Tag Archives: Movable Schools

Cooperative Extension’s Axial Principle

Oklahoma State University Extension Agent with client

An Oklahoma State University Extension agent providing a client with working knowledge.

The question has been posed to me countless times throughout my career, one that is typically phrased this way: “Just what is Cooperative Extension?”

The whole concept of Cooperative Extension baffles most people. As I’ve pointed out a time or two, relating this concept to novices is as challenging as explaining all the complexities and nuances of the British Commonwealth.

As realities go, this is not good, especially considering the densely crowed, flattened information landscape on which we Extension professionals operate today.  Cooperative Extension’s murky image was luxury we perhaps could afford throughout much of the 20th century, when we occupied a much more conspicuous place within the American intellectual, cultural and public policy landscape.  Today, such murkiness is crushing burden that poses a genuine threat to our survival—precisely why I’ve argued more than once in this forum that the times are calling on use to go axial.  By axial, I mean that we Extension professionals are being challenged as never before to define what lies at the core of our being — to put it another way, to identify those attributes that constitute the essence of who we are and what we do.

Rest assured, though, that simply settling on a definition isn’t enough.  We’ve also got to communicate this definition to our diverse audiences as cogently and effectively as possible — not only to our external audiences but also to our employees.  (And rest assured that many of our employees struggle almost as much with our murky image as our clients and stakeholders do.)

Actually, I don’t think that identifying these core attributes is as hard as many people imagine it to be.

While some of my colleagues may write me off as delusional, I’m more convinced than ever that the essence of Cooperative Extension work can be expressed in this simple term: working knowledge.

Working knowledge is what Cooperative Extension is about — what it’s always been about — providing people with practical, beneficial knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in all facets of their lives, whether this happens to be at home or work.

This axial principal of Cooperative Extension, which has been employed to serve people from many different races and backgrounds in every corner of the planet, started out a preoccupation of farmers in frontier America — farmers who were seeking working knowledge to help them farm more effectively and profitably.

The perennial question remained how — how to disseminate knowledge to the widest number of farmers at a time when the farming population was growing and spreading rapidly across a vast continent.

Farmers’ meetings and institutes, the Morrill Act of 1862, Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots, Booker T. Washington’s Movable School, corn and tomato clubs  — all of these efforts and many more have essentially comprised a running dialogue about the most effective ways to put practical, beneficial knowledge to work on behalf of farmers where they live and work.

All of these efforts coalesced into the Cooperative Extension movement, which was formalized with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Through this legislation, states were provided matching funds to establish statewide networks of county farm educators, each network functioning under the aegis of its state land-grant college, each the byproduct of an earlier national effort to provide farmers with working knowledge: The Morrill Act of 1862.

Simply put, passage of the Smith-Lever Act marked the culmination of a century-long movement that from its beginning sought to impart working knowledge to farmers.

As it turned out, the movement didn’t stop with farming: It underwent further refinement and adaptation.  Ultimately the working knowledge concept was re-engineered to address the needs of many people from many walks of life with many diverse needs.

In time, it developed into one of the most grassroots educational movements in history, emulated the world over.

Working knowledge: that, as I see it, is the axial principle of Cooperative Extension, the essence of who we are and what we do.

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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?