The Journal of Extension -

October 2013 // Volume 51 // Number 5 // Commentary // v51-5comm2

Commentaries conform to JOE submission standards and provide an opportunity for Extension professionals to exchange perspectives and ideas.

A Return to the Basics: The Solution for eXtension

Engagement must be the overarching goal of the land-grant system. eXtension continues to have phenomenal potential to allow new and expanded audiences access to Extension expertise and solutions, and be a driver of expanding engagement in the land-grant system, but stakeholders are asking difficult questions. If successful, eXtension could transform and expand the land-grant engagement mission. But eXtension's success is not assured. This Commentary, endorsed by a dozen Extension leaders nationwide, provides specific suggestions for how eXtension can survive and lead that transformation.

Dave King
Associate Provost for Outreach and Engagement
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon

Mike Boehlje
Distinguished Professor, Agricultural Economics
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

Engagement must be the overarching goal of the land-grant system.

Engagement energizes learning and discovery. Providing access to the land-grant knowledge base is essential for learners to be successful, have productive careers, advance in the workplace, and contribute to society. In a recent article published by the American Council on Education, Louis Soares (2012) suggests that "to keep its competitive edge in the global, innovation-based economy, the United States needs to increase the number of Americans that possess postsecondary levels of academic and applied skills" (p. 1).

It is time for the Extension system as a whole to step up and provide the leadership within higher education necessary to keep our public universities competitive. To do that, the national eXtension initiative must become an active part of making the needed changes.

eXtension continues to have phenomenal potential to allow new and expanded audiences access to Extension expertise and solutions, but many stakeholders are asking difficult questions. Some directors are refusing to provide their states' assessments. At the 2012 Association of Public and Land-grant Universities annual meeting, some of the hallway conversation about eXtension was alarmingly negative.

If successful, eXtension could transform and expand the land-grant engagement mission. But eXtension's success is not assured; indeed, eXtension has not been successful in engaging the public and local Extension offices.

In 2000, we wrote the Journal of Extension Commentary calling for the creation of eXtension (King & Boehlje, 2000a). Since then, we have monitored eXtension's progress. Events during the intervening 13 years, concerns among Extension directors, and discussions among the eXtension leadership indicate that a review of foundational concepts is necessary.

Let's briefly examine the original analysis that brought eXtension to reality, in the context of current conditions and recent scholarship:

  • Evans and Wurster (2000) suggested that organizations attempting to be competitive in the information marketplace need to be navigators in the sea of information. This need continues to increase as technology and competition transform the learning and discovery marketplace.
  • Using Clayton Christensen's broadly applied theory of disruptive innovation, (Christensen, 2000; Christensen & Eyring, 2011), we identified eXtension as a disruptive innovation with the potential to reach what Christensen calls non-consumers—those not currently being served by Extension.
  • More recently, Franz and Cox (2012) described disruptive innovation as innovation that provides new value through "affordability, accessibility, capacity, responsiveness, simplicity, or customization of a process or product." eXtension could meet this definition of disruptive innovation.

Business Model Structure

In a demand-driven environment, eXtension must develop a new business model that creates, delivers, and captures value. The new business model should include the following:

  • Customer value proposition, which explains how an organization will address a customer need
  • Value chain, which organizes processes, partners, and resources to deliver the value proposition
  • Profit formula, which lays out how an organization will cover costs
  • Competitive strategy, which describes how an organization will compete and defend its position in the value network (Sheets & Crawford, 2012)

Establishing such a business model will focus land-grant university expertise on value-added programming that will sustain a fee structure. In addition, this will require actively pursuing corporate and philanthropic grants from entities with interest in expanding access to knowledge. However, to be credible with these sources of support, eXtension must demonstrate an ability to directly respond to audience needs. As Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008) say, eXtension will need to recognize exactly what learners "hire" it to do for them and what they expect the outcome of the exchange to be. This is more than offering the process; it is knowing exactly what impact is expected—and delivering.

Financial Sustainability

Initially, we suggested the investment from federal and state sources, used as a foundation for eXtension, should be able to generate a return on that investment (King & Boehlje, 2000b). We even suggested that at stability, two-thirds of the revenue to operate the enterprise would be from grants, fees, and contracts, and one-third would be the foundation funds—seed capital—from assessment and federal allocation. This is still an attainable target if eXtension's focus is more entrepreneurial.

Cost-recovery outreach focuses on demand (target audience needs) rather than supply (what we have to sell). It requires a significant shift for eXtension. Instead of offering what Extension has, eXtension must adapt the land-grant knowledge base to the needs of the audience. In 1998, as we analyzed how information creates value and began applying these concepts to the Extension system, this shift emerged as one of the most critical factors for long-term success (Boehlje & King, 1998).

However, true disruptive innovation may not be attainable and often is not an organizational priority, from within an established enterprise such as Extension (Christensen, 2000). It appears this may be the case with entrepreneurial cost-recovery outreach. For example, Oregon State University has resorted to establishing a cost-recovery outreach program that is aligned with Extension but not within the existing Extension structure (King & LaBelle, 2013).

Focus on Effective Engagement

During the past century, Extension has been successful when it engaged the people served and integrated those people's needs or demands with the university's expertise and solutions. In doing so, engagement energized the other two mission areas of learning and discovery.

At the end of the McDowell lecture at The Pennsylvania State University's Extension annual conference in 1999, we closed with the thought that to be successful, eXtension will have to "learn as much as we teach" (King & Boehlje, 2000b). Today, we define effective university engagement the same way. We must "listen as much as we talk; learn as much as we teach" (King, 2012).

The move from supply-side offerings to meeting the demands of target audiences will require incorporating users and stakeholders more widely into eXtension Communities of Practice. eXtension should provide funding for Communities of Practice only if at least 50% of the active members are users and stakeholders. eXtension should actively promote crowdsourcing and citizen science—by demonstrating tangible examples of how these opportunities provide value to learners in the short and long term.

True disruptive innovation focuses on the non-consumer (Christensen, 2000). From our first discussions about the eXtension idea, we have been convinced that attracting non-consumers is crucial to the success of eXtension, as well as Extension as a whole. Some states (e.g., Oregon between 1986 and 2006) have lost as much as 50% of their audience or market share in 20 years. That trajectory can't be sustained.

Attracting non-consumers to Extension and eXtension will require a major philosophic and paradigmatic shift. Communities of Practice will need to incorporate detailed, granular market assessment into their activities, and eXtension should determine the success of Communities of Practice on the basis of how well those communities meet non-consumers' needs. Aggregating the granular needs assessments into broader regional and national opportunities will be critical for the success of the cost-recovery outreach effort.

There are positive signals. eXtension has just reported that of the people who connect to the eXtension-based Ask an Expert system nationwide, 57% are new to Extension (Meisenbach, 2013). This should continue to provide a foundation for growth with new audiences.

Also critical will be providing ways for people to find their own way through the labyrinth of the university knowledge base. eXtension should expand its existing capability for providing search-based access to all Extension information nationwide and make the existing access point more user friendly and openly accessible. eXtension needs a stronger focus on providing primary access to non-consumers through these direct data access efforts. One idea is to approach Google (or some other big data expert) about a partnership to create "Google Extension," similar to Google Scholar and other segmented access points developed and managed by Google.


Effective, transparent, and representative governance is critical to the success of any enterprise in the competitive information marketplace. It should be transparent so that internal audiences as well as all potential participants and stakeholders know what to expect from whom. Governance should be representative of a larger set of potential users who have, or could have, a stake in success.

eXtension should have a multidisciplinary board of directors. The new board should represent multiple sectors, including president/vice president-level land-grant university leadership; corporate partner leadership; and NGO/agency leadership such as NIFA, NSF, and NIH, as well as environmental, social, and health care organizations.

The current eXtension governing board should become an advisory body, perhaps as a commission of APLU, with a chair elected by the Extension system. This newly revised advisory committee should, through the elected chair, offer input from the overall Extension system but not make executive decisions.

The eXtension leadership team should have a more corporate structure, with the eXtension CEO, CFO, elected board chair, and elected advisory chair acting as a day-to-day executive team.


Consider where the land-grant system could be if we harness the disruptive innovation presently shaping our future and turn it to our advantage. Imagine a truly 21st century land-grant university:

  • A university that is an example of true engagement
  • A university where instruction covers the continuum from individual interaction to many people learning together and interacting with world-class experts on and off campus
  • A university that fosters lifelong learning
  • A university that offers dramatically expanded access to learning through online and blended education
  • A university where research is truly discovery that drives innovation and brings economic growth and stability
  • A university where outreach focuses on engaging and enabling communities—of place and of interest—with faculty who are embedded in all these communities
  • A university that offers a spectrum of access from raw data to outreach learning modules to full credit courses
  • A knowledge economy driven by access to the public university knowledge base, empowering thousands of people who continuously seek to be competitive by pursuing more learning

A truly 21st century land-grant university will be all these things and more. It will inextricably link discovery, learning, and engagement while continuing to fulfill its long-standing mandate to provide access to the university knowledge base. It will be as different from its competitors and pretenders as it was at its inception. It will be the foundation for any and all innovation by the best and brightest, both on campus and off. Just imagine (King, 2012).

eXtension has the potential to be the first step to this new 21st century land-grant university.


After reviewing the text of this Commentary, the following leaders from the Extension system nationwide have endorsed its themes and call for renewed national discussion on the eXtension national initiative: Victor T. Artero, Interim Associate Director, University of Guam Cooperative Extension Service, College of Natural & Applied Sciences (CNAS), University of Guam; Jon Boren, Associate Dean and Director, Cooperative Extension, New Mexico State University; Charlotte Eberlein, Director of Extension and Associate Dean, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Idaho; Carl Evensen, Interim Associate Dean & Associate Director, Cooperative Extension, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii; Chuck Hibberd, Dean and Director, UNL Extension, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; John Kirby, Dean, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island; Richard Koenig, Associate Dean and Director, WSU Extension, Washington State University Extension; Jill Martz, Interim Director of Extension, Montana State University; Scott Reed, Vice Provost for University Outreach and Engagement, Director of Extension, Oregon State University; Fred Schlutt, Vice Provost for Extension and Outreach, Director of Extension, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Lou Swanson, Vice President for Engagement, Director of Extension, Colorado State University; Glen Whipple, Associate Dean and Director Extension, University of Wyoming.


Boehlje, M. D., & King, D. A. (1998). Extension on the brink: Meeting the private sector challenge in the information marketplace. Journal of Applied Communications, 82(3), 21–35.

Christensen, C. M. (2000). The innovator's dilemma. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M., & Eyring, H. J. (2011). The innovative university: Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Evans, P., & Wurster, T. S. (2000). Blown to bits: How the new economics of information transforms society. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Franz, N. K., & Cox, R. A. (2012). Extension's future: Time for disruptive innovation. Journal of Extension [On-line], 50(2) Article 2COM1. Available at: 

King, D. (2012). Imagine a truly 21st century public university. Presentation at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, Tuscaloosa, AL. Retrieved from: 

King, D. A., & Boehlje, M .D. (2000a). Extension: On the brink of extinction or distinction? Journal of Extension [On-line], 38(5) Article 5COM1. Available at: 

King, D. A., & Boehlje, M. D. (2000b). Extension's future: A conversation about what lies beyond the brink. CES paper 324-W. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service. Retrieved from: 

King, D., & LaBelle, C. (2013). From zero to sixty in 18 months. Presentation at the University Professional & Continuing Education Association annual conference, Boston, MA. Retrieved from: 

Meisenbach, T. (2013). Ask an expert evaluation and impact data. Retrieved from: 

Sheets, R. G., & Crawford, S. C. (2012). Harnessing the power of information technology with open business models in higher education. Educause Review, 47(2). Retrieved from: 

Soares, L. (2013). Post-traditional learners and the transformation of postsecondary education: A manifesto for college leaders. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education. Retrieved from: