Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Extension Needs to Adapt, but it's Not Broken

I've read with great interest Paul Hill's (http://twitter.com/4hpro) recent posts on how to fix Cooperative Extension (http://www.paulallenhill.com/). Not only does he have a great first name, he's also sharing wonderful and provocative ideas on how Extension needs to adapt to a changing world. But Extension is NOT broken!

When I look around at my NC Cooperative Extension colleagues, I see hardworking individuals that are making a difference in their communities. I see individuals who are respected by their customers. I see Agents who are making a difference with their educational programs. This is our legacy, and also our future.

Yes, the world is changing. Wonderful and powerful new technologies are emerging that allow us to engage the public in new ways. We can reach people more quickly, effectively and efficiently. I believe a day will come in the not so distant future where much of our program and information delivery will rely on these new tools. Extension Agents and Specialists who don't adopt these new technologies are missing an opportunity and risk becoming less relevant.

I also believe that in some areas of the country (e.g. highly urbanized counties), Extension Agents should be fully engaged in these new methods. However, in other areas our main customers and supporters simply aren't there yet. Forget social media, there are still significant numbers of farmers, for example, who won't even use a computer.

Yes, we need to be working to educate these farmers to adopt new technology. But in the meantime, we have to reach them (and other customers) where they are. That may require a face-to-face conversation, a telephone call or maybe even an envelope with a stamp. I work in rural, low-wealth counties. Smartphone adoption and broadband internet availability is not yet widespread. I would be a fool to spend too much time on information delivery through social media. I might reach more people, but I would reach fewer of my actual customers, i.e. the residents of the counties in which I work and whose taxes are supporting my salary. I would be less effective at making a difference in the lives of the people I'm supposed to serve.

I guess really this makes my job more challenging, because I need to be learning and adopting the new methods that Paul Hill challenges us to employ, but also using the traditional strategies on which this great organization has been built.

In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with Paul Hill's suggestions on how Extension needs to adapt. We need to change and grow and adopt new strategies. And I believe that will happen because of who we are as an organization. We are, and always have been, an organization of learners and leaders. We are intimately connected to our communities. That puts us in the perfect position to take advantage of these new opportunities.

And perhaps Paul Hill's "fix Extension" rally cry is the kick in the pants needed to move along the conversation. We can certainly use many more people with his ideas and energy.

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