From March 22 to 25, more than 330 Cooperative Extension professionals convened at the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk to co-create with eXtension Foundation a new-style national conference. NeXC2016: From Innovation to Impact introduced and accelerated eXtension’s reinvention of its mission to focus on what it calls i-Three: Issues, Innovation, Impact.
“For more than a decade, eXtension provided a national online learning platform for the Cooperative Extension System” says Christine Geith, who became CEO of the eXtension Foundation in 2015. “Under our new strategic plan launched in 2015, we are charged by our Board of Directors to use our knowledge of emerging technologies and our broad national network to become catalysts for increasing innovation and visible, measurable impact throughout the entire Extension System. This charge has required reinventing ourselves. NeXC2016 is our first showcase of the progress that we and our Extension colleagues nationwide have made toward that goal.”
And what a showcase it was! The activities of the conference ran on two tracks: the i-Three Issue Corps track and the Professional Development track. Throughout the conference, a number of new formats were introduced to deliver new ideas, introduce and practice new processes and technologies, and expand networking in new ways.
The i-Three Issue Corps track brought together eXtension’s 126 Issue Corps members, selected in December 2015, to advance their 69 innovation projects on climate and food systems through participation in a “design-a-thon.” Led by keynote speaker and design-thinking expert Paul Pangaro, PhD, and inspired by Working Out Loud advocate John Stepper, also a keynote speaker, the Corps members were soon fully absorbed in the concentrated, hands-on process of designing and working out loud on their projects with one another and with Dr. Pangaro, who circulated through the room, personally coaching each project.
Present on the second day were more than 40 key informants from both Cooperative Extension and private industry — experts in a wide range of topics important to the success of the corps members’ projects. These included communications, marketing and funding strategies; community engagement; prospective technology applications and more. Throughout the day, Corps members took full advantage of the opportunity to have one-on-one sessions with these key informants, dropping by expert “conversation stations” to describe their innovation projects’ specific challenges and receive individualized guidance.
The experts’ conversation stations drew many comments from Corps members and the experts themselves, all of which can be summarized by one Corps member’s observation: “Having experts on tap was great and not something I’ve experienced anywhere else.”
The Professional Development track offered participants a selection of more than 60 sessions on diverse topics that represent the current learning interests of today’s Extension professionals, including innovation, emerging technologies, social media strategies, communications planning, community programming, networking and more.
Presenters were peer educators, dynamic expert communicators on their topics who currently work in Cooperative Extension Service communities and culture. Session formats were varied, allowing presenters to match their content with the format that fit best their topics — one- and two-hour workshops, Knowledge Cafes, Ignite Sessions, and even full-day sessions for hand-on exploration of topics like Raspberry Pi and “The Future, Backwards,” an engagement technique to use for working with a community to identify emerging issues.
The Professional Development sessions received many favorable reviews, with participants naming their favorites. One participant’s mid-conference comment summarizes the overall experience many related: “The tech-based subject matter, the presence of interested participants at all ranges of expertise (not just the bleeding edge folks), the excellent workshops, and the opportunities to network. This has been a FABULOUS professional development experience so far.”
Throughout the conference, Professional Development participants also had many opportunities connect with Corps members, sharing both the Wednesday and Thursday keynote sessions with John Stepper and Dr. Pangaro, and also the Friday keynote on innovation with Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox joined Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) leaders, Michelle Rodgers, PhD. and ECOP Chair, and Keith Smith, PhD, in launching the new ECOP Innovation Task Force chair by Smith.
In all, NeXC2016 was a lively, informative experience for all who attended, both Corps members and Professional Development learners as well as the more than dozen Cooperative Extension Service state directors who attended and joined in the activities. Concluded one participant after the conference: “Wonderful energy at this conference. I’ve attended eXtension conferences almost every year and, beyond a doubt, this was The Best. You gave people a reason to be engaged, the tools to accomplish something, and brought in lots of young, exciting Extension professionals together to shape the future. Excellent.”