Everyone Can See the Future

We have prognostication all wrong. Our impossibly high standards for predicting the future have led us to conclude that looking toward the future is a waste of time.

The meterologist said there was a 70% chance of rain, but we didn’t get a drop. IDIOT!

The NFL analyst predicted my team would win by a touchdown, but they only won by 3. FAIL!

Science fiction magazines and movies said there would be jet packs and flying cars by now. WHERE’S MY JET PACK!

We expect predictions to get the details exactly right, and we mock them mercilessly when they don’t meet that impossible standard (TIME’s 10 Failed Futuristic Predictions starts with universal jumpsuits).

In her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen writes about our shared ability for prognostication. She contends that we all have the ability to detect the “course of human events,” and to see where that course is leading.

When the colonists referred to the course of human events, they were taking responsibility for observing the currents within human action that pull us toward destinations, as identifiable— once we arrive, that is— as the Gulf of Mexico. It is our job as citizens to understand those currents— and to debate them and their direction— in the public square, so that we can see, as early as we can, as best we can, and despite the fogs of doubt and misdirection, the destinations that politicians and leaders are steering toward.

The very course of human events depends on it.

Current of Human Actions

Current of Human Actions, Morguefile free photo, http://mrg.bz/Sq7yD0

I think the ability and responsibility Allen describes applies not only to our political future, but also to our social, cultural and economic futures.

The same “current of human action” can be observed in how we interact with each other, how we represent and share our experiences, and how we create and exchange things of value.

Unfortunately we often miss the “current of human action” because we are focused on the individual actions. Almost 6 years ago, I started encouraging my organization to take social media seriously as a communication and learning tool. Some of the reaction I received (and sometimes still receive today) included “It’s just a fad,” “Who cares what someone had for lunch?” and “My audience doesn’t use social media.”

If we just focus on individual actions, it’s easy to come to these conclusions. At the time, social media tools were new, fast-growing and largely used by young people. They definitely looked like a fad. Even today, many social media channels are mostly used for sharing content that may seem frivolous to many. In 2008, Facebook has about 200 million users. Today, they have 1.32 billion. Twitter did not even come close to the top 20 social media sites in 2008 with 4 – 5 million users. Today they report 271 monthly active users. In 2008, Instagram and Pinterest were still years away from launching. Most people were not social media users 6 years ago.

If we had focused on the “current of human action” however, we might have been able to see the destination of wide social media adoption that lay ahead. We know humans are social creatures. Our building and expanding of social networks is largely responsible for our survival. We share resources and communicate ideas. When technologies were developed, we leveraged them to grow our social network and communicate ideas. From written language to the printing press to the telephone, we have used new technology to do the things that set us apart from other primates; expanding our networks to include other humans, including those we have never met face-to-face. Why wouldn’t we take the same advantage of social media?

We might not have been able to predict that Twitter would outlast Friendster or that there would be such a thing as Tinder, but those are the details. What really matters is to see the “current,” to see where we are headed and to prepare for (or adjust course to avoid) the destination.


Confronting the Dark Side

Storm Troopers Like Donuts

morgueFile freephoto, http://mrg.bz/hmbhJl

As I read James Altucher’s mesmerizing post, “I stopped a ten million dollar robbery,” I was struck by the following paragraph:

“A network of lawyers, escrows, fake shares, bank accounts, bogus corporations and banks, all set up to hide them in the shadows. A network of relationships and lies. The dark side of the force.” (Emphasis mine)

Invariably, when I talk to groups about social media and online networks, questions about privacy, predators and security come up. My typical answer goes something like,”Listen, there are bad people out there, so you should do your best to protect your passwords, understand your privacy settings and generally be careful. The online world is like the physical word. There are dangers, but the benefits of engaging with other people in open spaces far outweigh the risks.”

Altucher’s use of “the dark side of the force” brought a new analogy to mind. There is a dark side using the “force” of online networks to do evil. Thieves, predators, governments and corporations can use the power online networks against us, but the solution is not to stop using the “force” ourselves. We need to continue to leverage the power of online networks to benefit ourselves, our families and our communities.

So the next time you read a post or see a media story about the “dark side of the force,” fight the temptation to buy a moisture farm on Tatooine and use the “force” for good.

bathrooms, hand-washing and behavior change

Ever since I read Sanjoy Mahajan’s post, “Why Are Restroom Hand-Washing Signs By the Sinks?“, I have used it to illustrate how important context can be in trying to affect behavior. In the post Mahajan asks why hand-washing signs are posted above the sinks, where people who are not washing their hands are less likely to see them.

In Cooperative Extension, we are in the behavior change business. If we are going to help people be healthier, help communities thrive, help farmers be more productive and help kids be successful, we are going to have to affect their behavior.

Unfortunately much of the time we act like we are not in the behavior change business, but instead in the information transfer business. Many Extension educators operate under the assumption that information=behavior change, but the idea that assumption is challenged by a lot of research (here’s one example) and by the fortune cookie fortune that Jean Clements quoted in her article, “Results? Behavior Change!” The fortune read “Knowing and not doing is equal to not knowing.”

If we are going to affect behavior, pushing information out to people devoid of context is not an effective way to do it. The right message, at the right time, in the right place just might have more impact. Information alone will not result in effective long-term behavior change, but paying attention to context can be a first step to thinking more deeply about how we can really affect behavior.

The good news? I saw the sign below posted on a bathroom door, the proper context for the forgetful and negligent. Let’s follow this facilities lead and start thinking hard about behavior change and stop posting hand-washing signs by the sinks.

Hand-washing sign on door


Extension Educators as Community Builders

In my last post, “Extension Educators as Content Curators,” I wrote about some of the roles Extension educators might fulfill in the changing landscape of digital communication. A comment on that post provided a great segue into one of those roles, the role of “connector.”

The comment that sparked this post came from Kevin Gamble. You can read Kevin’s full comment and my response here, but this is part of what he had to say regarding Extension educators acting as content curators, “I just hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that in this new world– everyone is a curator…Interacting with the content and others is the hallmark of social learning.”

I couldn’t agree more. If Extension educators are going to be relevant and have impact in online communications, we must engage people as both learners and as teachers. Which brings me to the role of the “connector.” Here is how we defined it in NDSU Agriculture Communication’s “Working Differently” initiative.


Extension professionals already play the role of connectors. We connect people with resources within and outside of our organization. Occasionally we connect people with each other, as well. This role can be adapted and amplified in the new communication landscape. Social media makes it possible to connect individuals and resources into powerful learning networks.

Connecting learners not just with information and resources, but with each other has the the potential to build communities that will accomplish much more than cooperative extension can alone; communities that may accomplish much more than cooperative extension could have envisioned.

More than 4 years ago, I wrote about the very first #agchat conversation on Twitter.  What started as a small group of farmers, ranchers and agriculture supporters having a Twitter-based chat using the #agchat hashtag has grown into an agriculture advocacy movement. Because of the weekly (Tuesdays, 7-9 p.m. Central) chat started by Michele Payn-Knoper and the role she and others played in connecting people with each other, there is now the AgChat Foundation, dedicated to empowering a connected community of agriculture advocates.

One of the reasons I believe AgChat has been so successful is that it is a community of equals. The community has great leadership, but none of those leaders hold themselves above or apart from the community.

When I have shared the idea of engaging people as learners and teachers with some Extension educators, I’ve been stonewalled. Decades upon decades of the “professor-student” and “expert-layperson” relationships defined by higher education and cooperative extension have convinced some of us that we must remain above and apart from those we serve. If we remain so, we risk losing the opportunity to build communities with the power to make an impact far beyond what we can imagine.

Extension Educators as Content Curators

As part of our “Working Differently” initiative at NDSU Agriculture Communication, we attempted to define some of the roles we envisioned Extension educators fulfilling in the changing landscape of digital communication. Among the roles we originally defined were “filter” and “context provider”:


With all the information people have access to today, one of the more important roles we can play as educators is that of filter. People want to know where they can find information that is relevant and can be trusted. To play this role, we need to be present in the online spaces people use. We cannot build trust and authority without being present in communities like Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc.

Context Providers

We can play a critical role in filtering and providing context for online information. To play this role effectively, we need not only to connect a user with a resource through a link, but also to add value through truly filtering and contextualizing.

As the conversation about cooperative extension and online communication has evolved, those two roles have been collected under the single term “curator.” Now that we have melded the two roles into one, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of the original activities of filtering and providing context. It is those activities that bring the human and educational elements to curation and set it apart from the content aggregation performed by search engines and software.

As Jim Langcuster points out in his blog post, “The Awesome Power of ‘Sophisticated Curation’,” curation is critical to Extension’s future and Extension educators are uniquely prepared to fill the role of curator. Extension educators have long been curators of land-grant university research, filtering the body of research for that which can potentially improve lives and communities, then providing the context necessary to help people apply that research to their lives.

Filtering and providing context are skills that are in great need in the world of digital information. As people try to get their heads around on the massive amount of digital information they are confronted with on a daily basis, they will look to curators to help them decipher what information can be trusted, what information is relevant to a subject and what information can really impact their lives. I only hope that when they look in the direction of cooperative extension, we are there to be found.

Some more links to information on content curation can be found on the NDSU Ag IT Diigo group.

Breaking Down to Rebuild

I was reading a very good blog post about a teacher’s experience integrating iPads into her classroom, when the mental fireworks went off. I sometimes let my ideas ferment a little too long. Instead of being released at their prime, they become something yeasty, unpalatable and highly combustible. One little spark and…KABOOM! Welcome to the aftermath.


Photo courtesy Michael Welsing. Used under CC BY-ND 2.0 license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/gnislew/1453056073/

I’ve had a nagging feeling for some time that, although Extension educators have been making progress in using social media for communication and utilizing new media for education, the use of social tools and online networks across cooperative extension has been mostly superficial. In other words, we are doing the same things, just promoting them differently. We are just adding a layer of new technology on top of what we do, but we are not really working differently.

I am sure there are many who disagree and even more who would say, “So what. We really shouldn’t be changing how we work” (that’s what the comments section is for folks, so have at it). Maybe that’s why I kept this feeling to myself a little too long.

The Spark

In her post “Redefining Instruction With Technology: Five Essential Steps,” 4th and 5th grade math teacher Jennie Magiera talks about the lessons she learned from her effort to integrate iPads into her teaching.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Jennie Magiera is a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a technology and mathematics curriculum coach in Chicago Public Schools.

Her first efforts were not successful.

“Despite my high hopes, the next two months were less than successful. A casual observer would have witnessed a sea of students glued to glistening tablets, but the effects were superficial. The iPads were not helping my students make substantial progress toward self-efficacy, academic achievement, or social-emotional growth.”

Here’s what Jeannie writes about why she feels the effects of the iPads were only superficial.

“The problem, I began to realize, was my own understanding of how the iPads should be utilized in the classroom. I had seen them as a supplement to my pre-existing curriculum, trying to fit them into the structure of what I’d always done. This was the wrong approach: To truly change how my classroom worked, I needed a technology-based redefinition of my practice.”

That’s where I feel we are in cooperative extension, trying to fit social media and online networks into the structure of what we’ve always done. Instead, we need to embrace Jeannie’s first essential step to redefining instruction with technology, “Break down to rebuild.”

“As terrifying as it may sound, the first step is to take a proverbial sledgehammer to your existing classroom framework. This realization was a turning point for me. I would have to be willing to depart from what I had “always done” or “always taught.””

Until we are willing to take that proverbial sledgehammer to the way we educate and communicate, our use of social media and online tools will remain superficial.

12 Work Skills for Your Future

In my last post, Future of Work, I summarized the 6 drivers outlined in the that will reshape the landscape of work from the Future Work Skills 2020, a join project of  the Institute for the Future and the University of Phoenix Research Institute.

One of the responses I received was “What are we doing to prepare?” That’s a great question. The Future Work Skills 2020 report provides some possible answers in 10 skills related to the 6 drivers affecting work in the future (extreme longevity, rise of smart machines and systems, computational world, new media ecology, superstructured organizations and a globally connected world).

A picture of my whiteboard interpretation of the Future Work Skills 2020 map.

My whiteboard interpretation of the Future Work Skills 2020 map.

The “12 Work Skills” referred to in the title is not a typo. I have added 2 skills that I view as critical and that fit within the report’s general framework. Let’s start with the skills from the report.

Sense-making: ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed (Driver: rise of smart machines and systems).

Social intelligence: ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions (Drivers: rise of smart machines and systems and a globally connected world).

Adaptive thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based (Drivers: rise of smart machines and systems and a globally connected world).

Cross-cultural competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings (Drivers:  superstructured organizations and a globally connected world).

Virtual collaboration: adopting strategies for virtual team working, such as providing immediate feedback or staged challenges.

Computational thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning (Drivers: computational world and new media ecology).

New media literacy: ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication (Drivers: extreme longevity, new media ecology and superstructured organizations).

Cognitive load management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques (Drivers: computational world, new media ecology and superstructured organizations).

Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines (Drivers: extreme longevity and computational world).

Design mindset: ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes (Drivers: computational world and superstructured organizations).

To those 10 skills, I have added 2 of my own.

Intellectual curiosity: desire to seek out new information, especially outside of your primary discipline, and a passion for lifelong learning (Drivers: extreme longevity and rise of smart machines and systems).

Network literacy: comfort with and competency in using online networks for communicating, teaching, learning, creating, sharing and building community (Drivers:  superstructured organizations,  new media ecology and a globally connected world).

That’s a lot of skills. It’s probably not feasible to fully develop them all, but here are 4 ways I think you can start to improve some of them.

Create an online personal learning network

Your personal learning network or PLN is made up of the people and resources you connect with and gain knowledge from. Building an effective online PLN will take some of the skills mentioned above. Actually using and learning from your PLN will improve other skills.

An online PLN starts with websites, blogs and people you follow. Assembling, organizing and consuming the information provided by those sources is an exercise in cognitive load management. Using social networks, feeds and news aggregation tools for your personal learning will enhance your network literacy.

You should build your PLN with transdisciplinarity in mind, including information from work-related disciplines and areas of personal interest outside of your primary area of expertise. A broad PLN will feed off of and spark your intellectual curiosity.

Here’s a straightforward how-to on building your PLN.

Create and share content

The gates of content creation, previously reserved for authors, journalists, filmmakers, TV producers and radio hosts, have burst open. With cheap, handheld devices and the platform of social media, anyone can become a content creator. Creating and sharing your own content on platforms like blogs, YouTube and Facebook can improve your new media literacy and network literacy.

Curate content

It is the age of information overload. People want to know where they can find information that is relevant and can be trusted. Content curators play a critical role in filtering and providing context for online information.

Filtering through information and deciding what’s important is a great exercise in cognitive load management. To curate the information you have filtered you need to share it. Whether you use tools specifically designed for online curation or social tools like Twitter or Google+, you will be improving your new media and network literacy in getting your curated content out to the world.

Effective curators not only connect a user with information, but also to add value by providing context like why the resource is important or how does it fit into a bigger picture. That’s where your sense-making and adaptive thinking skills come in.

Challenge yourself to think critically as often as you can. As you are choosing what content to curate, ask tough questions about the objectivity and efficacy of the content, take a big picture view of how a piece of content fits into your overall curation effort and seek connections between seemingly unconnected information.

Engage across environments

It seems to be on every job reference, “works well with others,” but I’m not sure how many of us really do. Being aware of the people around you and their feelings may sound easy, but it is often clouded by our focus on our own agenda.

You can practice using your social intelligence by getting experience engaging and collaborating with people in environments where your agenda is not that important to you.

Your social intelligence and cross-cultural competency will benefit from working collaboratively on a project with a group of people you have never met and have not already judged. Seek out opportunities for virtual collaboration across online environments from social networks to webconferences to virtual worlds. Each environment will present you with the challenge of a new collaboration tool, a new cultural environment and a news social context.