Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Reply to Jeff Gillman's 'Some Thoughts on Extension'

Recently, Jeff Gillman penned a blog post entitled 'Some Thoughts on Extension', where he worked his way through three points.  These were:

  1. Extension is important.
  2. Extension is dying.
  3. Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.
I have immense respect for Dr. Gillman.  He's a respected scholar, teacher, author and blogger.  He is, in many ways, the type of professional I aspire to be.  That being said, I do disagree with some parts of his post ~ something that he welcomed and invited in the original post.

To provide a context for my perspective, I wanted to briefly go over my professional experience and background.  I came to Extension as an outsider.  I accepted the position as the Statewide Coordinator of the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener Program in 2007, without truly understanding what Extension was or what the Master Gardener Program was about.  From 2002-2007, I was an Assistant Professor of Biology at Fordham University in New York City, where I studied the ecology of insects in urban and suburban gardens. 

To this day, it amazes me that I was able to land the position at OSU.  I was not a gardener.  I thought that the term 'Master Gardener' was a term used to describe a journeyman union worker ~ like 'Master Electrician' or 'Master Plumber'.  I didn't know what I was walking into.

Perhaps that is why, as a relative outsider with only 8 years of experience in Extension, I view Extension as vital, thriving and innovative.  A cynic by nature, I don't believe that my view is tainted by rose colored glasses.

That being said, I wanted to take on points #2 and #3 from Jeff's post, and provide an alternative view.

Jeff's Point #2:  Extension is dying.  
  • Extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends.  You won't easily find us with internet searches.  Top 'hits' are reserved for retail big box stores and magazines.
  • Extension faculty aren't given credit for gathering and distributing research-based information.  Credit is primarily given for research papers and grant dollars.
My reply:  My position is in urban and community horticulture.  I am under constant pressure to reach as many people as possible and to utilize innovative methods to deliver educational content.   I work hard to make sure that our work in urban and community horticulture, and that our work via the Master Gardener Program, is accessible and apparent online.  I manage 4 websites and 2 social media accounts for the Program.

I don't have a marketing budget.  I don't have experience in marketing.  Heck ~ I don't even have help.  At the Statewide level, I'm a one-woman show.  And, I'm losing the marketing and media game.  The Facebook page I maintain for OSU Extension's Master Gardener Program has 2,932 'likes'.  The Facebook page for Scott's Lawn Care has 319,567 'likes'.

But, what I lack in quantity of interactions, I try my best to make up for with high quality educational exchanges.

On an annual basis, I teach about 30 classes to about 1,000 people.  Small numbers, in the large scheme of things.  But the outcomes of those classes are anything but trivial.  Those who take Master Gardener classes report that they have taken steps to attract beneficial insects into their garden (64%), are more tolerant of spiders in the garden (58%), planted a pest-resistant cultivar (71%), decreased or eliminated pesticide use (68%), disposed of a pesticide at a community hazardous waste removal event (54%), and are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) as a direct result of what they have learned in our classes.  Take that, search engine optimization winners!

Extension changes attitudes and behavior, while stores and companies make sales.  In this way, I don't think that I am competing with commercial retail operations for customers.  So I'm not the most popular kid on the internet (thank goodness!).  The internet will not kill Extension (despite repeated warnings to the contrary), in the same way that the internet has not killed the public library.

That being said, I do want to note that we have worked to reinvent ourselves.  In Oregon, we offer an online Master Gardener training option, as well as many other gardening courses, online.  We work directly with local and regional news outlets to reach the masses with research-based gardening tips. OSU Extension faculty experts have monthly gardening spots on local morning shows.  We blog.  We tweet.  We try to cover as much ground as possible, with the limited resources that we have.  And, I'm pretty proud say that we directly reach over 200,000 people each year, and conservatively estimate that we reach another 550,000 through our online and media outreach efforts.  Small potatoes ~ I'm sure ~ compared to some commercial firms . . . . but our numbers are focused on making a difference, rather than a sale.

Jeff's Point #3:  Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.

Here, Jeff makes an argument that I hear all too often ~ administrators need to give credit, make promotions, and grant raises based upon the comprehensive portfolio of work done by Extension professionals.  Incentives need to place less weight on research and more weight on outreach.

At Oregon State, I feel that the work I do in the field (public outreach and education) is recognized and valued.  But, there is also the expectation that I will do more than teach the same three general topics, year after year.  I'm expected to innovate, grow and learn ~ and to pass on the information that I acquire to the general public.