Tag Archives: Wikinomics

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.

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.

What is Extension’s “Commander’s Intent?”

Extension professionals would be well served by taking a critical military lesson to heart.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that “commander’s intent” has become a deeply ingrained facet of American military tactics.

Over the last 200 years, U.S. military planners have come to value simplicity deeply. That’s because the core message of a tactical objective is apt to be ignored, forgotten or replaced in the noise and confusion of battle.  Based on years of trial and error, military planners have gotten around that by developing the commander’s intent concept.

Commander’s intent is essentially a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan.  The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish at the conclusion of the military operation, regardless of what happens along the way.

To put it another way, the details of the plan may change but the end goal doesn’t.

That raises an interesting question: As we carry on with our own battle to convince our clients and stakeholders of our continued relevance, what is our commanders intent?

To put it another way, what is the tactical objective that must be remembered at all costs?

One thing that has surprised me time and again in the course of my Extension career is the number of employees who simply lack a clear grasp of what we do — what we’ve always done: transform practical knowledge into working knowledge, showing our clients how they can use this practical knowledge to secure lasting and meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.

It’s ironic, especially considering that we’ve being doing this for a very long time and, until recently, exceptionally well.  As far back as a century ago, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington already had anticipated the critical role collaboration between the Extension educators and clients would play in ensuring that this transformation from practical to working knowledge occurred.

In one sense, they were brilliantly prescient because they anticipated the wikinomical approach to learning that forms the bedrock of 21st century learning within this increasingly wired world.

What is our commanders intent? To show our clients and stakeholders that despite all the changes that are occurring around us, we will continue to do what we’ve always done: ensure that the working knowledge model that has distinguished us in the past will comprise the very best of what we offer in the future.

The informal, collaborative Extension model — the one that put so much value on face-to-face and hands-on learning — will be merged with emerging social media technology to build an even better 21st century model.

This transformation is critical to our organizational survival.

In the end, though, it will enable us to do something even more effectively: to demonstrate to even larger numbers of people how to transform practical knowledge  into working knowledge.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us — Extension educators, clients and stakeholders alike — with a clearer grasp of what is expected of Cooperative Extension in the 21st century.

Yet, it enables us to do something even more important: to distinguish ourselves from the legions of other knowledge providers across this flat knowledge landscape.

Granted, we no longer can compete with search engines and other forms of artificial intelligence. That is one of the hard truths of the 21st century.  On the other hand, we still offer something that virtual sources of knowledge lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

What is our commander’s intent? Working knowledge — the collaborative, hands-on knowledge that we pioneered more than a century ago and that, combined with the right amount of foresight, creativity and innovation, is still relevant today.

Seven Reasons Why We Need Cooperative Extension in the 21st Century

Excuse the hyperbole, but I originally titled this “Seven Reasons Why Extension Will Survive and Thrive (and Possibly Even Save the Planet) in the 21st century.

I admit that would have been a tad too rhetorically overblown, but there is a ring of truth to it. Despite these looming budget cuts, despite all this talk of Extension having passed its prime, I still believe that we not only will survive in the 21st century but also carve out a lasting presence that not only will enrich millions more lives but also help make the world a safer, greener, happier place.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. We are Sustainers

Sustainability is taking on new meaning.

Many of the nation’s governors are using it to underscore in these lean fiscal times why Americans must become good stewards in all facets of their lives.

One example: Tightening budgetary restraints on the U.S. healthcare system are prompting more Americans to adopt lifestyle practices that safeguard against chronic disease.

Meanwhile, farmers are gearing up to feed a projected 9 billion people by mid-century with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being called upon to develop safer, greener production systems that emphasize organic- and locally-grown foods.

Even with online sources literally available their fingertips, people can’t solve these problems entirely on their own.

Extension is uniquely equipped to help people adopt sustainable practices in all facets of their lives.

2. We are Catalysts

One Alabama cattle producer underscored recently the invaluable role Cooperative Extension educators serve as catalysts — in this case, helping him install a GPS device to reap substantial costs savings.

“It’s gotten me started a little sooner than I would have,” the farmer wryly observes, admitting that it likely would have been years before he had discovered and installed the device on his own.

Through the Internet, farmers are as readily exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking as the rest of us, but they still need catalysts — trained experts who can see the larger picture and who can point to cost-effective solutions they otherwise would not have considered because of times constraints, professional preoccupations or other factors.

What applies to farmers applies to all of us.

3. We are an Agency of Empowerment

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen soberly observed recently, the 2008 stock market downturn followed more recently by severe federal and state budgetary cutbacks have left all American in a “different mental place.”

Likewise, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has stressed, policymakers in this age of austerity are placing an increasing emphasis on dialogue and empowerment, approaches that encourage individuals and groups to address change by making things happen rather than having things happen to them.

A preoccupation with personal empowerment will persist for a long time. The good news for us is that personal empowerment is our business. We are an agency of empowerment.

As government searches for cost-effective alternatives in the midst of these budgetary restraints, the role we serve enabling people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are telling our story.

4. We are Human Infrastructure

We all know that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on building technological infrastructure.  Small wonder why: It offers enhanced opportunities for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Let’s not forget that we are infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like high-speed rail or Internet connections — but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

Even in this wired age, there remains an enormous value in the dense network of face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

5. We are Contextualizers

The bad news: As flesh-and-bone knowledge providers, we cannot hold a candle to virtual knowledge sources, especially search engines — no doubt about that.

The good news is that we still possess something that search engines and other online applications lack: the ability to provide our audiences knowledge within deep, enriched learning contexts.  We help our diverse audiences not only understand knowledge within a wider learning context but, even more important, how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

6. We are Synergists

Our longstanding experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among diverse groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.

As our work in community resource development has underscored time and again, Extension educators have provided the crucial impetus that moves ideas from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user.

7. We are Collaborators

To an increasing degree, wikinomics, which emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning, is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Extension pioneers Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington anticipated this 21st century mindset more than a century ago: They didn’t view their clients as passive subjects; they considered them equals — more than that, they regarded them as active collaborators in their outreach efforts.

Wikinomics is written into our organizational DNA — a trait that gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other public and private entities that are just now coming to terms with new demands of the 21st century knowledge economy.

A Charge to Keep

I’ll close this by admitting to something — bias.  I love Extension work.  I feel fortunate to have served a quarter century in an agency — an educational movement — that puts knowledge to practical use.

Even in this cash-strapped era, we have a charge to keep.  In the midst of this gloom, I believe that our longstanding appreciation for dialogue, forging partnerships and empowering people uniquely equips for the challenges of the 21st century.

[Note: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the extent to which I have merely followed the tracks of one of this century’s true visionaries: Thomas Friedman, whose observations about the flat world and all of its sundry implications provided much of the intellectual basis for this piece.]

Muddling Through: The Great Extension Dilemma

I’ve often joked that the Cooperative Extension concept shares a lot in common with the British.

Britons, namely the English, have always evinced a strong prejudice against applying quick fixes to complex problems.   They prefer to muddle through — to work through problems over time.

So do we.  Extension educators are muddlers.  Like the English, we prefer to work toward complex solutions over time.  We tend to be wary of applying grand solutions too quickly.

As I see it, this is our greatest strength — and one of our most serious weaknesses.

The good news, I think, is that this longstanding organizational trait uniquely positions us to compete in an increasingly wikinomical knowledge landscape — far better than many other public and private players, in fact. We readily share what we know and work with other public and private partners to bring our resources to bear on complex problems.

Collaborative knowledge is as intrinsic to the Extension experience as bats and gloves are to baseball.  We’ve been in the collaborative knowledge business for a long time.  Seaman Knapps’s Terrell, Texas, farm demonstration plots are arguably an early 20th century forerunner of wikinomics.

Need I even mention agricultural field days and 4-H demonstrations of every conceivable kind? Extension’s legacy of shared knowledge would fill volumes.

Here’s the rub: The penchant for working slowly through problems is also reflected in our organization’s development.  There has always been a sort of ad hoc quality to Extension’s organizational structure.

Our organizational structures have been cobbled together to address pressing needs.  It’s been this way from the very beginning, even before formal passage of the Smith-Lever Act, when Seaman Knapp and Alabama Polytechnic Institute President C.C. Thach hastily patched together a memorandum of understanding to govern how the U.S. Department of Agriculture would collaborate with API to carry out Extension work in the state — an agreement that subsequently served as the blueprint for Extension programs throughout the nation.

Yes, it worked reasonably well.  But within the last century, this discursive approach has also contributed to a murky undersanding of our organizational mission within our ranks.  Even worse, the public’s grasp of who we are and what we do is even more tenuous.  And in an era of reduced funding at all levels, this is not a good thing.

This is Extension’s principal dilemma: a legacy that both helps and hinders.

What can we do about it?

More about that later…