Tag Archives: Blogging

Towards a Fully Engaged Cooperative Extension Model

Rockwell's County agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Portrait of an Extension agent at work.

Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and that saving your life will involve adopting a series of far-reaching lifestyle changes.

Would you adopt these changes?  Considering that your survival is at stake, yes, you probably would.

Cooperative Extension faces a disturbingly similar set of circumstances.  Yes, we’ve faced many challenges over the past 100 years, though nothing like we face today.

A Radically Altered Knowledge Landscape

A few decades ago, we were the dominant feature on the knowledge landscape.  But as the 21st century progresses, our once advantageous command of this landscape has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, such as printed publications and mass media  as the primary sources of knowledge has been almost entirely supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge— search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies —  that can be accessed literally at the speed of light.

According to New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman, we now operate in a flat world, a informational level playing field in which knowledge providers, no matter their location, are able to compete equally with other knowledge providers across the planet. 

For Extension educators, one of the immediate effects of this new flat world is the steady loss of the competitive advantage we took for granted throughout the 20th century.   Consequently, we face the real risk of organizational decline and possibly even extinction unless we learn how to compete within this crowded — and flattened —knowledge landscape.

The Engaged Extension Educator

The challenges call for nothing less than an organizational transformation — a transformation of Extension professionals into fully engaged educators who not only disseminate knowledge but also build collaborative relationships among people who share common interests.

The new approach will be characterized by both a high degree of collaboration and reciprocity — one in which the client becomes an active collaborator in the production of our knowledge products.  By including our clients as active collaborators, we develop valuable social capital, which, in turn, will enable us to further enhance the value of our products while also allowing us to reach out to even newer audiences.

Yes, traditional Extension methods — field days, conferences, workshops, newsletters and broadcast programs — will remain vital to our mission.  But despite our long and successful use of these methods, they alone will not be enough to help us survive within this radically altered landscape.  

To put it another way, these methods are no long sufficient enough to accommodate our audience’s growing demand for knowledge.

The Value of Social Media

Social media — Facebook and Twitter, to name the two most obvious forms of this technology —will enable us to expand our outreach efforts and audiences in dramatic ways. 

These new social media approaches will enable us to expand our outreach efforts far beyond our traditional role of teacher.  In a manner of speaking, we will use these new technologies to expand our organizational portfolio, thereby enhancing our competitive advantage over other knowledge providers.

We will use these new tools to leverage our abilities, functioning as part teacher, part explainer, part problem solver and, to an increasing degree, as a catalyst whose daily observations not only spark discussion but prompt a growing number of our clients to solve problems on their own.

We would be remiss if we failed to take note of how so many Extension educators are already availing themselves of these new approaches in a myriad of ways.  Horticulture educators who work closely with Master Gardeners employ blogs to update their clients on horticulture-related news and other issues between monthly Master Gardener meetings, workshops and field days.  Likewise, they use social networking tools such as Twitter to supply their clients with daily observations about home gardening, to respond to client questions, to share links to timely online articles, and to connect with others who share these interests.

Among some educators, applications such as Flickr and youtube, often in conjunction with blogs, Facebook and Twitter, are used to alert clients to emerging plant varieties or to potentially threatening diseases.

Blending the Old and the New

In the midst of these changes, we must not lose sight of our traditional roles methods, which, used in conjunction with emerging social media techniques, will distinguish us from other knowledge providers.

We should understand that traditional methods will simply be enhanced and strengthened, not supplanted, by these new technologies.  In fact, our success as 21st century Extension educators will be measured by how effectively we balance traditional organizational values and methods with the new demands of flat world.

For example, we must continue to build collaborative educational partnerships with other public and private entities to enhance the effect of programs and to reach new audiences.

Research-based knowledge must also remain an integral part of our outreach efforts.  This is an asset that historically has enabled us to distinguish our knowledge products from others.  We must never lose sight of how this kind of refined knowledge enables people to make lasting, meaningful changes in their lives. 

The applied research that formed the bedrock of the Extension outreach in the 20th century will be just as indispensible in the 21st.

Finding Our Groove in The Niche

Yes, I’ll concede that Chris Anderson may harbor some anti-media bias.

The editor-in-chief of Wired eschews terms such as newspaper and media because he considers them outmoded — relics of the last century. And speaking as a product of 20th century media training, I think Anderson is right — dead right. (See my previous diatribe on demassification for my rationale.)

Granted, there always will be a place for the kind of reporting that once distinguished traditional journalism, even as an increasingly greater share of online content is generated by amateurs. 

Even so, while some forms of traditional journalism will survive, they will be mixed up with the other information that is increasingly disseminated through social filters.   As Anderson says,

I read lots of articles from mainstream media but I don’t go to mainstream media directly to read it.  It comes to me, which is really quite common these days.  More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters.  We’re turning out television news, we’re turning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news.  It’s news that matters.  I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted those I trust.  So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.

Yes, it is a brave new world out there — and an intimating one too.  And this raises the question: What will this mean for organizations that have  felt more at home with older media – organizations such as  Cooperative Extension , which have traditionally looked to these older media to disseminate their messages? How will they manage to compete in a world with so many players offering so many products, whatever these happen to be?

I admit I remain an incorrigible pessimist about most things.  But on the subject of the online economy and Cooperative Extension’s place in it, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Why?

First, because this is one area in which our institutional mindset may work in our favor. 

As Anderson points out, most people blog for nonmonetary reasons — either because they want to draw attention to themselves or because they feel a passion for what they write about.  Extension is teeming with legions of passionate educators, quite a few of whom also write well.  Put these two together — passion and a knack for expression— and you have the makings of several highly effective and competitive blogs. 

Second, as Anderson observes, the default price of the emerging online economy is zero.  Compared with the older, conventional economy, an astonishing share of the offerings is free.

Free is the force of gravity.  If we decide to resist it, then somebody else will compete with something that is free.  The marketplace follows the underlying economics. You can be free or you can compete with free. That’s the only choice there is. 

Until recently, people have generally assumed that anything free was low-rate compared to its priced counterpart.  The online economy is changing this.  And this change of mind ultimately may work to the distinct advantage of Cooperative Extension-related products and services.

Freeness may also benefit us in another way — the same way it already is aiding other public and private entities: by helping us better leverage our fee-based efforts.   

Anderson points out how private companies are learning to use free content to attract audiences.  They’ve learned it’s to their advantage not to charge for the most popular stuff.  Instead, they charge for the “niche stuff” that people are willing to pay for.

As I see it, Cooperative Extension administrators and educators should invest considerably more thought into how our most popular stuff, such as publications, videos and other materials, can be used to whet our audiences’ appetites for the more enriched, specialized forms of instruction — the “niche stuff,” which could include webinars, workshops and field days — the stuff for which they would gladly pay.

Deep Context, Part II

Andrew Sullivan rocks the blogosphere.  He has for a long time.

Employing a saying once attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, he dominates because he got there “the fastest with the mostest” when this medium was still in its comparative infancy.

Yes, like most innovators, he saw the value of blogging long before many others did.  And like every other successful Web pioneer, he’s not resting on his laurels.  He continues to think out of the box, complementing his erudite but readable prose with interesting, often hilarious, youtube videos, along with carefully chosen photos, color graphs, and other visual media.  He uses these elements not only to illustrate but to underscore his editorial themes.

More recently, he has virtually cornered coverage of the uprising in Iran, underscoring to me, a rather prosaic learner, that blogs really do have the potential of outrunning white elephants — I mean, uh, mainstream media —a remarkable feat when one considers he is only one blogger competing against hundreds of conventional news outlets around throughout the world.

But aside from all the innovative ways he’s enhanced his presence in the last few years, he’s does another thing exceptionally well: He provides his audiences throughout the world with deep context — in many cases, with definitive context.

Any one of his legions of faithful followers who spends at least a half hour on his site leaves with a reasonable degree of assurance that he/she has been well apprised of the issues of the day — the reason why Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” is so aptly named.

He also engages his readers.  Not content to concentrate on a couple of topics a day, he roams all over the map, weighing into one issue with a brief paragraph or two, before moving onto something new and often unanticipated.

But just when you think he’s burned out on an issue, he comes bounding back, sometimes with an extended post, sometimes with a terse reply to a reader comment.

You never know what to expect next, and that accounts in large measure for why the Daily Dish remains the 800-pound gorilla of blogging.

And, yes, as you may have already ascertained, I believe Sullivan’s has a lot to teach all of us in Cooperative Extension.

Surf onto any Cooperative Extension Web site, including, I regret to say, ours, and what you almost invariably find are static blogs — an approach that flies in the face of everything that Web 2.0 is teaching us.

We must borrow a page from Andrew Sullivan’s playbook and begin thinking out of the box, packaging blogs that provide all of the things associated with successful blogging: deep context, engagement and, yes, even the occasional unexpected.

Lessons for Cooperative Extension

I’ve been an active user of the Web for some 13 years now — since 1996.

Shortly after I got started with Web surfing in the mid-1990s, I cultivated a fascination with an intellectual topic that was dominated by one guy, a Brooklyn lawyer, who had posted a cornucopia of FAQs, resource lists and external links related to his specialty on a very nondescript page.

He complemented this material with online interaction on a USENET group he had created using his vast knowledge of UNIX (As it turns out, he is a polymath of sorts:  a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics from Dartmouth who later enrolled at Yale Law School to pursue a legal career.)

Years have passed and I’ve moved far beyond this particular intellectual interest, but I still remember it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.  With the comparatively primitive technology available in the 1990s, this guy, this very smart, creative guy, provided his audiences with a body of knowledge as vast as it was compelling.  But he also provided something more: A shallow learning curve.

Knowledge that would have required years to obtain, moving from one book another — and only then if I were lucky enough to live near a well-equipped library — required only a few months of intensive online reading.

I was fascinated and captivated by the whole thing — hooked to the very marrow of my bones.

Looking back, roughly 15 years later, I realize I owe this fellow a significant intellectual debt.

And as we press ahead into the brave new world of Web 2.0, there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.

Years ago, this exceedingly bright Web pioneer was providing his audience with rich context.  Within this comparative crude medium, he established himself not only as a rich source of information but also as the DEFINITIVE source.

With the vastly improved technologies available today — blogging, Twitter, and Facebook — this is what Cooperative Extension must do:  provide our audiences with the deep context they seek. 

In a few rare cases, especially those in which we still enjoy distinct comparative advantages, we must do something more: We must provide not only deep context but also strive to serve as something akin to the definitive source.