Just as there are new discussions about the impact of the Web 2.0 on education (Education 2.0) and Science 2.0, there is another important change that needs attention in regards to opening up the relationship between scientists in universities with interests in real world issues and the public who seeks answers (or at least our best thinking) on important issues.
This third phase of the opening of universities is in regards to re-thinking the extension or public engagement mission of the university.
One of the traditional features of land-grant universities (for example, Illinois, Ohio State, there is at least one land-grant university in every state) is the Extension Service. Established by federal legislation in 1914, the Extension part of these universities was created to take scientific research about agriculture and family life to the rural parts of the United States. Over the past almost 100 years the focus has been expanded and broadened, but the same basic mission has remained the same. Today in most counties across the US there is still an extension office linked to a land-grant university. Even large cities such as Chicago and New York City have extension offices that serve these urban communities.
One of the fundamental ideas the Extension Service was the idea that these county offices that had regular contact with everyday citizens would be place where science and societal problems would meet. And that at this nexus research at universities would identify real issues confronting the public and the public would find practical solutions to their concerns. In this beginning and for many years, this person to person exchange of needs and solutions was met by people meeting face to face. Over time this exchange evolved to include the use of mass media (radio, television) and in the most recent times the use of the Internet.
However, the general model of exchange between the university and the public has generally been based on an expert model that assumed that the university faculty had the answers and the public had the questions. Today this remains the general model of operation.
Recently, the Extension service as unveiled a new communication platform, titled eXtension (pronounced e-Extension) that is based on the Web 2.0 tools that allow the creation of learning communities and invite more mutual exchange of information.... except.....
that many of the protocols are still based on a very limited ability for ordinary people to contribute in very meaningful ways to the information. Rather than create collaborative communication spaces that are typical of the Web 2.o world, we have retained a closed, hierarchical presence that assumes that the public has little voice in these discussions.
Blogs, wikis, feeds, social networking and all the other tools that have been created to facilitate communication and collaboration are available to open up the communication between scientists with interests in societal issues and the public with insights and ideas about these problems.
If universities are going to fulfill their public engagement and extension dimension, they will need to embrace these Web 2.0 tools and open up a rich and varied dialogue with the public about today's issues. Faculty will need to open blogs with a wide variety of citizens and engage in thoughtful conversations about the ways in which science can make a difference with today's pressing issues whether this is climate change, ethnic relations, school reform, and so forth.
From the perspective of the university we have never had a better opportunity to communicate with the public and engage them in thinking about these complicated issues.