This morning I came across the video below in my Facebook news feed. It had been shared by one current and one former Extension educator. You can watch it if you wish, but let me save you some time. It is a highly embellished version of the story of how Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star Spangles Banner," the first verse of which became the lyrics of America's national anthem. It is riddled with half-truths, stretched truths and outright fabrications.
I didn't get very far into the video before I began to wonder about its veracity. When the narrator referred to Fort McHenry as "Fort Henry," my internal alarms went off, and I started some cursory Internet searches to check the facts of the video. It did not take long to find credible sources that contradicted many of the points of the video.
I think everyone, especially educators, and especially educators representing an organization that defines itself as research-based, has a responsibility to do at least a little work checking to make sure something is true before sharing it on social media (Assessing the Reliability of Online Information).
I understand some people want to keep their personal lives separate from their professional lives. I know it can be a serious burden for county agents to be always on duty, whether they are in the office or at the grocery store, but that's the job. Even when you are sharing on a personal social media account accessed by only family and close friends, your role as an educator is part of your persona. My mother-in-law spent her whole career in dentistry. I expect that when she shares something with me about tooth and gum care, even in a personal context, that it is based on research or the evidence she has observed in her experience.
Many Extension professionals are generalists and all are representatives of universities, so the expectation of sharing research or evidence-based information extends beyond our particular specialties. We can't just click the retweet or share buttons if we like a headline or a video fits our personal view of the world. When we do, we are not only reflecting on Cooperative Extension and our universities, but also reflecting on the importance of science, research and the truth.
I've been struggling with this post for a couple of months. Post-literacy emerged as a theme in the conversation referenced above, but I'm still trying to make sense of it. Is it purely hypothetical as it is described on Wikipedia?
"A postliterate society is a hypothetical society in which multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read or write, is no longer necessary or common" -Wikipedia
Is post-literacy old news? Are we already living in a post-literate society as Marshal McLuhan described it almost 40 years ago?
What's the relationship between print literacy, media literacy and digital literacy? Is post-literacy emergent or, as mentioned in the conversation below, has reading in America been dead for 90 years?
I'll continue making sense of post-literacy because I believe it is an important theme in the future of Extension. As part of academia, much of Cooperative Extension's information delivery and virtually all of it's library is alphabet-based. What happens if the majority of people become incapable or, at least, uninterested in consuming information through reading? Academia can exist (does exist?) talking only to each other, but Extension, by definition, must converse with "the public," and "the public" has largely devalued alphabet-based information.
13 minutes before the start of the 2016 NFL Draft, a video was released of offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil smoking marijuana through a gas mask. The morning after, several analysts talked about how the fact that there was video of the incident influenced the public perception. They noted, correctly in my opinion, that had this incident been detailed in an alphabet-based medium, without the video, the public would have largely dismissed it.
This is more than "seeing is believing." It's more like "seeing is caring."
If so much of Extension continues to alphabet-based, can we remain (become?) relevant? Is there any hope of moving away from alphabet-based information if Extension remains part of academia?
At the 2016 National eXtension Conference in San Antonio, I had a couple of interactions that illustrated how hard it is for me to follow through on all the good intentions spurred by the energy and enthusiasm of a good conference.
First I ran into Holly. I had met Holly 6 months earlier at another meeting. Our demonstration tables at a conference reception were next to each other, and we discovered we had some common interests in telling Cooperative Extension's story. We had a good talk and agreed that we should find time to talk more. Fast forward 6 months. Holly and I are setting up tables at another conference reception. We express our mutual regret that we haven't had the conversation we had planned. We both comment on how busy everyone is, and we say, again, "We should talk more."
Here's the second story. After a workshop, I introduce myself to Kathleen. When Kathleen tells me her full name, I realize I have seen her name before. I keep a journal. I keep telling myself I am going to take some time to read through my notes to make sense of them, but I never do. Instead, when I lose interest in meeting or I'm waiting for my computer to start up, I randomly page through my journal. A couple of weeks before the conference, I was paging through my journal and found a sticky note with a name and email address on it. I had no idea why I had been given the note (it wasn't in my handwriting, so someone passed it on to me), or what I had promised to do with that contact information.
I'm sure you've guessed that the name and email address on the sticky note belonged to Kathleen, who was now standing in front of me. I told Kathleen about the note, and we deduced the likely place it had come from, but neither of us knows why someone wanted to connect us.
This happens to me all the time. The ideas, relationships and plans that come out of the energy and enthusiasm of a conference are quickly lost when I return to the office and the emails and the task lists of daily work. So what can I do about it?
Here's what I'm going to try. John Stepper, author of Working Out Loud, was one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 National eXtension Conference. John's book is full of practical advice for making and strengthening connections with people, and making contributions to your networks that can lead to something much bigger. I'm going to try to adapt some of the tactics in Working Out Loud to help me retain some of the momentum I gained at the conference.
In Working Out Loud, John suggests you make a list of people and organizations that can help you reach whatever goal you have set. For my conference follow-up, I'm going to make a list of people I connected with, but also ideas I want to explore further and plans or projects that I realized may be possible.
Of course, making a list is not enough. I'm going to have to work the list, and to do that I need a system. My system for my Working Out Loud list is pretty simple. I created a note in Evernote for each person on my list. In that note, I keep track of what I know about them, where I can find them (email, social media, blog, etc.) and when I last made a contribution to them or received a contribution from them.
I think I could do the same for the people, ideas and plans from the conference, make a list and work the list.
One of the ideas that affected me most from Working Out Loud is the idea of small contributions. Small acts like subscribing to someone's blog, following them on Twitter or sharing something they wrote can be of value. These small contributions can make other people aware of you, can elicit responses from them (although you need to be OK with them not responding) and can lead to bigger contributions and even collaborations.
I'm going to make small contributions to those people I connected with at the conference, but I am also going to make small contributions to the ideas and plans I began to form there. I often get paralyzed by focusing on how much I have to learn to fully explore an idea or on how much work would need to be done to fully realize a project. I'm going to give myself permission to make small contributions to the ideas and potential projects that came out of the conference.
A small contribution to an idea might be as simple as adding a resource I found or a small insight I had to that idea's note in Evernote. A small contribution to a project might be adding the name of a potential collaborator or spending a few minutes thinking about next steps for moving the project along.
These small contributions will add up, I hope, and lead to bigger contributions. The small contributions will allow me to keep the idea or project active in my mind.
I'm just wrapping up my experience in a Working out Loud circle. John Stepper adapted the tactics from his book into Working Out Loud circle guides that allow a group of 4-5 people to share their Working Out Loud experiences. The groups meet for 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. Participating in a circle has been a great experience. It has given me a safe space to share my struggles in the process, helped me when I'm stuck and, most importantly, made me accountable for working my list.
I'd like to adapt this idea to keep the momentum from the 2016 National eXtension Conference or from any other conference you've attended recently. The idea would be for 4-5 of us to get together for 1 hour each week, talk about the conference connections, ideas and projects we want to work on. I'm not sure how many weeks this experience would last, but we could test that together. If you are interested in a Conference Follow-Up circle and/or if you have a suggestion for a better name, let me know in the comments or contact me.
This is the second in a series of posts on Extension in the year 2050. The posts discuss themes that emerged in a conversation about the future of Extension. You can read the first post in the series here.
"If the future is open Cooperative Extension has a chance. If it’s closed we’re toast. We need to make sure we resist proprietary, and stay on the people’s side of these issues." - Kevin Gamble
The quote above, from a comment made on the first post in this series, is a perfect lead in to the next theme that could shape the future of Extension, open. I'm using "open" as a general term referring to the trend toward science, education, government and knowledge becoming more accessible, democratic and transparent.
Theme 2 - Openness
The move toward openness will continue to bring sweeping changes in how knowledge is shared, implemented and built upon to create new ideas. A 2004 research project conducted by the Institute of Development Studies points to a possible future where the Internet is a basic right, and researchers, policy makers, and organizations working for change have unfettered access to documentation, datasets and government records. Openness makes possible repositories of locally-produced research that could be critical in delivering the contextualized information I wrote about in my previous post.
In this more open future, data scientists, librarians, knowledge intermediaries and Extension professionals are vital.The trend toward open holds some challenge for Extension (and society), but even more opportunities.
Open science is in Extension's best interest. There is a wide gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes, and that gap is a huge problem for an organization with research-based knowledge at its core. I believe open science can close that gap by making scientific work more accessible and transparent. If research is subject to public scrutiny from the outset, the public will have less reason to distrust the results.
Extension can help hasten and improve the open science movement by building connections between university researchers and the public. We can help citizens learn more about the scientific process and how they can contribute to it. We can also help scientists learn how to talk to and work with the public. To do either of those things we need to give up some of our space. We have to let the public access research-based information without going through us, and we need to allow researchers access to the people we serve.
No government, corporation nor organization, Cooperative Extension included, can address complex global problems like climate change, food security, water quality or health on its own (more on this in my next post). If we are going to find innovative ways to address these issues, we will need to look inside AND outside our organization.
It will not be easy. If it was simply a matter of compiling a list of the people and organizations necessary and establishing the connections needed, someone would have already done it. We cannot predict the connections needed, and we are not aware of some of the necessary people and organizations. They will only be revealed if we begin working openly, making our work discoverable from the beginning, so those who share our vision can find us and connect.
We cannot continue to wait for impact reports or Journal of Extension articles to share our work. We need to make it visible from the initial stages, before there is a curriculum, a logic model or even a plan. If we are going to make a difference regarding complex global problems, we need to move from curriculum to collaboration. When we do create curriculum, can we please stop making it a commodity and selling it, especially to each other? Which brings me to my final point.
It is impossible for Extension to participate in the open movement without providing open access. We cannot hide our information, ideas and knowledge behind paywalls, file formats and all rights reserved copyright.
We need to continue to work on making our content accessible digitally on the widest possible variety of devices, and to start thinking online first.
Extension communication, whether it takes place through a publication, a workshop, a radio broadcast or a newspaper column, is largely built on a 1-to-many model. When we think of entering the online/mobile space, we think of how we can do mass communication online, but online communication is not mass media. It is personal, contextual, interactive, mobile, wearable and embeddable. We need to stop thinking 1-to-many and start thinking how to use our information to encourage a many-to-many communication model.
To do so, we need to release our information from the container we call a publication. When that information is free to be consumed, shared and built upon outside of the constraints of print, we can engage more people with Extension and, more importantly, with each other.
Finally, every Extension publication, curriculum, web page, video, etc., etc. should be available under open access. That means it should be available to use, share and re-mix without a fee and without asking permission. It is unconscionable that government agencies, federally-funded institutions and Cooperative Extension fail to provide free and unfettered access to content that taxpayers have already paid for.
Let's start fixing this by replacing every all rights reserved copyright in Extension with a Creative Commons attribution (only) license or just make that our content part of the public domain. Doing so will signal that Extension believes the public has the right accessible, democratic and transparent data and content from their government and the organizations their government funds. It will also signal Extension is ready to be a part of a future where free-flowing knowledge leads to innovations that improve our lives, our communities and our world.
Recently I met with an Extension specialist at NDSU to talk about Extension in 2050. I know. I thought the same thing, "2050! It's hard enough predicting what the world will look like in 3 or 5 years. How the hell can we see 34 years into the future?" I mean, really. The first commercial compact disc was produced in 1982. Now, 34 years later, compact discs are mostly obsolete. It's entirely possible that by 2050 there will be obsolete technology that, as of today, has not yet been invented. So, sure, let's talk about Extension in 2050.
The Extension specialist was filling in for a colleague who had originally proposed the "Extension 2050" session for a conference. Long story short, we had to find a way to talk about the future, no matter how hard that future was to see. The task was further complicated by the current state of technology. As Paul Hill put it in a recent post co-written with Jamie Seger, "The 4 Things CES Taught Us About the Future of Extension,"
"We are currently living through an exciting in-between phase of emerging technologies. It’s a special time for humanity, all these things have their place but someday we’ll be able to look back on this time and talk about how we saw virtual reality, AI, smart cars, and drones advance from concepts and prototypes to the market adoption and integration into our daily lives. But for now, it’s all in an awkward stage of adolescence."
The fact is a lot of the "emerging technology" has been discussed for years now. It didn't seem like talking about that technology again was going to get us any closer to an idea of what Extension might look like to 2050.
So instead of talking about technology, we began talking about themes. My next few posts will discuss each of the themes that emerged in our conversation, beginning with "contextualized information."
Theme 1 - Contextualized Information
Emerging technologies like wearable tech, embedded tech, augmented reality and virtual reality deliver information in context. Knowing the normal resting heart rate for an adult ranges from 60 - 100 beats per minute is different from knowing your heart rate after cooling down at the gym on Tuesday night. Having heart rate information specific to you at a specific time in a specific place, may make that information more meaningful to you and possibly more actionable.
Augmented reality, the layering of digital information on top of the real world, is all about information in context. The video below was made 7 years ago. Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future shared it at an eXtension conference in Louisville. This digital story is what IFTF calls an artifact of the future. It is a simulation; a prediction brought to life.
So how does Extension need to change when information alone is trumped by information in context? In the last third of the 20th century, Cooperative Extension exerted a lot of effort to take context out of information. It was the age of mass media. If you were going to produce a publication read by hundreds of people or a television show watched by thousands, you needed to deliver information with little or no context. Information that could appeal to, and possibly be applied by people in a variety of situations. Extension needs to adjust to deliver value in a time when personalized information in context is valued over information with wide applicability.
Intelligent personal assistants like Cortana, Google Now and Siri demonstrate how valuable information in context can be. These personal assistants can deliver information based on data they know about you. If you booked a trip using your Gmail address, Google Now can push you information about restaurants or sights to see in your destination city.
It's not a big leap to imagine buying tomato plants at a big box hardware store, swiping your credit card (paying with your smartphone) and having your personal assistant deliver information about planting tomatoes to you based on the data generated by the transaction. That information could be unique based on your location, the date of your purchase and, possibly, the weather forecast. There is no doubt to me that information specific to that context is more valuable than generic information aimed at meeting the needs of hundreds or thousands of people. Will that contextualized information come from Home Depot or Loews, or will it come from Cooperative Extension?