Tag Archives: Booker T. Washington

From Programs to Platforms?

Photo of a building under construction.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve raised this issue before, but it never seemed to have garnered the traction I had hoped it would, even though many experts are convinced that an adequate understanding of it and its implications is absolutely critical to the future of Cooperative Extension and higher education in general.

The issue can be summed up in one word: Platform.  We have got to demonstrate to present-day and future Cooperative Extension educators the indispensable, if not central, role platforms will play in defining their work.

I really believe that.

Platforms convey a number of meanings within the English language, but in computer parlance, it’s typically understood in terms of how software and Web development often provide the basis for further tinkering and innovation.

Indeed, we’ve learned a lot about the significance of platforms based on what has come out of these two undertakings.   The simple fact that the text you are reading is posted and readily visible on your monitor is a testament to the foresight and work of Tim Berners-Lee, who essentially built the World Wide Web off earlier software advances.

He built it by stitching it together from components that already existed.   He found a way to stitch all these components together using hypertext markup language. In a matter of speaking, he built a new platform known as the Worldwide Web by stacking it on older ones.   Of course, the Web, in turn, has served a platform for numerous other platform stacks, many of which have changed life on this planet in a myriad of ways.

These platforms have formed the basis for the growth of dense technological ecosystems.

Here’s the really fascinating part: The insights we’ve garnered from software and Web design bear a remarkable resemblance to what we’ve learned from disciplines as far removed as biology.

As Steven Johnson argues in his splendid book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation,” we see the same sorts of processes played out in nature.  For example, what is a beaver dam other than a biological platform?

Beaver dams serve more than just a means of pooling water.  They provide basis for the development entire ecosystems.  To put it another way, dams provide a means by which other species can, in a manner of speaking, stack their own platforms — in other words, to develop their own biological niches.

In this respect, we Extension educators are a lot like beavers.   We have been platform builders from the beginning of our history — a reality reflected in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s “Movable School On Wheels,” better known as the Jesup Wagon.

Like busy little beavers, we have been developing ecosystems — or, in our case, knowledge ecosystems — for a comparatively long time, longer than most educational entities.

Within the past century, though, a number of factors have forced us to conceive our knowledge products in more lineal terms.  We’re currently defined by how we deliver programs— programs that are still conceived and carried out in the same linear fashion they were at the beginning of the 20th century

There is still a place for this.  Yet, a lot of people in all facets of education are more convinced than ever that the times are calling for a more open-ended approach to outreach.  This will require Extension educators to return to something more familiar — to close the circle, in a manner of speaking.

That will involve changing how we develop our educational products in the future, because closing this circle will require us to focus more on becoming the platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

In other words, we will be valued more for the platforms —the ecosystems of knowledge — we create than for the linear programming that we deliver.

Some in our ranks find such thinking almost inconceivable. Yet, this seems to be where all the trends are pointing.

Yes, it is a scary prospect for some, because it undoubtedly will call for a complete rethinking of how we interact with those we serve.

I, for one, think it could prove to be our finest hour.

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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.

Failure to Meet Code?

Seaman Knapp

Seaman knapp, 19th century forerunner of Extension work, and, arguably, one of the early architects of open-source ecology.

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?

Steven Johnson’s Lessons for Cooperative Extension

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

After reading Steven Johnson’sWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” a third time through and taking meticulous notes, I’m more convinced than ever that it should serve as one of the manuals, if not the principal manual, for Extension’s transformation into a 21st knowledge organization.

I hope you are as equally convinced after reading this.

Johnson devotes much of the book to debunking the longstanding notion that good ideas stem from eureka moments.

Ironically, we humans have invented all sorts of metaphors to describe these eureka moments — aside, of course, from “eureka moments,” “flashes of insight,” “strokes of genius” and, my favorite, “epiphanies.”

As it turns out, though, this understanding is far off the mark, Johnson contends.

“As rhetorically florid as these [metaphors] all are, they don’t strike at the truth because they depict ideas as a single thing — something that happens at an illuminating moment,” he says.

Actually, ideas begin as networks at the most elemental level — our brains.

A new idea is essentially a network of neurons firing in sync within a human brain — “a new configuration that has never formed before.”

That’s only half the story.  As Johnson and others have discovered, good ideas emerge within similar sorts of external networks, which mimic the internal environment of the human brain.

The trick — that is to say, the optimal way to ensure the formation of ideas — is to place oneself into an environment where new external networks are likely to form.

Johnson describes these environments as liquid networks, rather boisterous places which closely resemble William Hogarth’s painting of a densely crowded tavern room where a political dinner is being held.

“This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas are likely to come together, where people from different backgrounds were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions,” he says.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has supported this view.

For example, researcher Kevin Dunbar employed a “Big Brother” approach to determine whether monumental breakthroughs in scientific laboratories really were the result of eureka moments — those sparks of brilliance that allegedly occur as scientists peer through microscopes.

As it happens, most good ideas occur around the conference table — the weekly lab meetings where everybody assembles and shares their latest data and findings.

Indeed, Johnson says one of the challenges of the future will be building more of these spaces — spaces where individuals behave much like those in Hogarth’s classic painting.

For my part, I’m both inspired and disturbed by the views Johnson presents in his book and his TED lecture (posted below).

He’s right to argue that one of the preeminent concerns of organizations in the future will be creating the optimal conditions in which these sorts of liquid networks can thrive — that’s the inspiring part.

The part that disturbs me is best expressed by this question: Is Cooperative Extension up to the task of building liquid networks in the 21st century?

I’ve stressed a time or two in this forum how Extension once dominated the knowledge landscape.  Borrowing Johnson’s terminology, we once excelled in building optimal networks, not only among ourselves but on behalf of our clients.

What were the agricultural societies of the 18th and 19th century other than attempts to build these optimal learning environments?   For that matter, what were Seaman Knapp’s experimentation with cotton demonstrations, Washington’s use of farm conference’s and P.O Davis’s development of radio listening clubs other than attempts to optimize not only the spread but also the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Even so, how well equipped are we to nurture these environments in the 21st century?   Granted, we are still constructing networks but are we making adequate use of emerging Web 2.0 technologies?  Even more important, are these networks as efficient, open and responsive as they should be — efficient, open and responsive enough to merit continued support from our stakeholders?

As I see it, that remains the million-dollar question — literally.

What is Extension’s “Commander’s Intent?”

Extension professionals would be well served by taking a critical military lesson to heart.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that “commander’s intent” has become a deeply ingrained facet of American military tactics.

Over the last 200 years, U.S. military planners have come to value simplicity deeply. That’s because the core message of a tactical objective is apt to be ignored, forgotten or replaced in the noise and confusion of battle.  Based on years of trial and error, military planners have gotten around that by developing the commander’s intent concept.

Commander’s intent is essentially a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan.  The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish at the conclusion of the military operation, regardless of what happens along the way.

To put it another way, the details of the plan may change but the end goal doesn’t.

That raises an interesting question: As we carry on with our own battle to convince our clients and stakeholders of our continued relevance, what is our commanders intent?

To put it another way, what is the tactical objective that must be remembered at all costs?

One thing that has surprised me time and again in the course of my Extension career is the number of employees who simply lack a clear grasp of what we do — what we’ve always done: transform practical knowledge into working knowledge, showing our clients how they can use this practical knowledge to secure lasting and meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.

It’s ironic, especially considering that we’ve being doing this for a very long time and, until recently, exceptionally well.  As far back as a century ago, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington already had anticipated the critical role collaboration between the Extension educators and clients would play in ensuring that this transformation from practical to working knowledge occurred.

In one sense, they were brilliantly prescient because they anticipated the wikinomical approach to learning that forms the bedrock of 21st century learning within this increasingly wired world.

What is our commanders intent? To show our clients and stakeholders that despite all the changes that are occurring around us, we will continue to do what we’ve always done: ensure that the working knowledge model that has distinguished us in the past will comprise the very best of what we offer in the future.

The informal, collaborative Extension model — the one that put so much value on face-to-face and hands-on learning — will be merged with emerging social media technology to build an even better 21st century model.

This transformation is critical to our organizational survival.

In the end, though, it will enable us to do something even more effectively: to demonstrate to even larger numbers of people how to transform practical knowledge  into working knowledge.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us — Extension educators, clients and stakeholders alike — with a clearer grasp of what is expected of Cooperative Extension in the 21st century.

Yet, it enables us to do something even more important: to distinguish ourselves from the legions of other knowledge providers across this flat knowledge landscape.

Granted, we no longer can compete with search engines and other forms of artificial intelligence. That is one of the hard truths of the 21st century.  On the other hand, we still offer something that virtual sources of knowledge lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

What is our commander’s intent? Working knowledge — the collaborative, hands-on knowledge that we pioneered more than a century ago and that, combined with the right amount of foresight, creativity and innovation, is still relevant today.

Wikifying Cooperative Extension Work

I don’t think there is anything associated with the Internet that impresses me more than Wikipedia — its sheer breadth and convenience and, most of all, the way it’s revolutionized how we collaborate as wired human beings.

I think it will be remembered centuries from now as one of the greatest achievements since the Gutenberg Press —  pardon the hyperbolic rhetoric, but I really mean that.

A couple of years ago the thought occurred to me: Why not wikify Cooperative Extension?

Yes, I know, this sounds more like a PR venture than an actual attempt to educate people through shared knowledge, which, of course, is the stated aim of Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia concept.

But I had a story to tell.  Alabama may figure as the 49th state on many lists, but in terms of its Extension legacy, it ranks near the top — replete with names such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Thomas M. Campbell, Luther Duncan and terms such as Jesup Wagons.

As I said, I had a story  to tell and to share — a very compelling one.

So whenever I could muster the time, I wrote — and wrote and wrote and wrote, as it turned out.

Actually, I first cut my Wikipedian teeth on a series of articles on my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Alabama, which has now grown to a cluster of articles.  (I’m proud to say that for a relatively small regional school, dear ol’ UNA’s  Wikipedia presence is now not too shabby one.)

Anyway, back to my Extension effort.  I started with a general article about the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, first outlining its mission and programs.  Over time, I’ve managed to grow it into a fully expanded article — one of the largest among Alabama articles — that also covers Alabama Extension’s impressive history beginning with Seaman Knapp’s initial efforts.

Also included are articles about three of our most noteworthy directors: Luther Duncan, P.O. Davis and E.T. York, though an article about York, who also served as a University of Florida interim president, already existed in “stubb” form.

The articles I’ve most enjoyed are the ones dealing with our history.  These include a lengthy piece on the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture, which was a series of WPA-funded murals commissioned by the then-Alabama Extension Service to highlight the progress of Alabama agriculture. 

In time I was able to include enough articles to build develop a Alabama Extension navigation bar, which, placed at the end of each article, allows easy navigation to related articles.

Granted, researching and writing these articles was time-consuming, but they have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  All of them have garnered respectable followings: The main article on Alabama Extension attracts roughly 500 to 600 hits a month.  The Historical Panorama piece and the accompanying article about the artist, John Augustus Walker, cumulatively garner about 300 to 400 hits each month. 

A couple of the articles on our Extension directors appear to generate roughly 250 hits a months.

These articles have paid off in so many ways, not only by educating thousands more people about Alabama Extension history but also by instilling our employees with a greater sense of organizational pride and esprit de corps.

One enterprising Extension county coordinator in northwest Alabama, Katernia Cole, used the material to organize a Luther Duncan Celebration for Alabama’s 4-H centennial.  As it turns out, Duncan, a national 4-H pioneer and a Alabama Extension director and Auburn University president, was a native of the town in which she works.

They’ve paid off in other ways too. The article on the Historical Panorama was part of the inspiration behind one Birmingham historian’s effort to sponsor a return of the murals to Birmingham for the first time in more than 70 years.

I am proud to be a Wikipedian, and, most of all, I’m proud to have found a way to use this remarkable medium to acquaint thousands of people around the world with the remarkable human achievement that is Cooperative Extension work.

The First Cooperative Extension Agent: A Celebration of All That Is Good in American Education

Thomas Monroe CampbellIf ever there was a testament to all that is good in American education, it was Thomas M. Campbell.

Like millions of black southerners only a generation removed from slavery, Campbell faced a bleak future eking out a living as a laborer in the foothills of northeastern Georgia.

He wanted something better in life. His brother was a student at a school in a faraway place with a strange name, Tuskegee, led by a man named Booker T. Washington.  As little as he knew about the place, he was certain of one thing: He wanted to be there — desperately.

He was determined to go to this school, even it meant walking all the way.  And walk he did — all the way to Tuskegee Institute and into the pages of history.

America’s First Cooperative Extension Agent

Campbell enrolled at the school.  And while he had a lot of academic catching up to do, his almost superhuman capacity and passion for hard work and self-improvement earned the respect and admiration of Washington.  Immediately after graduation, Washington entrusted him with a job — overseeing the “farmer’s college on wheels,” one of the first in a series of steps that culminated in what later became known Cooperative Extension work.

Campbell’s successful work with the farmer’s college led to his becoming the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, winner of the Harmon Award, and one of the most distinguished Extension educators in U.S. history.

I’ve often reflected on how different Cooperative Extension would be today had there not been a Tuskegee Institute to tap into the extraordinary energy and genius of this man.

U.S. Higher Education’s Singular Achievement

More than one pundit has reflected on one of the singular achievements of U.S. higher education:  its longstanding emphasis on giving remedial and underachieving students a fighting chance to succeed in life.

The stream of greatness that has flowed through institutions such as Tuskegee University along with the vast network of U.S. land-grant institutions, regional colleges and universities and community colleges testify to the depth of this commitment.

I relate to this on an intimate level, because while I’m by no means great, I was, by every measure of the word, a classic underachiever.

Like so many underachievers, I had spent my high-school years focusing only on those books and activities that interested me — behavior reflected in my lopsided grades and ACT score.  My encounter with my local regional university transformed me into something approaching a serious scholar.

I refer to it as an encounter because it took hold of me and transformed me into the person I am today, much as Tuskegee Institute did Thomas Campbell.

A Scottish Lesson

I gained a deeper appreciation for this more recently reading the last chapter of Arthur Herman’s  “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”

Herman writes about how higher education in Scotland grew less egalitarian at roughly the same time that intellectual life in the region began to atrophy.  Even as this atrophy set in, Scottish universities, borrowing from their English counterparts, began imposing stricter admission standards.

“University students of thirteen or fourteen were now a thing of the past; the academic body more closely resembled that of other Western universities,” Herman writes.

No longer were 13- and 14-year-old students granted admission to these institutions, even though in earlier years a few teenage students had gone on to become distinguished, if not world-renowned, scholars.

Poor aspiring scholars had a harder time matriculating, too, trapped in what Herman describes as “the mesh of entrance exams.”

There are lessons here for America, a nation that seems more meritocratic — more SAT-obsessed — than ever.

Hasn’t there always been a place in this society for late-bloomers, underachievers and remedial students —  students who, for whatever reason, simply didn’t fit traditional molds?

Affirming a Legacy

This brings me back to one of the purposes of my weblog: to affirm the work and legacy of Cooperative Extension.

From the beginning, this informal educational movement has affirmed  the traditional value Americans have invested in nontraditional learning and, equally important, in ensuring that the fruits of learning are available to all.

The life of our first Cooperative Extension agent, Thomas M. Campbell, should serve as an enduring reminder that through exposure to the right person, experience or institution, even the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most underachieving can soar to dizzying heights.