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The world is going digital: Where is Extension going?

By jenjensen | July 01, 2014

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Greg Hutchins, Associate Vice Chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Extension

A well respected provider of content, with more than a century of success, but also an organization looking for ways to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world – that could describe Cooperative Extension, but it also describes the New York Times.  The recently released “New York Times Innovation Report” provides a fascinating self-analysis of a premier news organization trying to keep up with change – and perhaps it also provides important clues to what Extension needs to consider as it tries to sustain its relevancy.

The New York Times, the third largest newspaper in the U.S., has experienced a decline in subscriber numbers in recent years – a common trend in print media.  While it continues to provide great journalism, it’s losing readers.  Meanwhile, other news organizations are more aggressively embracing the digital age and remaking themselves to more directly respond to consumers’ preferences for a digital delivery.  Given this environment, the New York Times recently committed ten of their most forward thinking staff to a six-month study of the paper’s operations, both print and digital, and to a careful look at their competition.  The conclusion was that the paper must continue producing quality content – but that content is not enough.  It must also pursue new strategies for growing its audience, and that requires a new “digital first” philosophy.

Is this relevant to Extension?  I think so.

Cooperative Extension has taken great pride in the high quality of its research-based content, and its close relationship with its core audience.  But University Extension is no longer the only reputable source of information in many of the knowledge areas it’s been well known for, and most people have more frequent interaction with Google, YouTube and Wikipedia than they do with Extension.

Yes, Extension does offer a digital presence, and some Extension professionals do maintain bright, engaging websites.  But that’s not the norm.  And where is Extension’s mobile footprint?  Is the Extension YouTube and Instagram presence sufficient to satisfy a public who now sees video as their constant companion – the place to find both entertainment and education?

Simply put, is Extension providing its excellent content to users in ways that they expect to find knowledge in 2014?  And is Extension positioning itself to still be relevant in 2024?  Is the classic retail style, person-to-person model of Extension education still affordable?  Can it meet the public’s expectation for services?

Readership on the New York Times website has shrunk, while sites like the Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic reading New York Times journalism than does the Times’ own website.  In an environment where digital media is exploding with innovative formats and willing investors, it’s not enough to generate world-class journalism and put it on the web.  The Times Innovation Report concluded that the “digital first” strategy was contributing to the growth of the The Guardian and USA Today, and noted that both the Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon) and the Wall Street Journal are both moving to remake themselves for the digital age.  “The realities of a cluttered internet and distracted mobile world require extra effort to get journalism to our readers.”

Is Extension putting extra effort into its digital presence?  Not nearly enough.

What might a serious commitment to a digital-first approach look like in Extension?  Extension professionals would have a much more visible presence in user forums, on social media, in real-time digital relationships, and especially with online video.  There would be careful attention to timely updating of websites, and continuous production of new material for digital consumption.  Experimentation with new forms of media would be on-going.  Audience development becomes a high priority goal for all Extension professionals – and all Extension Educators and Specialists would be active participants in this digital activity, not just IT professionals.

What would Extension hope to accomplish through a digital makeover?  It would expect to expand its audience, multiply the distribution of its content, create a greater public awareness of Extension and its value, and begin to position itself as a relevant and useful source for future generations who will be expecting digital delivery of just about everything.

This approach isn’t intended to immediately produce life changing transformative impact, but it makes it easier to attract users to a deeper look at our content, and allow for easy sharing of that content via user-to-user.  Can you learn nutrition in a 15 second Instagram video?  Probably not in a single video, but a well-developed series might be very instructive.  Bart’s Fish Tales is an example of what’s possible.  If you’re not on Instagram, you can also view the series on Facebook.

There are lots of arguments to be made against this proposition:

  • Broadband access is limited,
  • not everyone has a computer or mobile device,
  • there is no substitute for face-to-face trust-based relationships,
  • digital approaches are inadequate for leadership development and civic engagement,
  • the effectiveness cannot be evaluated, and
  • the impact cannot be measured.

You can make your own list of reasons why this is a faulty future for Extension.  Meanwhile, enormous investments of intellectual and financial resources are pouring into the constant development of the digital landscape and marketplace, and the public has an unquenchable thirst for more.

Broadband access will eventually become ubiquitous and affordable.  The public and the marketplace will demand it.  The spread of mobile devices is so rapid that citing statistics doesn’t tell the story – it’s constantly growing and it’s global.  Face-to-face via digital devices is becoming commonplace among friends, families, and colleagues. It’s easy to argue that digital devices have expanded and strengthened relationships rather than limited them.  Mobilizing civic action through social media has been more rapid and more extensive than any individual organizers on the ground could hope to achieve via one-on-one grassroots work.

To ignore the public’s appetite for all things digital, to continue to rely on “tried and true” educational practices, to discount the different ways future consumers (millennials and subsequent generations) will be expecting to get information and to expect Extension budgets to remain stable – that’s not preparing for the future. Extension needs to make a sharp turn towards digital, and accelerate.  Look forward – not backward.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.