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Friday, August 7, 2015

Innovation in Outreach and Extension: Some Thoughts on the Next Wave


The last decade has been a time of significant innovation in university extension and outreach.  At the same time, higher education in general has been under increasing criticism for focusing on narrow professional programs and losing its social mission.  Much innovation has been driven by technology—putting existing curricula online to serve adult and part-time learners, especially.  As we look ahead, we need to ask how we can use both traditional means and online technology to address the many problems facing our communities in a new social and economic environment.  Here are four areas where I think we are ripe for innovation in Extension and Outreach:
1.            Partnering with K-12 Education It is generally understood that, if our communities are to compete in the new global information economy, we need a better-educated workforce.  More high school graduates need to go on to college.  The Obama Administration proposal to make community college free to qualified students is an example of this goal.  The U.S. Department of Education target is that 60% of high school grads will go on to college; only about 39% do now.  The problem is that most high school graduates who are prepared to enter college already do so.  In order to increase the percentage, we need to increase the number of high school students who are, in fact, prepared to succeed in college.   Two innovations could set the stage for new, ongoing relationships between higher and K-12 education:
·      Dual Enrollment Courses  Universities can partner with local schools to allow high school students to enter lower-division college courses and simultaneously earn high school graduation credit and college credit.  The result is students who are more ready to enter college and who do so with some credits already on their resumes.
·      Open Educational Resources  Universities that offer online courses can extract online content modules from courses and make them available to help high school teachers enrich college prep courses.   There is a model for this—the relationships among public television stations, local schools, and state departments of education that delivered content over the air to schools from the 1960s through the 1980s.

2.            Re-Imagining Extension  Originally, Agricultural Extension was created to increase agricultural production, so that the U.S. could sustain the combined forces of urbanization and immigration that fed the Industrial Revolution.  Today, we are facing different challenges.  As the 21st century advances, we will need to help farmers deal with a range of agricultural issues—this time in the face of dramatic climate change—but we also need to expand the Extension ideal to help our communities, large and small, deal with the economic and social issues presented by the Information Revolution.  How can we help communities maintain their social and economic validity in the face of a globalized economy?  In an era of social media, how do we rebuild the physical community—our towns and villages, as well as our cities—into socially and economically viable places to live, raise families, conduct business, and exercise citizenship?  Online technology can play a role here, too, by bringing community leaders together to share ideas and best practices and to learn from faculty researchers, building new ways to transfer research and technology into daily practice in business, government, and civil society.
3.            Globalizing the Discussion  Over the past few generations, institutions have tended to see international outreach as a one-way street—a way to export our faculty expertise, our research and technology, and our credentials.  Today, we need to seek out more evenly balanced institutional partnerships that bring faculty together across cultures, eco-systems, and economies to share ideas, to find common solutions, and to inform each other—and our students—about new perspectives in our globalized society.  The Worldwide Universities Network is a pioneer in this arena and a model that other institutions can follow.  Another early innovation is the partnerships between institutions to offer “sandwich” doctorates that reduce brain drain from developing countries while developing new collaborative research opportunities.   A fundamental challenge in this area is to help our constituencies better understand the global environment by allowing them to interact with counterparts around the world as students, as outreach/extension clients, and as research transfer partners.
4.            Preparing Retirees for the Third Act  In today’s world, people live longer, more healthy and active lives.  For many, retirement is no longer the end of active life, but the beginning of a “third act,” when men and women can look beyond the need to support their families and find new interests.  Helping the first few generations of these new seniors find a place in society—whether it be in new professions or as volunteers or just active individuals—is a new way that outreach and extension units can bring university knowledge and expertise to bear to serve individuals and, in the process, strengthen communities.  Older adults are a new and growing population who need access to university resources no less than they did as young professionals.  And, our communities need older adults who are prepared to contribute in new ways.
            These innovations are not technological per se, but they are facilitated by technology.  The demonstrate how public higher education can re-imagine the roots of its outreach/extension mission in the process of re-focusing on the needs of today’s community.