Tag Archives: Extension Educators

Video Version of “A Social Media Call to Action” Now Available

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you are familiar with one of my overriding professional preoccupations: that the techniques Cooperative Extension educators once used to dominate the knowledge landscape — face-to-face encounters and traditional print and broadcast media — are being replaced by a new information order in which online sources of knowledge accessed literally at the speed of light out compete everything.

The availability of so much information explains why we are being shoved off the turf we once considered exclusively our own.  And here’s the really scary part: We face the real risk of extinction unless we learn how to operate effectively within this increasingly crowded landscape and in ways that distinguish us from tens of millions of others.

There is a place for Extension educators in this new 21st century information order, but only if we transform ourselves into engaged, networked educators — people who not only inspire their clients but also help them learn and adapt within this radically new world and flattened knowledge landscape.  We must become fully engaged, fully networked educators who use social media to disseminate knowledge to much larger audiences and to develop two-way, reciprocal relationships with those audiences.

This video, which serves as a companion piece for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s online publication, “A Social Media Call to Action,” is an appeal to Extension educators everywhere to undertake the requisite steps to transform themselves into the 21st century educators they must become, not only for the sake of their clients but also for their organizational survival.

From Normative to Nodal

Back in the day, the mid-1990s, when the Web was still a comparatively new and rather bewildering concept to many people, I had the great fortune of surfing onto the pages of one of the great visionaries of cyberspace.

Jim, an amateur scholar and attorney who lived in Brooklyn — neither his full name nor scholarly interests are germane to this discussion — had a passion for a field of study that also interested me.

Mind you, this was at a time when the Web moved at a snail’s pace, Facebook was a mere twinkle in the eyes of an obscenely young Mark Zuckerberg, and the rare spotting of an embedded graphic amid a sea of dense hypertext literally was a sight for sore eyes.

Yet, with a working knowledge of UNIX and hypertext, Jim pulled off a miracle. Using the cybernetic equivalent of a quill pen and inkwell, he constructed a remarkable byway within this emerging network.

Small wonder why: He was a wordsmith par excellence at a period of the Web’s development when engaging, crisply-written prose meant everything. His Website was made up almost entirely of self-published, carefully reasoned, thought-provoking FAQs and essays.  Monuments to concision, they were also written in a style that was highly accessible to nonprofessionals like me.

Indeed, Jim was a master of the science of stickiness, writing in a way that ensured that his subject matter was both accessible and stuck in his readers’ heads.

He had also assembled a mind-bogglingly comprehensive resource list comprised of hundreds of rare book and magazine titles, which had been passed along by members of his USENET discussion group. (This was years before listservs could be conveniently constructed via Yahoo and Google accounts.)

After a few weeks rummaging through this esoteric treasure trove, the realization hit me: Jim was a trailblazer who had demonstrated how  Web-based resources could be marshaled to disseminate knowledge with remarkably greater speed and efficiency, which, in turn, secured a considerably lowered learning curve.

Think about it: Setting out to acquire a similar working knowledge of such obscure subject matter would have taken considerably longer in, say, 1978 — many months, if not years, in fact.  An allusion in a book would have led me to a footnote — if the book were footnoted — then to another book followed by another and another.  Of course, way back in the 1970s, how well acquainted I became with any subject-matter area ultimately depended on the range of books available via my local library.

While I was unaware of it at the time, Jim had anticipated something else that is now commonplace in cyberspace.  He had used his comparatively rare skills to function as an aggregator, assembling a vast reservoir of esoteric knowledge on behalf of hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring scholars. Even better, he was acting as a curator, using his facts and essays to present this complicated material in a deeply enriched context.

Reflecting on this experience, another thing strikes me about Jim: Despite the fact that he was only a self-taught scholar, he had managed to draw some of the world’s first-rate scholars of this subject into his USENET discussions.

Granted, he was not the leader of this discussion —among many of the professional scholars, he likely was not even considered a first among equals — but he was valued both for the role he had served in assembling this eclectic body of scholars and for his frequent and insightful input, which always served to enliven the discussion or to refocus it when it occasionally wondered off topic.

Little did I know at the time that he was setting a benchmark for my coworkers and me — for the Extension educators of the 21st century.

Not too long ago, Extension work was largely a normative undertaking.  By that I mean that we were among a handful of vanguards operating on behalf of the nation’s land-grant universities and entrusted with helping define the standards for farming, nutrition and fitness, and youth and community development.

Yet, as my New Hampshire colleague, Peg Boyles, aptly pointed out recently, Extension educators are transitioning from a normative to nodal outreach approach.  By that, she means that we Extension educators increasingly will function as important nodes within a vastly extended informational network in which all sorts of people, experts and laypersons alike, are interacting within an increasingly collaborative and democratized knowledge landscape.

To be sure, much as Jim demonstrated more than a decade and a half ago, Extension educators will still serve a critical role using Web 2.0 technologies to expand the opportunities for dialogue and substantive discussion among our traditional clients and public and private partners.

Even so, we will no longer enjoy the normative role that defined our work in the last century. Much like Jim, we will be valued for the role we serve as aggregators, using social media tools not only to assemble critical resources on behalf of our clients, but also as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts — and, when the need arises, to enliven and refocus discussion.

Advice to Young Extension Professionals


“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Stickiness.”

Okay, I’m a huge fan of The Graduate.

But there is a reason for this rather cryptic remark. I’m approaching 50 and entering the last stretch of my Extension career.

A quarter century ago, I never thought I would be one of those old codgers compelled to offer unsolicited advice to younger professionals about how to make the most of their careers.

Now I can’t resist the urge.   I’m like the cryptic, slightly daffy middle-aged guy who confronts Benjamin Braddock.

I’ve even felt compelled a time or two to prepare a list.  At the top of that list — if I ever get around to it — would be a word or two about the importance of mastering the science of stickiness.  By stickiness, I mean the importance of learning how to present messages in ways that distinguish them from the thousands of other messages that bombard  our clients day after day after day — that stick in their minds, in other words.

That’s why I heartily recommend writing instructor Andy Selsberg’s March 19 op-ed. With the explosion of social media firmly in mind, he’s foregoing standard essays and assigning his freshman comp students more mundane tasks, such as writing two-liners to market eBay merchandise or  posting “coherent and original comments for youtube videos, quickly telling us why surprised kittens or unconventional wedding dances resonate with millions.”

Writers of the future, Selsberg says, should learn to set their “sights not lower, but shorter.”

I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.

Of course, as I’ve said time and again, there will be far more to a successful Extension career than concise writing.  But Selsberg is onto something: the need to package messages successfully.

To borrow a memorable phrase from Howard Beale, Extension professionals are living, working and competing in what has become the “most awesome g*****n force in the whole godless world”: the global knowledge economy.

Concise writing is only the beginning of a massive intellectual retooling effort in the ways we conceive, design and deliver Extension educational products to ensure that every item is readily distinguishable from the countless other knowledge products.

Back to that word again — stickiness. Everything we do really relates to that concept. We’ve got to ensure that all our products connect with our users.  And by securing stickiness, we better ensure that our products remain competitive.

Granted, the preceding paragraph is not exactly an example of concise writing, but believe me when I say it comes from the heart.

Are you listening? Stickiness.

What Cooperative Extension Sorely Needs: More Public Intellectuals

What has become of America’s scientific vanguard — those people who helped inspire and create a technological civilization that, up to now, at least, has been the envy of the world?

That’s a good question.   As a matter of fact, for Extension educators, it’s not just a good question, it’s a paramount question.  For almost a century, we have comprised a vital component of that vanguard.

Why is this question now so paramount? Because as sound science rapidly loses ground to junk science, Cooperative Extension educators are lining up on what many Americans, however unjustly, consider to be the wrong side of the debate.

You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it — virtually everyone employed in Cooperative Extension work has seen the growing disdain, particularly among many of the nation’s public intellectuals, for any farming method deemed “unnatural,” whether this involves tilling or applying herbicides or insecticides.

Among ordinary Americans, this thinking has taken on an almost conspiratorial hue.  Case in point:  Commenting on my recent online newspaper column on the economic challenges associated with raising free-range chicken, one respondent pointed to a USDA “conspiracy” against small-scale growers —one in which Cooperative Extension purportedly serves an active, conscious agent.

Today, New York Times blogger Tom Kuntz weighed into this increasingly contentious but woefully underreported debate.

Among other prominent figures in this debate, Kuntz cited Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, who has worked on his family farm for more than 30 years.  In response to an Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hurst summarized the pro-farming side of the debate:

Much of his argument comes down to: beware the law of unintended agricultural consequences. Farming without herbicides means more tilling and more erosion. Let turkeys roam outside and they’re prone to attack by weasels, or drowning by their own upturned beaks in downpours. Freeing massive hogs from confinement crates means they sometimes crush their piglets to death, or eat them right after they’re born.

Anyone associated with commercial agriculture understands this.  Farming functions on the basis of common sense rather on than some malicious intent to defraud consumers. 

Is there still a place for organic food production? Yes, absolutely.  But without these common sense practices, which involve everything from herbicide and pesticide application to livestock vaccination, we would be deprived of a food production and distribution system that enables less than 2 percent of the population to feed the remaining 98 percent with a measure of efficiency and safety than earlier generations would have found mindboggling.

It’s an important, if not vital, point, though one that is increasingly failing to get through to public intellectuals and ordinary Americans like.

And, frankly, I think it implies a lapse, if not an outright failure, on our part.  Communicating these sorts of complex issues in a way that public intellectuals and ordinary people can grasp is a task which could — should — be entrusted to Cooperative Extension educators.

Indeed, from the very beginning, Extension agents and specialists have functioned as scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the greatest strengths of Cooperative Extension, though one that has never been cultivated to its fullest potential.  It’s time that it was.

We need more Blake Hursts.

Here is my suggestion: that we start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators. The most promising of those educators should be developed into nothing less than public intellectuals — people who know how to identify and capitalize on opportunities to advance a public understanding of and appreciation for sound science.

Some of the skills with which they should be equipped: how to develop and write effective blogs; how to formulate and write op-eds; and how to communicate in a manner that not only is readily grasped but that also serves as an impetus for action.

We must create a vanguard of public intellectuals capable of serving at the state and national levels. And we should cultivate and promote them in the same manner with the Division I universities do star athletes.