Tag Archives: open-source platforms

Transforming Cooperative Extension into a Platform-Ready Knowledge Organization

condo-constructionSitting in on a media interview recently filled me with some new insights into the critical need to render Cooperative Extension not only platform friendly but also platform ready.  And by “ready,” I mean an organization that is not only congenial to platforms but also fully equipped to be early adopters and, in some cases, innovators of open-source platforms.

Indeed, this interview not only filled me with new insights but also with a resolve to drive home this critical truth: Cooperative Extension’s very survival depends on our transforming ourselves into a platform-ready organization.

What Are Platforms?

In human terms, platforms are the outgrowth of open, freewheeling communications environments.  One notable example: the coffeehouses that emerged in 17th century Britain.  These coffeehouses turned out to be fluid environments of information exchange that provided the basis for new ways of thinking and acting.  Over time, they gave rise to a host of open-source platforms, conceptual foundations on which far-reaching intellectual, scientific and technological innovations were built over the course of years, decades, even centuries. The effects of these platforms are still felt today, r

William Hogarth's painting of a spirited 18th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

William Hogarth’s painting of a spirited 17th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

oughly 500 years later.

Needless to say, the increasing levels of social networking that have followed the advent of Web 2.0 have significantly enhanced the conditions out of which these platforms emerge.

The Interview

The interview that prompted these new insights into platforms involved a reporter from a major Alabama news outlet and Dr. John Fulton, a highly respected Alabama Extension specialist and Auburn University and precision farming pioneer, who discussed the implications of data-management to farming — not only how it will affect farmers but also how it will transform the work of Cooperative Extension educators.

Precision Farming Tractor

Land-grant educators exploring a fully equipped precision-farming tractor

Fulton contends that 2012 will be remembered as the watershed year of farm data management — the year when companies began investing significantly into improving their product and service offerings by providing farmers with ways to aggregate and curate the reams of data generated by farm-related technologies, particularly those associated with precision technology.

To put it another way, the immense amounts of data generated by all these farming technologies have reached a critical mass. In fact, farmers don’t know quite how to assimilate all this data — little wonder why a growing number of entrepreneurs have not only begun noticing this trend  but are also formulating ways to aggregate and curate it on their behalf.  The impression I get is that it has the makings of an entrepreneurial free-for-all, sort of like the mad dash for land and wealth that followed the European settlement of the Americas, Australia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Makings of an Open-Source Platform

At some point during the interview the realization struck me: This critical mass of farming data constitutes a platform, the basis on which a growing number of entrepreneurs hope to conceive and develop profitable innovations and technologies.

A Lesson for Cooperative Extension

The exchange prompted few random thoughts about the implications of platforms to the future of Cooperative Extension.

First, the data-management issue in farming is a prime example of emergence, basically how a handful of unintentional interactions eventually contribute to great leaps in thinking, which, in the course of leading to new ways of looking at things, provide the basis for new ideas and concepts and, in a few cases, to full-blown innovation.  These new insights sometimes form the basis for highly generative platforms, much as coffeehouses did in the 17th century.

Second, this farm-data trend has been playing out for years.  Yet, even many of the best and brightest in Cooperative Extension, including Fulton, scarcely noticed it until now. Consequently, this development, entirely unforeseen, has presented Cooperative Extension with some real challenges.  If everyone and his brother are trying to build off this platform — to aggregate and curate this data for the benefit of farmers — where does this leave Extension?   What will happen to us as other players manage to capitalize on this platform and others that follow, becoming better equipped along the way to aggregate and curate this data on behalf of farmers?

Third, do our current 20th century linear programming models blind us to change?  Are they preventing us from seeing platforms that are emerging all around us? I think a strong case could be made that they do. These obsoleting programming models —obsoleting is probably a too generous word in this context — are hampering our ability to adapt to the demands of this highly generative information landscape emerging around us.

These points prompt a series of questions, some rather thought-provoking:

  • Could professional training enable us to recognize a platform when we see one?
  •   Is it possible to equip Extension educators with the skills to perceive platforms in the making?
  • Through heightened awareness, is it possible not only to recognize these emerging platforms but also to capitalize on them before they develop into full-fledged platforms?
  • For that matter, is it possible to recognize the environments in which these platforms are likely to emerge so that we can build platforms ahead of everyone else?

Some Parting Thoughts

I suspect that an ability recognize and emerging platforms when you see one is s skill, arguable a critical 21st century job skill, which can be cultivated as readily as other job skills. For the sake of our survival, I think it is incumbent on Extension educators to cultivate an ability to recognize emerging platforms.

This begs the question: If the ability to identify emergent platforms represents a critical new job skill, what kind of professional training would enable Extension professionals to readily acquire these skills? For that matter, how could Extension’s work environment be reconfigured to foster these skills?

One thing of which I’m reasonably certain: We need to formulate ways to incentivize platforms-based thinking — for starters, to reward people who develop the capacity to know an emergent platform when they see one. And remember: This is not something that we can opt to do but that we must do for the sake of our survival.

We must also focus on the specific ways that linear programming models hamper us not only from seeing but also from fully capitalizing on the emerging platforms around us. Likewise, we should identify the most optimal ways to instill our employees with an understanding the nuts and bolts of platforms, not only how these provide the basis for all manner of innovation but also how many of these innovations may ultimately form the basis for even newer, more generative platforms.

What are some of the things that can be undertaken immediately to render Extension not only more platform-ready but also more platform-friendly?

Aside from extensive retraining within our ranks, I think we also should explore ways to create more innovative physical space — in other words, transform Extension working environments to more closely resemble the open, free-wheeling environments that drive innovation.

All of us must also understand how potentially disruptive all of this will be and how it will affect our day-to-day work.  While some of us this sort of talk unsettling, we shouldn’t be surprised by it at all. Platforms not only provide the basis for far-reaching innovations but, in some cases, sweeping transformations, a few of which many threaten many, if not all, facets of our work.

Granted, it’s a bitter pill for many of us, but like it or not, that is the new reality of the 21st century.

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Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension

The key to Extension’s survival can be expressed in one word: platforms.  Social media adoption is critical to our future, but it is only the first step toward the overriding goal of learning how to build the most generative, open-source platforms of the twenty-first century.  Please see my new Alabama Extension publication (EX-128) titled  “Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension” and view my recently posted youtube video, which is featured below:

The Key to Extension’s Survival in One Word

Trump Tower, Chicago

Extension's 21st century charge in one word: platform - building efficient, generative platforms of the 21st century.

One of Cooperative Extension’s most astute social media users, Dr. John Fulton, recently drove home a critical insight to me: that many of us beating the drums for rapid adoption of social media within Extension ranks are consistently missing the mark.

We talk incessantly about the critical need for adopting social media, but we’re not instilling our educators with the bigger picture.

Make no mistake about it: Many educators are yearning for this bigger picture. In dealing with budget crunches and a host of other challenges, they’re wondering why they should be making all this fuss about social media. Why should they stop long enough from all these other pressing demands to learn all this stuff?

Why? Because it’s not just about adopting social media. That’s important, yes, but the bigger issue is mastering this in order to become platform architects of the 21st century.

If Extension’s survival could be summed up in a word it’s that one — platform.

Adopting social media is a critical first step, but it’s only that — a first step.  The end goal is building the most generative, open-source platforms of the 21st century.  That’s what we’re missing.

Learning how to conceive, build and nurture these platforms is our charge for the foreseeable future.  Equally important, we must learn how to collaborate among ourselves and our audiences to build these new platforms.

As one of our administrators aptly described it recently, much of this will involve learning how to “pull” instead of “push” — the reason why the old plan-and-push Extension model ultimately must be replaced with a new outreach model that underscores the value of active collaboration with our clients.

Detractors of this view undoubtedly would contend that we’re already in the platform-building business — that we were building platforms long before this term became fashionable.

I agree.  Our predecessors built one platform after another — corn and tomato clubs, which begat 4-H; boll weevil eradication efforts, which led to everything from crops entomology and crops scouting to crop dusting and Delta Airlines. Decades ago, Cooperative Extension functioned as one of the most efficient and generative platforms on the planet.

We can lay claim to scores of platforms, some of which are still functioning today.

The problem is that our platform, the Cooperative Extension platform, is no longer generative enough to compete with the other platforms being built by other 21st century platform architects.

Simply put, our platform is failing to meet code — the building code of the 21st century knowledge economy.

We must retool our outreach methods to ensure that we’re up to this new task.

Policymakers and public intellectuals strongly emphasize the value of building technological infrastructure to ensure America’s competitive survival in the 21st century.

They have every reason for doing so.   Technological infrastructure has contributed immensely to American economic and scientific leadership, but so has human infrastructure — the sort of human infrastructure that Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

Yet, there is every bit as much need for human infrastructure — the sort of infrastructure Extension professionals routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We Extension educators have immense potential for building human infrastructure in the 21st century. We can still serve a valuable role enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0 technological infrastructure.

But reaching this potential will require a complete rethinking of how we develop and deliver our products.

It will require nothing less than learning how to ensure the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

It will require nothing less than our learning how to become platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

Extension as an Emergent Platform — and What It Means for Our Future

London Skyscraper

Extension's challenge in the 21st century: Foster optimal conditions for the formation of the most generative platforms of the future.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, should serve as a primer for Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization.

Our transformation rides on how well we grasp the central lesson of this book: that many of the greatest intellectual advances in history have been generated by emergent platforms, the complex systems that arise from relatively simple interactions.

Cooperative Extension is one such platform — one that has not only advanced human knowledge but that has also provided the basis for other emergent, highly generative platforms.

As Johnson stresses, much of our understanding of emergent platforms stems from what we’ve learned from software design and Web development.

He notes that the most generative platforms come in stacks. One of history’s most significant examples of such a stack is Tim Berners-Lee’s ingenious innovation, which we know today as the Worldwide Web. Indeed, the Web is a kind of archeological site comprised of layer upon layer of platform made possible by the Internet’s open protocols — small wonder why “platform stack” is now a term commonly used in modern programming circles.

Other stacks followed the Web, notably youtube, which was stitched together with elements of the Web, Adobe’s Flash platform and the programming language Javascript, Johnson observes.

Yet, similar kinds of platform occurred long before the Web.  Johnson relates the story of two young scientists at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University whose responses to the Sputnik crisis produced one of the most generative platforms in history, one that contributed to GPS and, ultimately, to many of the technologies that define 21st century life.

Cooperative Extension is a highly generative platform in its own right. Indeed, speaking as an Extension history buff, I’m struck by the stark resemblance of Extension’s development to that of the Worldwide Web and accompanying Web 2.0 platforms.

Extension is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

In another stark similarity to 21st century Internet platforms, Extension was shaped by late 19th and early 20th century forerunners of hackers — and, yes, I’m using this term in the commendatory rather than the derogatory sense —self-taught laypersons, beginning with Seaman Knapp, who helped refine and retool outreach methods, much as 21st century hackers have stepped up to enhance the usefulness of everything from Google Maps to Twitter.

In generative terms, Extension turned out to be one of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century, producing or contributing significantly to a host of other platforms.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

I’ve spoken in the past of the need for a radical overhaul of our outreach model.  But radical in this context does not imply thoroughgoing or wrenching insomuch as a harkening back to our roots.  Extension educators were building open-source, highly generative platforms long before this term or the underlying concept were conceived.

Our challenge will be to foster the most optimal conditions for the emergent platforms of the future — platforms efficient and generative enough to thrive within this the highly demanding 21st century knowledge environment.

Here’s the good news: Our transformation, while far from easy, is simple — simple in the sense that it requires an understanding of where we have been in order to understand where we’re going.  Despite numerous setbacks of late, we possess an institutional legacy that uniquely equips us with this understanding.

Colleagues have asked me why I remain doggedly optimistic in the face of all this cutting and downsizing.

This is why.

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?

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.