Tag Archives: collaborative learning

The Coming Extension Extinction

tar pit

What must Cooperative Extension do to avoid consignment to the digital tar pit?

There is a longstanding and very cynical corruption of the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules.”

In the digital learning world, it works a little differently. Only those who build the most fluid and adaptive digital networks — networks that are highly reciprocal, generative and, most important of all, responsive to the needs of contemporary learners — will survive and rule in the future.

As a few of you may know, I retired last September from the Cooperative Extension System.   Frankly, I don’t regret my decision. It appears, based on some experiences within the last few years of my career, that Cooperative Extension, despite its long and illustrious history, is one of those entities consigned for for digital extinction.

Frankly, as I consider all that is happening, I hold out little hope.

A Lumbering Dinosaur

Quite honestly, Cooperative Extension is a living, breathing dinosaur lumbering around only because there is still an available food source within its reach: a few legislators and funders still willing, however reluctantly, to support antiquated delivery methods.

Shortly before I retired, my very gracious department head called me into his office to conduct an impromptu exit interview. “If you could reinvent the Cooperative Extension System, what would you do?”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Devote the overwhelming bulk of funding within the next decade to transform Extension into a bona fide digital delivery system.”

As I see it, this transformation should be undertaken with the same seriousness with which an emergency room staff struggles to resuscitate a dying man.

The future of Cooperative Extension lies in developing the apps and other online digital technologies that will engage a new generation of learners within highly fluid networks — learners who consider traditional forms of delivery as passe or, at the very best, enhancements to digital delivery methods.

For most Extension educators, the next question is likely to be this: “What happens to the Extension grassroots educators?”

A Newly Conceived Role for Educators

Quite honestly, I think the times are calling on us to completely reconceive the role of grassroots Cooperative Extension System professionals.  As painful as this new reality may seem, the primary role of grassroots Cooperative Extension professional in the future will be serving primarily as technical professionals supporting the apps and other digital technology conceived, designed and distributed via their state headquarters or in cooperative with other Extension and land-grant university entities.

To be sure, an agent’s educational background in, say, agricultural education, will be helpful in this new role.  And, yes, there will still be the need for traditional Extension agents to continue reaching older client groups with traditional methods.  And, admittedly, there will be the continuing need for Extension professionals to lend a hand to clients who, for whatever reason, occasionally must go off the grid and experiment with some technique or learning methods for which digital delivery methods are unsuited.

But make no mistake: Digital delivery methods are the future.  Either Cooperative Extension undertakes a wholesale transformation very soon, or it will be completely swamped by this digital tsunami.  I’m reminded of that riveting scene of the astronauts in the new science fiction thriller Interstellar who have a difficult but essential technical task to complete before they are completely swamped by the extraterrestrial tsunami-force wave.  Cooperative Extension is in a remarkably similar predicament.

Will We Adapt Quickly Enough?

But will we adapt soon enough?  Frankly, I have serious doubts.  A couple of years ago, a close friend related an unusually unsettling story to me.  While she was paying a visit to her state Extension director, she pointed out an Extension specialist who had gone to great lengths in warning other Extension professionals about these threats to Cooperative Extension’s survival.

Through blogging and other digital techniques, he had managed to carve out a reasonably large national following and, along with a handful of other intrepid Extension professionals, had even managed to spark a dialogue in Cooperative Extension ranks.

“Well, that’s good,” the Extension director replied, “but we don’t pay him to do that.”

Reflect on that statement for a few moments: “We don’t pay him to do that.”

If one phrase in the future is likely to constitute the most fitting epitaph for a failed educational movement, it is that one. At the risk of sounding exceedingly blunt, if not impertinent, state Extension directors all across this country had darn well better start paying people to think their way through these challenges — and soon.

But again, I harbor serious doubts that they will.

Attend any Extension planning meeting anywhere in the country and the main topic of discussion is inevitably about workshops — workshops, workshops, workshops — and, oh, mind you, check your e-mail for accompanying pdf forms and press releases!

And, if these workshop planners are really technically savvy (for Extension professionals) they’ll remind everyone to be sure “to report these workshops through their appropriate social media channels.”

As I said, our leadership and much of our rank and file are lumbering dinosaurs inching their way to the tar pits.

Is there a way out?  We had better get busy finding it.

A “Strategery” That Seems to Be Working

To borrow a rather memorable term from Saturday Night Live, our “strategery” seems to be working.

Several months ago, I felt inspired to undertake a rewrite of Epsilon Sigma Phi founder W.A. Lloyd’s beloved Extension Creed, written in 1922.

Tinkering with this priceless intellectual artifact of Cooperative Extension identity is undoubtedly considered an act of sheer effrontery in some quarters, and that’s precisely why I did it.

I intended for this to be a disruptive event within Extension — a way to get people focused on the imperative need to transform Cooperative Extension into the 21st century knowledge organization it simply must become.  I wanted it to spark a dialogue about the traits and skills that 21st century Extension educators must acquire to become effective change agents in this emerging global knowledge economy.

To a moderate degree, it appears to have done precisely that.

I’m indebted to two people: Carol Whatley, my department head, who graciously agreed to work my version of the creed into a beautifully rendered .pdf document, and NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, who has managed to get this debate rolling on NDSU’s “The Winnowing Oar: Web Tech in Agriculture and Extension.”

Alongside the creed, Bob was even thoughtful enough to post a word cloud, which adeptly summarizes much of what I was trying to convey.

For me, the most salient section of the creed is the penultimate phrase:

I believe that the prevailing winds of change are summoning us to do what we have always done best: to work, to teach, and to inspire through dialogue and empowerment, demonstrating to our diverse audiences the value of accepting and embracing change as an inevitable facet of life and as an opportunity to formulate new ways of thinking, living, and working.

Collaborative learning is the future. Indeed, as Bob pointed out in one of his earlier pieces, the times have produced a new social and communicative order in which leaders no longer can “hold themselves above or apart from the community.”

As I’ve stressed a time or two before, Extension’s long-time institutional experience with collaborative learning is one of our greatest strengths.  We have been the ones least inclined to play the ivory tower game.  Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired by so many Extension faculty members who have garnered national and even international reputations without ever abandoning their common touch.

That’s a big reason why my faith in this movement’s future is unwavering.

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.