Tag Archives: open-source ecology

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.

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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.