Tag Archives: Web 2.0

You Can Learn a Lot from a Beaver

BeaverNote: This is an essay version of the notes I prepared for the the concurrent session “The Extension Educator’s Role as 21st Century Platform Builders” presented at the 2012 National eXtension National Conference, held Oct. 1-5 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Many thanks to my colleague and co-presenter, Dr. Anne Adrian.  I am deeply indebted to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, for many of the ideas explored in this text.

Introduction

What do two preeminent physicists and the father of html (hypertext markup language) coding have to do with a beaver?  That’s easy: All four are platform builders.  They built things that other people — or, in the case of beavers, other species — build on and use.

What is a Platform?

There are a lot of different ways to define a platform.

One thing they all generally share in common: They typically begin as rather desolate places that are transformed into hubs of activities.

In biological terms, platforms, such as beaver dams and coral reefs, provide the building blocks for dense ecosystems.   Dam building not only enhances the life of beavers but also provides habitats or foraging opportunities for a number of species: wild ducks, geese, kingfishers and swallows, to name a few.

To an increasing degree, science writers and other social critics are gaining a deeper appreciation for how human-constructed platforms provide the bases for further tinkering and innovation.

Among techies, a platform is a computerized system on which other developers can add hardware devises and software applications for particular purposes.

However, famed science writer Steven Johnson also uses the term to describe the sorts of open, freewheeling communications environments that produce significant, often far-reaching intellectual, scientific or technological innovations.

There have been lots of them throughout human history.

One early forerunner of platforms: Seventh-century coffeehouses — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed from this interaction: The ideas exchanged within those highly fluid environments ended up mating and mutating into new ideas.  Many of these ideas formed the basis for huge strides in scientific innovation which, in turn, secured immense material benefits for billions of human beings over the next 300 years.

Why Are Platforms More Important than Ever Before?

More than ever in human history, we are beginning to understand that the knowledge ecosystems that grow out of these platforms confer tremendous advantages in terms of creativity and innovation.   They have driven human beings to higher levels of achievement. In fact, building these platforms and assuring that they remain the most open and generative as possible will be critical concerns in the 21st century for all sorts of entities, public and private alike.

The last half century provides some remarkable insights into how platforms, by driving creativity and innovation, have contributed to huge leaps in scientific progress and achievement.   Some notable examples include the Applied Physics Laboratory’s response to the Sputnik crisis, and Tim Berners-Lees invention of html.

The efforts of a couple of physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, to tract the 20 megahertz signal of the orbiting Sputnik in 1957 led to the development of global positioning satellite technology, which, in turn, provided us with Google maps and even the ability to post restaurant reviews on yelp.com.

The work of Tim Berners-Lee is another prime example of the long-term advantages a platform can confer on humanity.

Berners-Lee essentially built a new platform by stacking a series of older ones.  His genius was using hypertext markup language to pull various computer applications together — or, invoking the platforms analogy, to stack one platform on top of another.

The Worldwide Web, which html made possible, is only one IT-related example of platform stacks.  Others include Youtube, stitched together from Adobe’s Flash platform, the programming language of Javascript and other Web elements.

Cooperative Extension can point to its own rather impressive history of platform building and stacking.  In fact, we were platform builders more than a century before this definition was conceived.  In our earliest days, we not distinguished for the innovation and creativity we could bring to bear on problems but also for the way these contributed to highly generative platform stacks.

Extension itself 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.

Extension educators also helped build some of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century.  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.

What’s Missing Today?

We have been building platforms, highly generative platforms, throughout our history.  The problem is that the kinds of platforms we have built and continue build are not open and generative enough to meet the building codes of the 21st century.

Why? Because we live in a world in which people are not only better educated but also better equipped to empower themselves and to build their own platforms without the assistance of highly credentialed educators.

The highly generative capacity of new information media have only accelerated the trend away from more conventional forms of conventional outreach forms of educational outreach.

That’s our challenge.

Online Engagement is Integral to Our Success but Only Part of It

Online engagement and the accelerating rates of social media adoption that accompany it are good things but we what we need most of all in Cooperative Extension is a change of mindset.  We’ve got to learn how to combine our traditional outreach methods with social media techniques to assure that our platforms are the most open and generative as possible.  But we’ve also got to understand how these new platforms will transform of clients from consumers into prosumers.   In fact, they will no longer be clients at all but people who are actively involved in the design and planning of our educational products — prosumers.

They will actively collaborate with us in building these new open, generative platforms.

Our 21st Century Charge: Transitioning from Programs to Platforms

While we have been platform builders from the beginning of our history, factors have forced us to deliver many of our products in linear ways.  We are currently defined by how we deliver programs  rather than by how  well we develop ecosystems — platforms — that assure optimal levels of sharing, serendipitous insights and innovative thinking can occur.

In the future, we increasingly will be valued for the quality of our platforms.  The more open and generative these platforms, the better.

We helped build a global scientific farming model that has fed billions over the past century using older platforms.  The human infrastructure we have provided within the last century has facilitated the sharing of critical knowledge in much the same way that railroads and interstate highways have facilitated delivery of the nation’s manufactured goods from place to place.

The good news is that there is a stronger emphasis than ever on building technological infrastructure to secure the most optimal levels of creativity and innovation.

The bad news is that we will no longer be a critical component of this infrastructure unless we find a way to build more open, generative platforms.

Simply put, surviving in the 21st century will require our developing a more open-ended approach to outreach.   We shouldn’t find that imperative all that threatening: historically speaking, we are simply being called to close the circle, to return to our roots.

One critical need we will serve in the future will be helping our audiences deal with the tidal waves of words, symbols and data pouring out of their laptops, iPads and smartphones minute by minute, hour by hour. One of the most prized skills in the future will be the ability to collect vast amounts of information and assemble it into forms that they can use — the reason why our learning to be aggregators and curators will be an important part of platform building in the future.

In the future, we will be valued more for the open-ended platforms we build than for the programs we create.

What Will an Extension Platform Builder Look Like in the Future?

Let’s imagine for a moment a techno-savvy 23-year-old Extension horticulture agent — we’ll call her Tamara — who determined to set the world her on fire her first day on the job.

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.

Yet, she has not confined herself exclusively to virtual interaction with her clients — quite the contrary. Thanks to the influence of an older agent named Sam, 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.

Without being fully aware of it, Tamara is transforming herself into a platform builder.

The serendipitous insights she’s gained from interaction among large global horticulture audience have also help Tamara cultivate a deeper perspective about ways to enhance profitability of her local fruit and vegetable growers as well as the local farmers’ market.

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. A number of older Master Gardener clients who are not adept at or are unfamiliar with the emerging communications technology are nonetheless impressed with the level of insight she brings to her conventional field days and workshops — insights she’s gained from working with a wider audience.

Both her conventional and virtual audiences alike are impressed at the skills Tamara has developed as an aggregator and curator.  Just as the two-way interaction with her diverse audiences has helped her refine her knowledge and to formulate new perspectives on age-old questions,  Tamara’s skills as an aggregator and curator have enabled her audiences to make connections and to gain new insights into their work.

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.

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The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.

More Thoughts on Fostering Emergent Platforms within Extension

Is Extension up to the task of helping build the emergent platforms of the 21st century?In spite of all the justified concerns about the economy and spiking fuel prices, we live in unusually exciting times.

I really mean that.  The rapid acceleration of intellectual exchange that has followed the advent of the Internet and, more recently, of Web 2.0 has enabled some of the world’s brightest thinkers to gain deeper insights into the factors that drive human progress.

I personally derive immense optimism from that fact.  I think the enhanced clarity garnered from these new insights not only will help us surmount these current challenges but will also help transform Cooperative Extension System into the 21st century knowledge organization it must become.

The factors that have contributed to this enhanced clarity are outlined in Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson borrows “platform,” a term commonly used in software programming, to describe those environments that provide the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

No passage in the book better expresses the optimal conditions required for the formation of such environments than the quote from William Guier and Geroge Weiffenbach, the two young scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory whose impromptu research in the midst of the Sputnik crisis contributed to one of the most influential platforms in human history.

The two credited their achievements to the open intellectual environment that prevailed at the APL in the 1950s:

APL was a superb environment for inquisitive young kids, and particularly so in the Research Center. I was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and one in which inquisitive kids felt free to follow their curiosity.  Equally important, it was an environment wherein kids, with an initial success, could turn to colleagues who were broadly expert in relevant fields, and particularly because of the genius of the Laboratory Directorship, colleagues who were also knowledgeable about hardware, weapons and weapons needs.

As Johnson points out, “APL was a platform that encouraged and amplified hunches [and] that allowed those hunches to be connected with other minds that had relevant expertise.”

Of course, the APL is only one of many such platforms that have occurred at different times and places throughout history, though they have tended to share a few characteristics in common:  all provided environments in which diverse types of thought could “productively collide and recombine.”

As I see it, this is our 21st century organizational charge: to recreate open-source environments that secure the most optimal conditions for mutual exchange and recombination of ideas.

There is a strong emphasis among many public commentators and policymakers on building technological infrastructure as the most optimal way to foster creativity and innovation.

Without a doubt,  technological infrastructure has contributed mightily to American economic and scientific leadership throughout history, but so has human infrastructure — the kind of infrastructure Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We still have immense potential for providing human infrastructure in the 21st century. We Extension educators can still serve a valuable role  enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0-driven technological infrastructure.  But reaching this potential will require a complete reassessment and retooling of our outreach model.

In the end, our success will depend on how adept we become at optimizing those conditions that have been shown to foster the most generative emergent platforms.

Building a New Open-Source Extension Platform: The First Step

Construction workers on steel beams.

Extension's next big challenge: constructing a new open-source platform for the 21st century.

Based on a hefty amount of reading, discussion and reflection over the past few years, I’m more convinced than ever that Extension’s future will depend on how well it builds a new open-source platform  on behalf of its users — a platform dense enough and generative enough to stand the test of time.

How will this challenge summon Extension educators to act in the future?

For starters, I think there is no getting around one fact: the best Extension educators in the future will be topnotch aggregators and curators.  Yes, I know that there is a strong emphasis among some social network advocates on team blogging and other forms of collaborative social media outreach efforts.

I respect that view.  As a matter of fact, I agree with it.  Like all human beings, our educators bring different strengths to the table. Some are highly adept at planning and organizing meetings, while others are as prized for their ability to cultivate close working relationships with clients, partners and other stakeholders.

Both of these longstanding Extension attributes and many others will prove as valuable in the future as they have in the past.  They will be integral components of the new open-source environment we ultimately construct.

Even so, the critical skills of the future will be the ability to link vast amounts of information in new ways and to assemble them into forms that our clients can understand.

The best Extension educators will possess those skills.

Small wonder why: People need help surfing the tidal waves of words, symbols and music that wash out of their laptops, iPads and Blackberries.

It will only get worse.  Indeed, some technological pundits contend that within only a few more years the amount of Internet information will double every 72 hours — yes, I said hours, not months.

“The detached analysis of an algorithm will no longer be enough to find what we are looking for,” writes social media pundit and strategist Rohit Bhargava.

Consequently, there will be a critical need in the future for people who can help others make sense of all this information, he says.

To an increasing degree, journalists are grasping this hard truth.

As The Economist’s science and technology blog, Babbage, related recently, cobbling together a list of links is no small task.  For starters, it calls for the ability “to scan a vast range of material, determine what’s reliable, relevant and sufficiently objective” — aggregation.

Beyond that lies an even more valuable skill: the ability to arrange it in a way that works for the end user — curation.

Of course, aggregation and curation are two things Extension educators have been doing for a long time, albeit in a different context — by that I mean a pre-Web 2.0 context.

I would even go so far to argue that aggregation and curation are as deeply etched into our DNA as open-source ecology.  It’s always been our job to assimilate lots of complicated information and then put it into a form that is accessible to our clients.

The only difference now is that this critical task will become more immediate and routine.

Mind you, though, this is only the first step in a series of steps critical toward our transformation into a bona fide 21st century open-source platform.

More about that later.

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.

Sugata Mitra’s Shattering Discovery and Its Implications for Extension

Virtually all of us in Cooperative Extension know that our 100-year-old outreach model is under the proverbial gun and that something must be done, some strategy or new way of thinking employed, to stave off extinction.

Believe me, after viewing Newcastle University Prof. Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED lecture, I’m more convinced than ever that this new strategy or way of thinking had better come sooner than later.  Mitra’s remarks not only underscored the hard realities we face as an organization but also filled me with an even grimmer sense of urgency.

A few years ago, Mitra, a world-renowned educational technology expert, came up with an extraordinary idea.

He embedded Internet-accessible computers in remote villages throughout India and ultimately in locations throughout world to see how children with no previous exposure to computers or the Web would react.

The results pointed to something equally as extraordinary: The kids learned from the computers by themselves, with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra shared from one village showed an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet.  In another village, children, after only four hours of exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

All of these experiences, Mitra says, demonstrate the awesome power of collaborative learning.

“Groups of children can learn to use the computer and the Internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

Buoyed by these initial results, Mitra resolved to push the envelope, to see what other challenges children could overcome using Web 2.0 technology.

In a Hyderabad-based experiment involving children who spoke English with a thick regional accent, he turned over a computer equipped with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

Initially the computer responded to the children’s thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalls.

However, upon his return a couple of months later, he discovered that the children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

In what is now called his Kalikkuppam Experiment, Mitra set out to determine whether Tamil-speaking Indian children in a remote village could learn biotechnology on their own, even though all the online instruction was in English.

Two months later, he noted that the children had increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher who employed the “granny method” of teaching —merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement— Mitra observed that the average score increased to 50, which is “what the posh schools in New Delhi with trained teachers are getting,” he said.

Some of the most remarkable results of all were secured in Turin, Italy, in 2010, only minutes after Mitra walked into a class of Italian-speaking ten-year-old children and wrote the following phrase in English on the chalkboard: “How did dinosaurs die out?”

“The children asked, ‘What?’ I said do it,” Mitra recounted.

The youngsters secured the answer after 15 minutes by typing the English phrase into Google for the Italian translation and then Googling the translated Italian phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more challenging question in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra recalled.

The parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are unmistakable.  As a matter of fact, Clarke was an eager follower of Mitra’s efforts before his death, drawing two lessons from them: first, that a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be, and, second, that if children have interests, education happens.”

For his part, Mitra says these experiments have driven home one critical insight, which he hopes to investigate more closely in the future.

Based on his research, Mitra believes that education, thanks to the advent of Web 2.0, now bears all the hallmarks of a self-organizing system — one in which “learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

He describes a self-organizing system as a structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Ponder Mitra’s insight for a moment: Education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Simply put, people, using online resources, are fully capable of learning on their own without human intervention.

Speaking of shivers, if this insight has not yet sent a shiver up your spine, it darn well should.

From Normative to Nodal

Back in the day, the mid-1990s, when the Web was still a comparatively new and rather bewildering concept to many people, I had the great fortune of surfing onto the pages of one of the great visionaries of cyberspace.

Jim, an amateur scholar and attorney who lived in Brooklyn — neither his full name nor scholarly interests are germane to this discussion — had a passion for a field of study that also interested me.

Mind you, this was at a time when the Web moved at a snail’s pace, Facebook was a mere twinkle in the eyes of an obscenely young Mark Zuckerberg, and the rare spotting of an embedded graphic amid a sea of dense hypertext literally was a sight for sore eyes.

Yet, with a working knowledge of UNIX and hypertext, Jim pulled off a miracle. Using the cybernetic equivalent of a quill pen and inkwell, he constructed a remarkable byway within this emerging network.

Small wonder why: He was a wordsmith par excellence at a period of the Web’s development when engaging, crisply-written prose meant everything. His Website was made up almost entirely of self-published, carefully reasoned, thought-provoking FAQs and essays.  Monuments to concision, they were also written in a style that was highly accessible to nonprofessionals like me.

Indeed, Jim was a master of the science of stickiness, writing in a way that ensured that his subject matter was both accessible and stuck in his readers’ heads.

He had also assembled a mind-bogglingly comprehensive resource list comprised of hundreds of rare book and magazine titles, which had been passed along by members of his USENET discussion group. (This was years before listservs could be conveniently constructed via Yahoo and Google accounts.)

After a few weeks rummaging through this esoteric treasure trove, the realization hit me: Jim was a trailblazer who had demonstrated how  Web-based resources could be marshaled to disseminate knowledge with remarkably greater speed and efficiency, which, in turn, secured a considerably lowered learning curve.

Think about it: Setting out to acquire a similar working knowledge of such obscure subject matter would have taken considerably longer in, say, 1978 — many months, if not years, in fact.  An allusion in a book would have led me to a footnote — if the book were footnoted — then to another book followed by another and another.  Of course, way back in the 1970s, how well acquainted I became with any subject-matter area ultimately depended on the range of books available via my local library.

While I was unaware of it at the time, Jim had anticipated something else that is now commonplace in cyberspace.  He had used his comparatively rare skills to function as an aggregator, assembling a vast reservoir of esoteric knowledge on behalf of hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring scholars. Even better, he was acting as a curator, using his facts and essays to present this complicated material in a deeply enriched context.

Reflecting on this experience, another thing strikes me about Jim: Despite the fact that he was only a self-taught scholar, he had managed to draw some of the world’s first-rate scholars of this subject into his USENET discussions.

Granted, he was not the leader of this discussion —among many of the professional scholars, he likely was not even considered a first among equals — but he was valued both for the role he had served in assembling this eclectic body of scholars and for his frequent and insightful input, which always served to enliven the discussion or to refocus it when it occasionally wondered off topic.

Little did I know at the time that he was setting a benchmark for my coworkers and me — for the Extension educators of the 21st century.

Not too long ago, Extension work was largely a normative undertaking.  By that I mean that we were among a handful of vanguards operating on behalf of the nation’s land-grant universities and entrusted with helping define the standards for farming, nutrition and fitness, and youth and community development.

Yet, as my New Hampshire colleague, Peg Boyles, aptly pointed out recently, Extension educators are transitioning from a normative to nodal outreach approach.  By that, she means that we Extension educators increasingly will function as important nodes within a vastly extended informational network in which all sorts of people, experts and laypersons alike, are interacting within an increasingly collaborative and democratized knowledge landscape.

To be sure, much as Jim demonstrated more than a decade and a half ago, Extension educators will still serve a critical role using Web 2.0 technologies to expand the opportunities for dialogue and substantive discussion among our traditional clients and public and private partners.

Even so, we will no longer enjoy the normative role that defined our work in the last century. Much like Jim, we will be valued for the role we serve as aggregators, using social media tools not only to assemble critical resources on behalf of our clients, but also as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts — and, when the need arises, to enliven and refocus discussion.