JACK'S INSIGHTS: Change, and what comes with it

 Jack Whittier, director UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

A few years ago, I attended a wedding reception where an acquaintance from my old college days also happened to be. We were there since we both knew the family of the bride. Realizing we had not seen each other in about 35 years, it took both of us a minute to place the other. As he looked at me, still trying to place just who I was, and recognizing how we had both changed, he said, “You’ve grown out of your hair!” And he was right, I had changed, and so had he.

My insight this month is about “change” and what comes with it. Last week I was in Lincoln, meeting with what is called the “Extension Leadership Team.” Chuck Hibberd, Dean of Nebraska Extension, brought this group together to discuss a key question, “Modern Extension – what is it?”

Chuck began by telling a story about “the old days” of Extension in Nebraska.  During his time as a young extension intern, a well-known county agent in Nebraska (we call these extension professionals extension educators nowadays) named Harold Stephens had developed a method to count the number of interactions he had with people who came to the Extension Office for information. 

As an inventive “ag guy,” Harold attached a bale counter to the front door of the Extension Office, the same apparatus on a small square hay baler which advances to count the bales each time the knotter trips to tie off a new bale of hay. Harold’s logic was that by knowing the number of times the front door of the office opened, he could measure the number of people his office had served in a given time period.  I thought this was a very ingenious approach to measuring extension’s impact.

There has been much change (there’s that change word again) in all of our lives as to how we obtain information since “the old days”, regardless of what walk of life we are in. And change continues at a rapid pace. My wife reminded me that this year the world is celebrating 50 years since the invention of the internet. What a change that invention has brought to our lives! It has certainly changed how we access information.

So back to the question Chuck posed, “Modern Extension – what is it?”  In our discussion of this question, one of my colleagues in the meeting made the observation that today, as extension professionals, we must add more value to the learners we serve than a Google search provides them.  Modern Extension professionals must also add a research-based interpretation and something I call “human wisdom” to the response to any given question, if we are going to add more value than Google. I thought this statement was insightful, and important, if Extension is to remain viable in the internet and smart-phone world of today.

The other thing this colleague pointed out was that today there are many doors to the Extension Office for people to find information and answers, not only the door Harold Stephens used the bale counter on. In fact, the foot traffic into most Extension Offices today is only a fraction of what it was in “the old days.” However, doors like email, text messages, apps and podcasts now provide new ways to access and distribute information and solutions from Nebraska Extension.

As the Extension Leadership Team continued to discuss the question of Modern Extension, numerous ideas, modifications and insights were developed to assure that the Extension arm of “the people’s university – your university” remains a viable source of solutions and support to you as our users.

So, my point is that change is inevitable, and it is critical to both the learner and the teacher that a good dose of “human wisdom” is part of the learning and problem-solving objective, whether it be at the Nebraska Extension office, or otherwise. There is only so much digital electronics can do; the human element is still key. Have a great month, and be thankful for all the blessings we have in this modern world of change.

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