by John Shutske, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor, UW-Extension
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.
Earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to share some thoughts at the annual meetings of two different professional groups on a future vision for Extension with a focus on the role of technology and how it will likely impact the future work of all in Cooperative Extension. I felt empowered doing this having written a similar piece in 1997 as part of a technology “visioning” group with Minnesota Extension, knowing that at least a few of my predictions at that time eventually came to fruition a decade or more later.
I have divided this essay into three parts. First, I will briefly talk about a new employee in Extension, “Natalie” who will join us in 10 years with a new and different set of skills, expectations, and experiences, particularly in comparison to when I entered Extension 29 years ago as a “baby boomer” including those connected to technology. Second will be a discussion of several enabling and sometimes disruptive technologies that will re-cast much of the work done in Extension in the year 2024. And finally, I share my thoughts on how we move toward a future focused on this 2024 vision, starting today!
Part I – Natalie, our Millennial Generation Extension colleague in 2024
Imagine the world of “Natalie,” who is now a 20-year old, entering her third year as an undergraduate biology student at a U.S. land-grant university. Now let’s put ourselves in August of 2024, ten years from today. We will hire Natalie to work with us as an Extension Educator in 2024. Natalie will start with us in UW-Extension after having already had a couple of interesting “careers” working on issues connected to biology and the environment.
Natalie will turn 30 in 2024, and like many in the millennial generation, will have several meaningful careers and multiple jobs during her working years. She will enter a position in Extension having grown up as a “digital native,” with her use of technology having been fully integrated into her life from an early age. Natalie will have expectations of an Extension role that’s fast-moving and flexible to allow professionals to create, grow, and explore new ideas and relationships while blurring the lines between job, home, family, friends, travel, and fun. As an Extension employee, Natalie will want a reasonably well-paying positon, but it must be meaningful and rewarding with opportunities to work collaboratively as a team member or leader. It is likely that many like Natalie will be confident – and they will not be afraid to challenge the status quo of their work world if it is simply based on tradition and history. Many sources are available on the unique characteristics of the millennial generation including Generations at Work by Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak.
As you will see later in my final thoughts in this essay, Natalie’s position will be partially-funded through a carefully-crafted public-private partnership that provides the necessary dollars to support her work while Natalie works within her educator role maintaining a high degree of objectivity and integrity.
Oneida County’s first agent, E.L. Luther with a new technology of the time. Photo courtesy of UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension.
Natalie’s world in 2024 will be greatly influenced by technology. One hundred years ago, Wisconsin’s first Extension Agent, E.L. Luther used the technology of a state-of-the-art motorcycle to rapidly travel the dirt roads of rural Oneida County to explore and build relationships. Similarly, Natalie’s use of digital technology will strongly support her efforts to develop, nurture, and maximize the value of important relationships with individuals within communities, families, and businesses – the hallmark of Extension.
Part II – Technologies that will Shape the Work of Extension in 2024
Here are six technologies that will continue to develop, evolve, and truly change the game between 2014 and the start of Natalie’s work with us in Extension in ten years. Some might call these technologies “disruptors.” Some of them are, but I prefer to think of them as technologies which will enable and empower our Extension colleagues in the future and make their work more impactful and rewarding for all involved!
Mobile. As we are now just beginning to see, mobile technology (smart phones, tablets, wearable communication devices, etc.) will dominate much of our communication and information world in 2024. Think of how a modern smart phone in 2014 has more computing power than the very most sophisticated computers used in the Apollo space program at the time we landed people on the moon 45 years ago (by several orders of magnitude). Now, we can access nearly all information ever created and recorded in the last several hundred years with a couple clicks on a screen. What will tomorrow’s mobile tech look like?
Mobile devices likely will have the potential to be even smaller with greater and greater power. But, further miniaturization will be constrained by human vision limitations and the need for a readable screen. Further advances in battery power will allow devices to last for days or weeks rather than hours. Surfaces in your vehicle, office, or home will also be set up to charge your device. You won’t have to plug it in – you’ll just need to set it down in the right spot.
Because of increased power and battery capacity, a small smart phone will also serve as a projector. Not only will it project presentations, but any smooth vertical surface will be able to be transformed into an HD monitor. If we’re really ambitious in our thinking, we won’t need a surface but rather an open space into which we will project a fully three-dimensional holographic image. Likewise, your smart device’s projection capabilities will be able to transform any horizontal surface into a virtual keyboard and touch pad for data entry. And, by 2024, voice recognition and control will be almost perfected. Your smart phone will also have a fully visual interface such as today’s prototype wearable “Google Glass” system. But for daily work, wearables will likely only be used as input, visualization, or data collection devices. The brain of Natalie’s mobile future will still be her smart phone.
Internet-Enabled “Face-to-Face” Communication. We’re all aware that interpersonal relationships have always been a key to Extension’s historical and current success. But, travel associated with always doing face-to-face is expensive (including the time and opportunity costs). Heavy travel schedules also may not be nearly as accepted by our 2024 workforce as has been the case for the past many decades. Imbalances in time spent traveling will be a significant factor associated with job satisfaction and retention.
New developments will further enable highly effective “distance” communication and education in which little will be lost in terms of our communication. New systems like Cisco’s Tele-Presence system will be increasingly pervasive within educational settings and eventually highly affordable. In many cases currently, Extension staff are now beginning to save thousands each year in travel costs and time using inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware and software. Many communication platforms are now free or available at minimal cost (like Google Hangouts and Skype). Technology in 2024 will provide amazingly crisp visuals and low latency (lag), high quality voice and sound. In addition, interacting with others through the use of three-dimensional holograms will begin to be commonplace.
In addition to sitting and interacting with a constituent or colleague on a monitor, screen, or hologram, Natalie will see significant advancement in the use of wearable virtual reality (VR) displays (sound and video). In recent months, a VR system called “Oculus Rift” has been released along with a software developer’s kit that encourage individual inventors and entrepreneurs to develop highly customized applications of this amazing technology. In addition to using it for one-on-one “distance” interaction with other people, virtual reality will be used by Natalie to do educational demonstrations, and offer people other types of highly complex three-dimensional immersion experiences.
Driverless Vehicles (and the Collaborative Economy). This enabling technology is a two-for-one. By 2024, Natalie will not need to own a car. And, she will not necessarily even know how to drive (she may not want to!). Driverless vehicles on the highway will become commonplace. We see companies like Google and even the big U.S. auto manufacturers investing heavily in the technologies that will support fully autonomous vehicles. The movement toward driverless automobiles has been slow and evolutionary starting with devices like cruise control, forward and side-looking sensors and sophisticated driver-information systems for the operator.
Google’s driverless car on a test course. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5499949739/.
Development in these vehicles will accelerate in the coming years as we see further advancement in sensors, data transmission speeds, and computing power (as well as public and private investment). The limiting factor of driverless vehicle adoption may not be the technology, but instead the consistency of smart public policy. Since Natalie’s schedule will be stored on her smart phone and linked to the “cloud,” she will have the option of a vehicle showing up at her doorstep at the time she needs to leave to occasionally travel out in the state for an Extension event, for fun, or for a combination of the two.
But, Natalie will not need to own the car, because she will subscribe to a service where vehicles are part of a shared resource. Costs will be much more in line with the true value associated with transportation, because technology will enable a greater degree of vehicle usage efficiency. Most people’s cars now are actually “in use” for less than 10% of any given day, and future services will increase utilization efficiency by a significant percentage. In addition, Natalie will have the option to stay overnight in less costly shared space, perhaps enabled through a collaborative-economy based service like AirBNB. When Natalie does travel, because she’s in a comfortable space being driven to her location, she will be able to spend that time learning, working, communicating, or even having fun.
Besides benefiting from a driverless, autonomous vehicle, depending on Natalie’s Extension program interests, she might need to know a little something about the use of automated, autonomous systems such as aerial “drones,” robots, and driverless industrial equipment (tractors, construction machines, etc). If Natalie is an Agricultural Extension Educator, she may have a small collection of ‘drones’ located in key locations in her territory that she can remotely send out each morning to shoot video providing just-in-time information on crop conditions, pest control issues, and seasonal progress. Or, she might have a dashboard on her smart phone that aggregates all milk production data coming off of robotic milking machines from the few dozen dairy farms in her region. Technology will allow her to remotely monitor how the current hot, dry weather is impacting local production and she can then make recommendations to farmers and others in the supply chain.
The Internet of Things (or Internet of Everything). Within ten years, we will see amazing use and ubiquity of sensors embedded in every machine, appliance, and component, not to mention inside people, animals, and environmental “systems.” As Wall Street technical guru and futurist Esther Dyson has said, “Soon we will salt the oceans, the land and the sky with uncounted numbers of sensors invisible to the eye but visible to one another.” These sensors will be networked, and the data that they generate will be accessible via the Internet.
In terms of Natalie’s future work as an Extension worker with interests and education in biology, imagine if we had sensors embedded in every dairy cow or beef animal in the country; every 100th ash or oak tree in the Midwest; every musky or loon in or on the nearby lake; every warm-blooded pet; or, every person?
The data generated in our new world will likely change the nature of traditional research. The possibilities to learn about and understand our world will be endless. But, it also has the potential to be wildly overwhelming! And, it obviously raises all kinds of questions about data privacy, access, appropriate use, security, and other potential downsides.
Big Data. The Internet of Everything will further accelerate the pace of technology and information change. It will continue to generate unimaginable mountains of data. Information in the book “The Human Face of Big Data” is both inspiring and daunting:
- Today, a street vendor in Mumbai can access more information, statistics, academic papers, price trends, and futures markets than a U.S. president could only a few decades ago…
- In 15 minutes, 20 petabytes new data generated by the human race…3X the amount in the Library of Congress. (20,000 Terabytes or 2 X107 Gigabytes)
- From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated 5 exabytes of data (1018 bytes) – Now, we produce 5 exabytes EVERY TWO DAYS and the pace is accelerating.
For Extension, the Internet of Everything and Big Data will be a game-changer. I will be bold and say that applied agricultural, biological, and environmental research “projects” using old-style approaches and methods will be largely a thing of the past within a little more than a decade. If you are Natalie or one of her professors (perhaps an Extension Specialist?) in 2014, and want to work on an animal science project involving nutrition or reproduction of sheep, or dairy cows, or pigs, what do we do now? A professor gets a $500,000 USDA grant. She works with the staff at the university research farm. The faculty member buys 60 animals or whatever the project budget will allow, and divides them into groups. She would then conduct the experiment, and harvest the results. It’s an expensive model and one that may not be able to be accommodated and sustained by publicly-funded resources in the future.
Based on the ubiquity of sensors and networked data, I believe we will see a greater focus on-farm or “in-the-plant” research that involves partnerships with people and business entities in the private sector. The opportunities to access data connected to independent and dependent variables as well as information about all surrounding conditions and environmental and statistical confounders will be limitless. This will open up countless citizen science and youth engagement opportunities as we now see with things like water quality, wildlife, and weather monitoring by interested and eager public citizens. We will see this shift in areas outside of agriculture and environmental sciences as well.
These trends will also raise important data and research quality issues. The role of Natalie in 2024 will shift away from “doing” lots of research toward data analysis and interpretation and synthesis of new knowledge and models for understanding the world around us. Or, Natalie may play a crucial role working with her constituents on issues of science literacy and appreciation using the exciting science that surrounds us.
People with strong skills will be paid a premium if they know how to effectively use data to formulate, inform, and communicate recommendations that lead to sound decisions. People in Extension who figure this out quickly will have very bright career opportunities. Those who do not will need to work in other sectors. Technical skills will certainly be important. But communication skills and an ability to interact with people will also be crucial!
Social Media. For private companies, social media and the effective adoption of early platforms like Twitter and Facebook has already become a game changer. Unfortunately, some in Extension have viewed the social media revolution only as a passing fad.
Some do not see the value in a 140-character “tweet” and having followers whether on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. What they may fail to recognize is that social media, if done in smart ways, will allow Natalie to connect in a direct, concise, and immediate way to a few hundred or thousands of the most influential thought leaders in her field, whether they are other scientists, educators, industry, leaders, consultants, or elected officials!
The value of a tool like Twitter is not the 140 characters themselves – a Tweet or Facebook post, when properly used, can be a precise and highly-trusted pointer to a tiny, but critical information needle in an overwhelming global data haystack. And, if you are connecting that needle to even 100 of most influential people in your programmatic world, the impact can grow exponentially and have massive impact. If you’re skeptical, consider the impact that these tools have had on major global events and civil revolutions in many parts of the world in the last five years.
I believe that we are only in the early stages of social media development and application. Tools like Twitter and Facebook will continue to evolve. We will see new applications and platforms that are hard to imagine. There will be Twitter-like platforms that will have behind-the-scenes analysis algorithms that quickly identify and communicate trends and help sift good from bad data and information. Not all of the “tweets” and other information being analyzed will be manually entered by people. Imagine every crop field “tweeting” about current soil moisture conditions, ambient sunlight levels, temperature, and relative humidity. Imagine getting a text message every time that musky that you caught last summer gets re-caught by other catch-and-release fisherman on the nearby lake (from the fish)!
For individual educators like Natalie, social media tools such as trust-ratings, “likes,” followers, favorites, retweets, and recommendations will be a part of her academic professional portfolio much the same way that peer-reviewed journal articles are used as a measure of credibility in today’s world. This will affect her science-based reputation and her work as an educator. Accountability measures for Extension education specialists and researchers will be much more public. We have already seen this sort of application for university classroom teachers where social media tools like “Rate My Professors” are used to rate faculty on the quality of their instruction and communication. These tools now have the potential to influence individual course enrollment numbers and tuition revenue for academic departments and colleges.
Part III – Where Do We go From Here?
Let’s step back to 2014. Natalie’s got some time to learn and finish her degree this school year and next. In Extension, we have some time too, but the clock is ticking rapidly! Outlined in the last section were a few of the dozens of tech-based enablers and disruptors that will continue to evolve and change our world in the coming decade. Those described in Part II are simply the ones I’ve thought the most about and can personally foresee rapidly coming onto the scene and having a big impact on Extension’s work. Some already are. Or, perhaps should be.
As a final thought, as I presented this summer, lots of people agreed with the majority of my comments and analysis. A few did not. But, the common question was, “Yeah? What can we do now? If we don’t go there proactively, we’re going to be left in the dust.” Here are a few concluding ideas.
First, universities and Extension cannot do ‘this’ alone. But, nether can the private sector. If we try and go it alone, we will likely fall short, largely because of the continued shrinkage of public sector dollars that feed our education and research systems in the U.S. We need the private sector – but they need us too, both in terms of resources as well as technical knowledge, talent, and expertise. So, new partnership models are needed including those which can enable us to share resources, positions, and funding streams in ways that are consistent and fully aligned with Extension’s values. This, of course, makes Extension professionals and leaders tremendously nervous. Rightly so.
Our brand has always been built on being objective and unbiased. But, the growth, adoption, and cost of these technologies and being able to pay people like Natalie a competitive salary will leave us no choice. As we’ve seen these last 30 years, there has been little or no growth in public-sector funding for research or for Extension educational work. When you factor together state plus federal funding, the growth has been very much in the negative direction nearly everywhere in the U.S.
Other funds will be needed to maintain the infrastructure within universities (such as classrooms, labs, and outdoor science facilities). Higher education leaders will need to be smart about the level of physical infrastructure actually needed in this new world. We MUST find ways to partner while also being hyper-vigilant about protecting our unique position and brand. We also must think carefully about how the technologies cited in this essay can BOTH enhance and improve our impact while also helping to control or cut the costs of doing the work!
For the Natalie’s of our world and for future student who want to consider working in Extension, the marketplace for Extension professionals will be exciting. It will also be global. We already see this with high quality candidates applying for and accepting both campus and locally-based Extension positions having come to us from other nations around the world. In addition, the market for our knowledge and our ability to formulate sound decisions from an ocean of raw data will be global. No longer will state or county boundaries confine the reach of Extension within a particular geographic domain. The move toward globalization needs much further discussion by Extension leaders nationwide!
Finally, despite all of the techy stuff described in this essay including mobile technology, automation, and commoditized data access, it is clear that we must continue to focus much of our basic education to include science, math, engineering, and technology skills. For people like Natalie, the “tech” piece will not be a shocker, nor will it be as problematic for future generations as it has been for us Baby Boomers. But, people like Natalie will find that but being able to effectively work, socialize, and communicate in the zone of knowledge, wisdom, and decisions will be very tough work.
But it will be exciting and highly rewarding. Just like the work of today’s Extension workers is today in 2014, or can be! The school year starts very soon for most of us. Natalie is ready to roll up her sleeves and dig back in to prepare herself for the future. Are we?
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. The author also encourages comments to shutske[at]wisc.edu. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.