Tag Archives: social media

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.

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.

Tamara and Sam: Portraits of 21st Century Extension Educators

What will an engaged, networked Extension educator look like within the next decade?  Equally important, how will he or she set the benchmark for social media use in the future?

For purposes of illustration and in the interests of advancing the boundaries of imagination, I will employ a time-honored technique: storytelling — only in this case, the characters are entirely fictitious.

Tamara, the Creative Oddball

I’ll start with my main character, a young Extension educator named Tamara.

Tamara is one of those creative oddballs who enlighten us every bit as much as they mystify us.

Teachers recognized something special about Tamara at an early age — a precocious, creative brilliance that she eagerly, if not manically at times, poured into her art classes and school plays.

Ironically, though, these sparks of brilliance didn’t carry over to her school work.  Teachers noted an inability to focus on classroom work.  Her grades suffered. For a time, the teachers even considered testing  her for ADHD.

Tamara Finds Her “Element”

All of this changed in 7th grade when Tamara was exposed to hands-on horticulture for the first time through a plant science project suggested by Rick, an Extension horticulture agent temporarily on loan to 4-H. Rick saw a part of himself in Tamara. He had dealt with a similar struggle balancing his creative passions with the need to slog through standard classroom work.

As Rick had hoped, the plant science project sparked a change in Tamara’s life.  It not only sparked a change: It took hold of Tamara, becoming an all-consuming passion. Much to her teachers’ and parents’ delight, this passion spilled over into all areas of her life.

While she didn’t know it at the time, Tamara had encountered what world renowned educational expert Ken Robinson describes as “the element,” which forms when personal passion and talent are fused.  For Tamara, hours spent with plants seemed like the passage of mere minutes.

This exposure began to open doors for Tamara.  The insights she garnered from working with plants carried over into conventional classroom work, notably biology and chemistry.

By her senior year in high school, her vastly improved grades, coupled with her SAT scores, enabled her to secure a full scholarship to study horticulture at her state land-grant university.

Following college and graduate school, Tamara was offered several lucrative jobs in the nursery/greenhouse industry. She turned all of them down with scarcely a second thought.  Money was never an issue with her.  Rick’s selfless, idealistic professionalism and his all-consuming passion for and connection with plants, had left an indelible impression on her.  For that matter, so had the circle of equally dedicated, idealistic Master Gardeners with whom Rick worked.  She cherished all the times she had spent with them, puttering around greenhouses, transferring plants to local gardens and sharing the almost mystical contentment that comes from watching them grow.

She wanted to be an Extension educator like Rick.

Much to her delight, Tamara eventually landed her dream job as a regional Extension agent specializing in home gardening and pests in a medium-sized metropolitan area. A big part of her job would involve working with Master Gardeners to organize local beautification and educational projects on behalf of adults and youth.

Professionally speaking, Tamara had arrived.

Tamara, the Trendsetter

Even so, like many 23-year-old professionals bearing freshly printed graduate diplomas, she thought she had mastered everything required to excel in her work.  She was also determined to set an organizational benchmark every bit as memorable as that of her mentor, Rick.

After reading about the implications of social media, she became passionately convinced that adopting social media technologies was critical to the future of Cooperative Extension work.

She intended to lead by example.  Soon after taking the reins of her new job, Tamara developed a gardening blog that covered all aspects of her field — one, she hoped, would develop into a definitive source for gardening information in her region.  She links the blog to her Flickr account, which she uses to collect images of new varieties, planted diseases, and invasive species — anything of potential interest to her clients.

She also uses a social bookmarking web service, which has enabled her to compile a staggering resource list encompassing links to trade journal articles and online books.

In addition to operating a Facebook page with other local horticultural Extension agents, Tamara also has developed a hefty Twitter following.  She tweets throughout the day, passing along observations about emerging home gardening issues, responding to client concerns, and questions and sharing links to timely articles.

With the zeal comparable to a 19th century Methodist circuit rider, Tamara started out with every intention of becoming the vanguard of the engaged, networked, 21st century Extension educator.  She was determined to disabuse her fellow educators and clients of all those outmoded, 20th century notions about knowledge dissemination.

She believes that networked Extension educators will have a unique and valuable role serving as aggregators, using social media tools to assemble critical resources on behalf of their clients, and as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts.

Sam, the Benign Antagonist

Tamara’s zealotry was tempered a bit after a few weeks of association with the benign antagonist of this story:  Sam, age 52, an area crops specialist whose office is located next to Tamara.  Ironically, Sam, the son of a long-serving and beloved county Extension agent, had charted a considerably different career path at Tamara’s age.

Majoring in agronomy at Tamara’s alma mater in the mid-1970s, Sam had undertaken a lucrative career in the agricultural industry following graduation, though always with the hope of retiring early so that he could pursue his real passion: working with farmers as an Extension educator, just as his father had.

He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Five years after ascending the corporate ladder and becoming a regional vice president of a national farm supply company, Sam resigned at 37 to undertake the biggest gamble of his life: to invest all of his life savings into starting his own farm supply company.

The gamble paid off:  less than a decade later, he sold it for a small fortune, though large enough to enable him to live off it comfortably while preparing for his long-awaited second career as an Extension educator.

After enrolling in graduate school at age 45 and securing a master’s degree in agronomy, Sam finally closed the circle, securing a job as a regional agronomy agent and following in his father’s footsteps.  He was assigned an office in a regional Extension center that ultimately would be located next to Tamara’s.

“Brainiac” Meets “Pop”

Weeks after her arrival, Tamara formed a tight professional bond with Sam.  They ultimately became known among their colleagues as the “odd couple.”

He called her “Brainiac.” She called him “Pop.”

From the start, Sam took a deep paternal interest in Tamara.  He admired her earnestness and idealism, especially her willingness to forgo material comforts to pursue her passion — something he simply could not bring himself to do as at the same age.

For her part, Tamara, something of a shy, introverted intellectual, admired Sam for his people skills — those traits that comprise what is widely known today as emotional intelligence.

Tamara marveled at the ease with which Sam connected with new clients, stakeholders and partners at a deep personal level.  Her exposure to Sam opened up new insights into Extension work that she had never previously considered.

Sam helped underscore to Tamara that Extension work is as much about forming a bond with clients —understanding and even empathizing with them — as it is about delivering a product.

As Sam is so fond stressing, half the challenge of Extension work is “getting into his growers’ heads.” By that he means that through years of building close, empathetic relationships with clients, Extension educators can develop a kind of sixth sense, learning how to anticipate their clients’ needs even before they are able to articulate them.

As he’s stressed to Tamara time and again, the most outstanding Extension educators sooner or later cultivate this sixth sense.

Thanks to Sam’s influence, what she initially undervalued — field days, conferences and workshops — she now prizes as valuable ways to connect with her clients and to articulate their needs.

She’s also learned how this intimate person-to-person interaction can enhance her social media outreach work.  Thanks to Sam, she now better understands how the real-life insights she garners through face-to-face contacts can help her refine the sorts of information she shares with her wider audiences through social media channels.

Conversely, she is beginning to appreciate how the global perspective gained through dialogue with her social media contacts will enable her to provide her local clients with a wider, multidisciplinary perspective.

Sam has provided Tamara with something equally valuable: a genuine reverence for the constellation of values that define Cooperative Extension work — as he sees them, values just as relevant to the 21st century as they were a century ago.  He has helped her understand that her success as a networked Extension educator will be measured by how well these traditional values are balanced with the demands of the wired world.

A Two-Way Friendship

Yet, this is far from a one-way relationship: Sam had acquired a few lessons of his own through association with his young friend.

Early in their friendship, Sam had struggled to suppress a chuckle or two when Tamara embarked on one of her passionate jeremiads about why Extension was doomed unless it got serious about social media adoption.

He initially had not only tended to dismiss social media but also feared that it would dilute the intimacy between educator and client that has always underscored Extension work.

However, that didn’t stop Sam from closely observing Tamara’s approach.  Over time, he has even cultivated his own appreciation for the role social media technologies could play in enhancing his own outreach efforts.

While not as far-reaching as Tamara’s, Sam’s efforts are impressive, certainly for a middle-aged man in the middle of a second career.

He has developed his own agronomy weblog that updates area growers about all facets of farming from an agronomic perspective.  Much to his surprise and considerable satisfaction, his stereotypically homespun, self-deprecating writing style has garnered a wide following among row-crop producers throughout the Southeast.  More than once, his pieces dealing with crop projections and the challenge of balancing sustainability with farm profitability have even been carried by major farm-trade publications.

Like Tamara, Sam has also developed an appreciation for the role aggregation and curation increasingly will play in the future of Extension work — an appreciation not only reflected in his weblog but also in the social bookmarking he’s adopted to complement his blog.

In their own unique ways, Tamara and Sam are setting professional benchmarks for other Extension professionals.

Despite their vastly different temperaments, ages and life experiences, they comprise the vanguard of a new type of Extension professional: the engaged, networked Extension educator of the 21st century.

What Museums Can Teach Us

I’ve just now stumbled upon the marvelous New York Times article about how art museums around the country are using social media to develop vastly expanded followings.

Gone are the days when Websites were used only to advertise the institutions’ operating hours, admission prices and exhibitions.

As the article stresses, museum outreach boils down to one word: engagement.  Museums are using emerging technology to enlist the public as active participants.

Viewers now have more online opportunities to watch exhibits under construction, such as a 28-foot tepee at the Brooklyn Museum.  Audiences are also provided with more opportunities than ever to offer input about what museums can do to serve them more effectively.

“It’s less about technology and more about what the visitor can bring to the equation,” says Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s highly passionate and motivated chief technology officer.

As writer Carol Vogel observes,

While museums have long strived to be welcoming places as well as havens of learning, social media is turning them into virtual community centers.  On Facebook or Twitter or almost any museum Web site, everyone has a voice, and a vote. Curators and online visitors can communicate, learning from one another.

As visitors bring their hand-held devices to visits, the potential for interactivity only intensifies.

Indeed, as Bernstein and others are learning, social media afford curators and visitors enormous opportunities for visiting with and learning from each other.

One point raised in the article especially resounded with me: The determination among the most successfully engaged museum to leave no social media stone unturned.

The developers of these technologies say there is no such thing as too much information. When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art took its famed Matisse painting “Woman With a Hat” off the wall and into a conservation studio, an image of the frame being removed was posted on FaceBook.  “Suddenly people could have a peak behind the scenes,” said Ian Padgham, the museum’s digital engagement associate. “It’s all about off-the-cuff transparency.”

That’s an important point that can’t be overemphasized: Social media offer almost limitless opportunities for experimentation and creativity.

Imagine for a moment the excitement we Extension educators could  generate by employing similar creative engagement strategies.  One example that quickly comes to mind: county Extension Facebook sites featuring pictures of Master Gardeners busily engaged in spring garden planting.  Why not augment this with opportunities for local growers to offer planting suggestions or to submit pictures and videos of their own production efforts?

Row-crop agents could post regulator youtube or Flickr updates of ongoing producer efforts to deal with weed resistance or provide producers with  opportunities to share their stories.

4-H-related sites could provide space to guest science bloggers and opportunities for youngsters to submit pictures and videos of projects.

For that matter, planning for a spring diabetes meeting or next summer’s crops tours could be crowdsourced, providing clients with greatly enhanced opportunities for input.

Engagement could take a virtually infinite variety of forms.

Whatever the case, the important point to bear in mind is that we Extension educators have a lot to learn from others, especially those cash-strapped public entities that are using social media in ways to engage larger, more diverse audiences.

High Touch Will Always Mean Hands-On

A seasoned Extension professional once told me that the mark of a good agricultural Extension agent was the ability to size up a problem on a farm even before the farmer could articulate it.

Yes, we Extension educators take pride in the role we serve as purveyors of research-based knowledge. But from the very beginning of our history, there has always been an intangible, highly nuanced quality associated with our outreach work.

The most successful Extension educators, particularly agricultural and livestock agents, have succeeded because they have invested considerable time observing and interacting closely with the people they serve. In time, this investment produces a singular product: an Extension educator who posses an intuitive graps of his or her clients’ needs.

Dr. Paul Mask, an Alabama Extension administrator, says this is the reason why social media, while an emerging outreach method worthy of adoption, will never fully supplant traditional high-touch Extension outreach methods.

The most successful adopters of social media techniques within Extension are testaments to that fact, Mask says.

They have succeeded because they already have excelled in traditional face-to-face outeach work.

Mask, who started his career as an grain crops specialist working closely with growers, says this remains especially true among agents who work with row-crop farmers and commercial cattle producers.

“As people trying to make a living, these producers want to be assured that Extension agents know what they’re doing – that they are fully in command of their subject matter,” he says.

Mask cites Amy Winstead, an Extension precision agriculture educator in the Tennessee Valley, as one of Extension’s most successful social media adopters. But she has succeeded largely through the contacts she has established through traditional outreach work,he says.

“For most commercial row-crop and livestock producers, the image of an Extension agent sitting behind a desk blogging and tweeting at the exclusion of everything else just doesn’t appeal to them,” Mask says.

But this kind of approach isn’t tenable to start with, he says, because the nature of Extension work involves full engagement with clients.

“In the case of row-crop farming, for example, agents have to be out there helping producers with real-world problems because that’s the only way that they can become fully adept at solving those problems,” Mask says.

“Quite often the solution involves sitting in a combine cab and toubleshooting until the problem is solved.”

One especially valuable role Extension educators have served over the last century is helping farmers and other clients see what is coming down the proverbial pike, Mask says, adding that this kind of insight is acquired only after years of close observation of and interaction with clients.

Mask says he gained an even deeper appreciation for this fact while he worked to introduce precision agricultural techniques to producers beginning in the 1990s.

“In the beginning, precision farming wasn’t on most farmers’ radars, but because of our agents were willing to work one on one with them to underscore the value of it to their farming operation, they quickly grasped its benefits.”

Mask says there is a lesson here for aspiring social media adopters.

“We can augment our outreach efforts with social media, but high touch is high touch.”

“Our most successful social media users have succeeded because they already are high touch,” he says. “Their blogs and other social media products are simply a distillation of all the insights they’ve gained through close interaction with their clients.”

A Clarion Call for Revolutionary Thinking

If any recent writing constitutes a clarion call for social media adoption by Extension professionals, it is the article that appeared Dec. 13, 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlining the severe Cooperative Extension budgetary cutbacks throughout the nation.

In an especially telling observation, Oregon State University Extension administrator A. Scott Reed, stressed that the cuts move Extension beyond “evolutionary change” and toward “revolutionary change.”

Equally telling are the recent changes within the nation’s oldest Extension program, Iowa State University Cooperative Extension, which decided to replace its 100 county-based districts with 20 regional centers.

“The choice we had to make was to lessen the administrative structure if we wanted to save programs,” said Jack M. Payne, vice president for Extension and Outreach. “But it takes away our high-touch face-to-face service we offered.”

If this wasn’t troubling enough, what I found especially troubling was the utter absence of any discussion of social media adoption.   The only statement that even came close dealt with state Extension programs’ increasing reliance on Web site and toll-free help lines.

To a degree, web sites and toll-free lines will fill the breach created by these funding shortfalls, but I’m more convinced than ever that social media adoption will play the most critical role among Extension professionals in the future.

How?  Primarily by leveraging our depleted resources, providing the level of high-touch contact — engagement— that Web sites and toll-free lines woefully lack.

Revolutionary changes call for revolutionary measures — nothing short of a paradigm shift.  Let’s not forget that by its nature, Extension is a high-touch, engaged outreach organization.  High-touch outreach is as integral to our mission as handshaking is among politicians. If money shortfalls are steadily eroding our ability to maintain face-to-face interaction with our clients, then social media offers the only other viable option.

In many ways, social media actually offers Extension an opportunity to enhance the levels of engagement with its audiences.

Make no mistake about it, though: The mere adoption of social media techniques will not go far enough.  It must be accompanied by a new set of values — 21st century values that will not seem all that unfamiliar to most Extension professionals.

Understanding and trust must comprise an integral component of these values.

Extension professionals also must become more adept at working across disciplinary lines, not only helping their clients grasp complex information but also showing them the implications of this new learning within a wider context. Likewise, professionals must learn how to work more adeptly across organizational lines, using social media to enhance working relationships with public and private partners.

The high-touch, enriched relationship with clients afforded by social media must also be anchored in a deep passion for new ways of thinking, coupled with a desire to employ even newer technologies to enhance this high-touch effect.

Extension professionals will also learn to view their diverse audiences less as clients and more as collaborators, fully aware that to an increasing degree, knowledge products will be created and altered by peers and clients alike.

Yes, Reed is right: Evolutionary change is a luxury in these lean times, one that Cooperative Extension can no longer afford.

Revolutionary times require revolutionary thinking — the reason why social media adoption should be at the top of the Extension agenda.

Of Memes, Temes and Cotton Tours

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the East Alabama Crops Tour, an annual event that started when I was still in high school, Jimmy Carter was president and cotton was king in Dixie.

Among east and central Alabama farmers, it remains as popular as ever, still planned, executed and organized by Dr. Jeff Clary, the enthusiastic, stalwart Extension employee who launched the first tour as a young Extension agent way back in 1978.

For me, the tour serves as a reminder, a poignant reminder, of a time, not too long ago, when Extension fit seamlessly into the prevailing communications landscape —one that has changed drastically and inalterably in the 32 years since the tour’s inauguration.

The stark realization of just how much the landscape has changed led me several years ago to take stock of what was happening, what it portended for the future of Cooperative Extension, and how we could master the prevailing tools of the new digital information order, namely social media.

Up to now, I’ve viewed these tools in terms of how Extension educators could use them to enhance current outreach methods rather than as the basis for a whole new approach to outreach.

To put it another way, I’ve looked at social media as an add-on rather than as the harbinger of a new outreach paradigm.

I think I’ve been wrong all along.  A recent Opinionator piece in the New York Times has helped me realize that.

The Rise of the Third Replicator

“All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever-increasing pace,” writes Susan Blackmore in the New York Times’s Aug. 22 Opinionator.  “New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace.”

What accounts for this dramatic expansion of information?  Blackmore, freelance writer, futurist and author of The Meme Machine, believes it’s an effect of the next quantum leap in evolution, which she describes as the third replicator.

Genes were the first replicator, a tangible expression of which is humanity, followed by the second replicator — human forebears who used their singular genetic inheritance to imitate behaviors in the form of sounds, skills and habits and passed them along to succeeding generations.  Over time, these behaviors, now described by some evolutionary biologists as memes, competed to be selected by humans to be copied again.

So began the succeeding evolutionary phase, the second replicator, a process driven by a combination of genes and memes.

Temes: The Next Step beyond Memes?

Blackmore now believes we are seeing the first evidence of a third replicator expressed as temes (short for technological memes) — “the digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines.”

While conceding that temes remain a hotly debated issue, she says we can’t ignore the fact that the Internet continues to create new forms of information at increasingly accelerated rates.

“Already there are examples of computer programs recombining old texts to create new essays or poems, translating texts to create new versions, and selecting between vast quantities of text, images and data,” says Blackmore.

Likewise, each inquiry to Google, Alta or Yahoo generates new combinations of pages based on the search engines’ own algorithms as well as previous searches and link structures.

Back to my stark realization: In the future, the primary preoccupation of all knowledge providers will be ramping up the speed and volume of information delivery to keep pace within this new digital order.

This explains why I’ve most likely been wrong all along. Up to now I’ve thought of social media as a kind of add-on — as something that could be used to enhance current Extension methods. 

 Now I’m convinced that social media, rather than traditional Extension methods, will be the basis of all that we do.

Still a Place for the Old Order

Yet, I’m not convinced this will lead to the wholesale abandonment of the old order. There will still be a place for the old order, for the face-to-face encounters that once characterized so much of our work.

This undoubtedly accounts for why the East Alabama Crops Tour endures after all these years.  Human beings will always prize personal encounters over virtual encounters.   For me, the face-to-face encounters that have often followed online intellectual and professional friendships have been one of the most satisfying effects of my use of social media.

It’s even possible that the historic role we Extension educators have played in facilitating these sorts of personal relationships may go a long way toward helping distinguish us from others players within the new digital information order.

Yet, this should not detract from the take-home message: that social media amounts to a paradigm shift, not an add-on.