Tag Archives: Web 2.0

Virtually Present

My friend and colleague, Peg Boyles of University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, offered this followup to my earlier post, “What Museums Can Teach Us,” which explores how Web 2.0 technology is forcing private- and public-sector agencies alike to rethink our standing vis-à-vis their clients.

A quantum shift, the move from seeing oneself and one’s organization as the single/primary source of information to behaving as one (however deeply informed) node in a networked conversation. Not to mention the overt recognition that others in the network may have a lot to teach as well as learn, and that others may challenge your data/information/point of view—even your credibility.

Funny, I was thinking along a somewhat similar vein as I wrote this piece.  I was reminded of a scene from recent documentary about Air Force One in which a staff member points to a threshold separating the ultra-secure presidential compartment from the rest of the plane.

“Everything beyond this point is the White House,” said the staff member, as he gestured toward the presidential compartment.

I was struck by that statement.  Until comparatively recently in our history, the term “White House” delineated a specific physical space located at what is now known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Only since World War II, following the rapid growth of U.S. presidential power and influence, has that term been expanded to encompass more abstract concepts, such as officially designated space aboard a Boeing VC-25.

Now, with the advent of Web 2.0, these kinds of abstract definitions are becoming increasingly common in every facet of our lives.

Until recently, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System would have been defined as an organization encompassing a brick-and-mortar headquarters in Auburn and Normal, Alabama as well as some 800 employees operating in county and regional offices throughout the state.  Now, this definition stands alongside a considerably more abstract, nontraditional definition — a virtual Alabama Extension presence encompassing an official Web site as well as numerous social media venues.

Peg is right to point out that this nontraditional virtual presence creates an entirely new set of dynamics.  We no longer occupy the commanding heights we once enjoyed when we were confined to a single definition.  Now we are merely nodes in a vastly extended network.  Likewise, our standing vis-à-vis our clients has undergone a marked change.  Social media now afford us with opportunities to learn as much from our clients as they do from us.

What fascinates me most, though, is the underlying irony in all of this. Think about it:  This new definition, while greatly diminishing our historic role and standing with our clients, nonetheless presents us with the greatest opportunities in our history for expanding the Cooperative Extension concept and mission.

Equally ironic, this new definition, despite all the displacement it has caused, is every bit as critical to our continued survival and success as the traditional definition that preceded it.

It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. For that matter, so does technological change.


Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

An op-ed posted this weekend in the New York Times’s online edition is making its rounds among Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals.

And well it should.  It speaks volumes about the cultural and economic eddies occurring around us and how Cooperative Extension should navigate within this turbid sea.

Op-ed writer Dan Barber rightly observes that Americans are demonstrating a growing fascination with raising their own food, particularly produce. 

Even so, this year’s mad dash to the garden has produced a few unintended and unfortunate consequences.   For example, in their zeal to begin raising homegrown produce, many gardening novices have turned to retail outlets for their starter plants — places such as Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

Even as they struggle to opt out of the globalized economic system for which they increasingly express mistrust, they continue to look toward many of the icons of this system to buy their starter tomato plants. But as they are finding, a substantial number of these plants, which were bred by large-scale operations, were infected with late blight. 

 Sobering Irony

All of this makes for sobering irony, writes Barber:

…the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Barber believes government has a role to play in helping these aspiring gardeners find their way through this confusion:

For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

Barber is hitting on something highly significant.  Indeed, his views comport closely with an argument I’ve been making among fellow Extension professionals:  The growing fascination with gardening and the cultural, social and economic factors that have prompted it present Cooperative Extension with an opportunity for organizational resurgence.

 Are the Wheels Coming Off?

And this involves more than just a fascination with gardening.  Among other factors, the gardening revival also reflects an increasingly pervasive view among many in society —not only among so-called kooky people — that things are not quite right in our world.   

Some have even begun to wonder if the wheels are coming off the highly sophisticated, increasingly globalized technological civilization that has emerged within the past few decades.

Yes, I’ll concede that even making such a statement may render me suspect in some quarters.  But I’m not the only one.  None other the best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently that 2008 may be remembered as the year humanity hit an impenetrable wall, when it reached the painful but unavoidable realization that the planet’s resources are unable to sustain the economic growth model that has been constructed over the last half century.

Some have already begun describing this event as “the great disruption.” Whatever the case, Friedman believes humanity may have reached a crossroad, one that will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese.

We can’t do this anymore.

Closely associated with this stark realization is a mounting disdain for another facet of the current economic model: so-called discount culture, of which retail outlets such as Wal-Mart are cited as iconic examples.  A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell underscores this growing disdain:

That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been pumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

But it’s expressed in other ways too: Peak oil theory — the fear that oil reserves will effectively become depleted within the next few years — and mounting concerns about deforestation, chronic water shortages and overfishing.

I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of these views. In another forum, I would call most or even all of them into question. 

Nevertheless, all of these factors hold major implications, mostly positive, for the Cooperative Extension mission.

Yes, we and our audiences sometimes talk about Cooperative Extension being a little old-fashioned and behind the times — a little stodgy.  Now more than ever, many people, fed up with what they perceive to be the shallow glitz, if not shaky foundations, of the current global economic model, will be become more favorably disposed toward Cooperative Extension and other entities perceived as offering lifestyle alternatives such as home gardening and canning. 

I believe that — passionately.

Other Factors

Other factors playing out on a global scale also hold fascinating implications for Extension.

An Aug. 10 article in the New York Times reported how Web 2.0 already is altering the ways schools deliver educational products to their students:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions – or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

Hundreds of universities around the world already use share and open-source courses.  Connexions, a non-profit open-source organization associated with Rice University, is providing open-source learning to schools.

What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?

We talk a lot about Extension following the fast track to extinction.  But borrowing from Twain, reports of our impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I contend that a number of factors are currently in play that could figure prominently in a revivified  21st century Extension mission.  These include: a mounting concern among people regarding the implications of the current economic system; a growing desire among people to take control over basic necessities such as food; and an increasing inclination to experiment with nontraditional, albeit highly accessible, forms of Web 2.0-related learning. 

 By now, I hope you see the bigger picture: We’re potentially onto something — something big.  Our challenge will be determining how to allocate resources to meet these challenges.

Deep Context, Part II

Andrew Sullivan rocks the blogosphere.  He has for a long time.

Employing a saying once attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, he dominates because he got there “the fastest with the mostest” when this medium was still in its comparative infancy.

Yes, like most innovators, he saw the value of blogging long before many others did.  And like every other successful Web pioneer, he’s not resting on his laurels.  He continues to think out of the box, complementing his erudite but readable prose with interesting, often hilarious, youtube videos, along with carefully chosen photos, color graphs, and other visual media.  He uses these elements not only to illustrate but to underscore his editorial themes.

More recently, he has virtually cornered coverage of the uprising in Iran, underscoring to me, a rather prosaic learner, that blogs really do have the potential of outrunning white elephants — I mean, uh, mainstream media —a remarkable feat when one considers he is only one blogger competing against hundreds of conventional news outlets around throughout the world.

But aside from all the innovative ways he’s enhanced his presence in the last few years, he’s does another thing exceptionally well: He provides his audiences throughout the world with deep context — in many cases, with definitive context.

Any one of his legions of faithful followers who spends at least a half hour on his site leaves with a reasonable degree of assurance that he/she has been well apprised of the issues of the day — the reason why Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” is so aptly named.

He also engages his readers.  Not content to concentrate on a couple of topics a day, he roams all over the map, weighing into one issue with a brief paragraph or two, before moving onto something new and often unanticipated.

But just when you think he’s burned out on an issue, he comes bounding back, sometimes with an extended post, sometimes with a terse reply to a reader comment.

You never know what to expect next, and that accounts in large measure for why the Daily Dish remains the 800-pound gorilla of blogging.

And, yes, as you may have already ascertained, I believe Sullivan’s has a lot to teach all of us in Cooperative Extension.

Surf onto any Cooperative Extension Web site, including, I regret to say, ours, and what you almost invariably find are static blogs — an approach that flies in the face of everything that Web 2.0 is teaching us.

We must borrow a page from Andrew Sullivan’s playbook and begin thinking out of the box, packaging blogs that provide all of the things associated with successful blogging: deep context, engagement and, yes, even the occasional unexpected.

Lessons for Cooperative Extension

I’ve been an active user of the Web for some 13 years now — since 1996.

Shortly after I got started with Web surfing in the mid-1990s, I cultivated a fascination with an intellectual topic that was dominated by one guy, a Brooklyn lawyer, who had posted a cornucopia of FAQs, resource lists and external links related to his specialty on a very nondescript page.

He complemented this material with online interaction on a USENET group he had created using his vast knowledge of UNIX (As it turns out, he is a polymath of sorts:  a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics from Dartmouth who later enrolled at Yale Law School to pursue a legal career.)

Years have passed and I’ve moved far beyond this particular intellectual interest, but I still remember it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.  With the comparatively primitive technology available in the 1990s, this guy, this very smart, creative guy, provided his audiences with a body of knowledge as vast as it was compelling.  But he also provided something more: A shallow learning curve.

Knowledge that would have required years to obtain, moving from one book another — and only then if I were lucky enough to live near a well-equipped library — required only a few months of intensive online reading.

I was fascinated and captivated by the whole thing — hooked to the very marrow of my bones.

Looking back, roughly 15 years later, I realize I owe this fellow a significant intellectual debt.

And as we press ahead into the brave new world of Web 2.0, there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.

Years ago, this exceedingly bright Web pioneer was providing his audience with rich context.  Within this comparative crude medium, he established himself not only as a rich source of information but also as the DEFINITIVE source.

With the vastly improved technologies available today — blogging, Twitter, and Facebook — this is what Cooperative Extension must do:  provide our audiences with the deep context they seek. 

In a few rare cases, especially those in which we still enjoy distinct comparative advantages, we must do something more: We must provide not only deep context but also strive to serve as something akin to the definitive source.