Tag Archives: Jesup Wagons

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.

What Should Comprise a Cooperative Extension Grand Narrative?

Late last week, I mentioned the value of grand organizational narratives and why constructing such a narrative is critical to the success of the Cooperative Extension mission.

We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.

That raises an important question:  What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?

I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.

Working Knowledge

First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.

To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right.  Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.

Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Yet, we accomplished something even more significant:  We added value to practical knowledge.  We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods.  By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.

Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.

It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history.  Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.

Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.

We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines 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.

Wiki Knowledge

This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.

Too an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach?  Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.

Over the last few decades, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.

Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.

This change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase distinctive working knowledge approach.

For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.