Tag Archives: Exaptation

Cooperative Extension and the New Open-Source Ecology

Coral Reef

Science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson has observed how open-Source ecosystems share much in common with coral reefs, a natural ecosystem that provides ideal conditions for a variety of marine species.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a couple of close friends who teach in industrial engineering and who harbor the same intense interest in the implications of Web 2.0 as I do.

At lunch a few months ago, I pointed out to them all the stuff I had stumbled across in youtube, notably an English-subtitled German docudrama about the prison life of Albert Speer based on his prison diaries and a heart-rending Irish-made documentary in Gaelic, featuring English subtitles, about the honor guard who performed at President Kennedy’s graveside service.

Suddenly the thought occurred to me:  An entire undergraduate, if not graduate, history curriculum could be constructed around this immense trove of documentaries, which cover virtually every significant event in human history  and, in a surprising number of cases, are written from different national, cultural and intellectual perspectives.

With my usual zeal, I added that these documentaries, which would take the place of conventional college lectures, could be supplemented by online reading from sundry sources.

It would constitute one of the loftiest forms of exaptation to date: using material uploaded for sundry reasons, largely for entertainment, to educate a rising generation of aspiring teachers.

After a little more wiki-style idea exchanging among my friends, a second realization occurred to me: Why limit it to history?  An entire college curriculum arguably could be constructed around youtube documentaries and related materials and supplemented with online reading.

All that’s missing are a well-oiled entrepreneur to bankroll the effort and a handful of retired, credentialed academics to vet the materials and execute the plan.

Think about it: a scaled down, extremely cost-effective alternative to a conventional college education that could be offered to a handful of students and parents unwilling to pay the usual exorbitant fees for a sheepskin.

Yes, I know, accreditation is an issue, but this concept doesn’t depart that radically from the Deep Springs College model, which has been around since 1917 and has educated hundreds of Americans who went on to become renowned scientists, jurists, writers and diplomats.

To ensure that it passed muster among accreditation authorities and to enhance its competitive advantage vis-à-vis conventional forms of higher education, this approach could also incorporate a tutorial system similar to what is offered at Oxbridge: Students could be assigned a wide range of youtube viewings and online reading for the week, which could be supplemented by frequent meeting with their tutors to discuss the material.

Why hasn’t something like this been attempted? I don’t know.  Perhaps it already has.

One thing of which I’m all but certain: With costs of college tuition skyrocketing, unconventional approaches such as these are inevitable.  Sooner or later — I suspect considerably sooner than later — some entrepreneur will step up with a model remarkably similar to this one.

That fact should drive home a critical lesson to anyone involved in education.

Speaking as Extension professional, I’m still awed by the number of those in our ranks who dismiss what is occurring around us — who assume, however mistakenly, that social networking is just another skill that can be added to their educational toolkit.

What they don’t grasp is that Web 2.0 has created an entirely new ecology constructed on open-source platforms. The trove of educational material on youtube is one of countless examples of how this open-source platform provides a means of multi-purposing — exaptating — material in ways that the original creators often scarcely conceive.

Too many Extension educators view Web 2.0 as an add-on. What they don’t understand is that this new technology has not only reordered the educational landscape but has altered it in a fundamental way.

Web 2.0 is no longer the add-on: we are.  We face the same challenges as other facets of higher education: If we don’t overhaul our model to conform with the realities of this new open-source ecology, we will be supplanted.

It really boils down to that hard truth.

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The Awesome Power of “Sophisticated Curation”

Once again, my friend and colleague, Peg Boyles, has responded to a post — in this case, with an incisive description of curation, which essentially could be defined as the marshaling of information into a more enriched learning context.

I think a lot of the most important 21st-century information/education work…will come in the form of sophisticated curation. I also think we’ll come to appreciate good curators, who help make sense of chaos by identifying, attracting, connecting, and distributing information from many sources, as genuine leaders. We’ll think of many of them as “self-taught,” because they won’t have conventional credentials and the formal schooling it takes to acquire them.

Peg rightfully observes that my Web mentor, Jim, demonstrated the value of curation as far back as 15 years ago, when the Web was still in its infancy.

Yes, curation — “sophisticated curation,” as Peg aptly describes it — is essential to the future of Extension. Indeed, I would contend that few educators are as well equipped as Extension professionals to provide this indispensable skill.

As Jim demonstrated almost a generation ago, there is plenty of room, especially now, in this socially networked environment, to provide new perspectives on existing forms of knowledge.

By adding new perspectives to knowledge, we refine it, and by refining it, we reinforce it within the minds of our clients.

But sophisticated curation potentially unleashes something even more significant.  By curating large bodies of knowledge — in other words, by endowing it with wider perspectives — we increase the likelihood that some facet of this knowledge will be adapted to some wider, possibly even to some entirely new, use.

Science writer Steven Johnson describes this as exaptation — a practice that has advanced our species in incalculable ways. Exaptation could be broadly and very informally defined as a kind of hijacking of a trait, feature or idea for an entirely different, often previously unimagined purpose.

Evolution abounds with examples of exaptation — feathers are believed to have initially evolved for temperature regulation, although they ultimately proved useful in enabling birds to glide through the air.

In human technological terms, one of the most memorable forms of exaptation was Gutenberg’s borrowing of the wine press technique as the basis for a more advanced form of printing — one that changed the world in a myriad of ways.

That is only one example among many.  Punch cards, originally invented by French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard to weave complex patterns with mechanical looms, became a mainstay of computer programming through the 1970s.

Think about it: By curating vast bodies of knowledge using social media tools, we increase the likelihood that exaptation will occur.

Peg is right: The implications of specialized curation to Extension and to our diverse audiences are profound.

‘Nuff said.