Morphing into Engagement: The Changing Extension Model

David Landkamer, Sea Grant Aquaculture Extension Specialist (Photo: Sea Grant website)
David Landkamer, Sea Grant Aquaculture Extension Specialist (Photo: Sea Grant website)
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Justin Smith Morrill, creator of the Morrill Act of 1862
Justin Smith Morrill, creator of the Morrill Act of 1862
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Guest post from the University Outreach & Engagement Blog by David Landkamer, Sea Grant Aquaculture Extension Specialist

"Let us have colleges as might rightfully claim the authority to scatter broadcast that knowledge which will prove useful in building up a great nation — great in its resources of wealth and power, but greatest of all in the aggregate of its intelligence and virtue." – Representative Justin Smith Morrill, pleading for passage of the Morrill Act of 1862

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 and the subsequent Hatch Act of 1887, the foundation of the Land-Grant College System which would transform our nation into an agricultural, industrial, and social powerhouse, was in place.

In 1914, passage of the Smith-Lever Act created the outreach mission of the Land-Grant vision by establishing the Cooperative Extension System to bring science-based knowledge from the universities to everyone: the farmers, small business owners, and consumers in rural areas and communities throughout the nation. The Land Grant System had a three-pronged approach; often described as a three-legged stool, a balanced platform held up by the three legs of education, research, and extension. Together, the three legs provided a basis for innovation and educational stability in a growing and changing democratic society.

During most of the 19th century, the work of the Extension Service was often characterized as 'technology transfer', whereby the university faculty (researchers, teachers, and extension) who possessed new, advanced technical knowledge generated by research, translated and transferred it to the general public. This paradigm, like most other educational models at that time, grew out of functional social theory, the predominant social theory used to explain the roles of societal institutions. From the perspective of functional theory, the role of the university system was to create and spread knowledge to those who could implement it so that society would function efficiently, for the benefit of the greater good.

However, some objected to the functional theory approach as being a demeaning, top-down, ivory tower, teacher-centered model that was not well suited to many non-formal extension settings. For others, critical theory suggested a more participatory model that empowers the program participants toward self development and choice. Another perspective is offered by interpretive social theory, which focuses on how each individual makes meaning and understanding from personal experience and cognition. These alternative perspectives added to the original Extension pedagogy. The result is that Extension has moved more toward community-based processes and programs, and more individually motivated free-choice learning approaches. Thus, Extension has evolved from a technical expert-recipient model toward a more inclusive, interactive and relational partnership paradigm that focuses increasingly on mutual respect and benefits between stakeholders and the university. This evolved direction is reflected in the title of the entire non-formal education wing of the university: the Division of University Outreach and Engagement.

As I see it, contemporary Extension professionals do three key things to accomplish their program goals; extension, outreach, and engagement.

From my own perspective as an Oregon State faculty member working in the field:

Extension is an outgrowth of the original, functional model, and is itself comprised of three distinct elements; technology transfer, teaching/information brokering, and strategic planning and evaluation.

Technology transfer is still an important component of Extension, moving new technical information from researchers to the private sector where it can be applied. This is now a relatively small component of what Extension does overall, but it continues to be important in some highly technical and rapidly advancing disciplines. Teaching and information brokering remains an important Extension function, although this, too, is diminished in our modern information-rich internet age. This element has transformed from a role of translating and delivering information to one of filtering and interpreting information in a balanced and objective, science-based form.

The third critical element of Extension that has emerged in recent decades is strategic program planning and evaluation, implemented increasingly to accentuate both relevance and impact in an environment of increasing accountability and competition. This adds value to Extension programming by magnifying the purposes, accelerating the results, and facilitating the ongoing improvement of our efforts.

Outreach is increasing the availability and accessibility of Extension products and services by responding to stakeholder preferences on their terms. Traditional outreach activities included the use of advisory groups and a wide assortment of communication methods to broadly distribute and deliver information. Now outreach is augmented through expanded, more flexible and innovative delivery systems such as Ecampus, Oregon Open Campus, and internet vehicles such as webpages, social media, blogs, webinars, twitter platforms, and eXtension communities of practice. These approaches increasingly bring products and services to stakeholders in ways that best suit them.

Finally, engagement is the connecting of two or more individuals or entities in an interactive relationship where all of involved parties contribute to the solution of shared challenges. Relationships characterized by mutual trust, both individual and institutional, are vital to effective engagement efforts and ongoing Extension and outreach success. Engagement is the crucial relational linkage that facilitates the articulation of ideas and the collaboration needed to effectively address complex social problems.

While extension, outreach, and engagement components have always been present in Extension education programs, recent years have witnessed a marked shift toward inclusive, learner-centered approaches that rely more and more on engagement as a central tenet of building effective and lasting educational models in the communities that Extension serves.

This shift toward engagement will likely continue in the years ahead, as Land (Sea, Sun and Space) Grant institutions strive to maintain and increase the relevance and impacts of their educational programming.

Additional Reading