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Extension 2050: The Trend Toward Open

Open Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry
Photo by Alan Levine. Used under CC BY 2.0

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

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.

Open Innovation

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.

Open Access

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.