October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM1

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Opportunities for Cooperative Extension and Local Communities in the Information Age

The Cooperative Extension System is well-suited to enable communities to participate on the Internet and compete in the global market. The Internet will enable people to work, learn, and play at any time and in any location. However, accessing this new technology by some communities can be inhibited by lack of economic and human resources. This paper describes Cooperative Extension's potential role in enabling communities to access the Internet by seeking alliances among local individuals, industry, and institutions to employ the Internet as an educational and work medium. Benefits for Cooperative Extension and for rural communities are detailed.

Daniel J. Tennessen
Extension Faculty
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
Internet Address: djt6@cornell.edu

Steven PonTell
Director, La Jolla Institute
Claremont, California

Van Romine
La Jolla Institute
Claremont, California

Suzanne W. Motheral
Internet Consortium Coordinator
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Owego, New York

The information age and its supporting technologies, such as the Internet and other digital tools, has enabled work and learning to occur during time periods and in locations based upon individual needs. With millions of Internet subscribers using email and the World Wide Web (WWW), the Internet is now considered a mass media. Individuals may soon consider such electronic connectivity as essential in daily living.

Communities recognizing and adapting to these changing needs will be competitive in the information age. Utilization of Internet technology may attract or retain individuals who work or learn remotely (locations distant from institutions or office buildings). It may also increase the global market potential of local goods and services. Finally, it may facilitate delivery of educational programs to youth and adults at workplaces, homes, and schools in remote locations. For these reasons, a major benefit of the multi-billion dollar Internet system may go to small communities that have organizational infrastructure and leadership to capitalize on the technology.

Potentially, small communities may prosper by adapting to, and utilizing, digital technologies to break down some of the spatial and temporal barriers that have limited their access to information and resources in the past. The paradox here is that many of these communities potentially benefiting from this new technology may currently lack sufficient economic and technological resources and a holistic vision of how to access and use the Internet for their local educational and commercial needs. This paper details the opportunities for Cooperative Extension (CE) and their local communities in the information age.

The Internet Community

The Internet community is seldom thought of as a local community because people can come and go from many locations and at any time. But people who work or learn on the Internet presumably live in a local community, need its services, and contribute to its tax base. People require Internet resources in their local community so that they can access and benefit from work or learning opportunities on the Internet.

For work, some employers are enabling their employees to work at home via the Internet. The corporation saves money because it no longer owns, maintains, or staffs a regional office and avoids metropolitan taxes. The employee works from home or other convenient locations and avoids the problems of commuting or living with metropolitan congestion. Companies like International Business Machines and Digital Equipment Corporation have ventured into the "mobile workplace" which allows employees to live in towns they choose, versus towns where the company is located (Becker & Tennessen, 1995; Becker, Quinn, & Callentine, 1994).

Accessibility to higher education, training, and life-long learning will be desired by workers and consumers in this technological age. Knowledge is considered "the primary resource" (Drucker, 1995) for us and our economy. Therefore, it is important for communities to gain access to knowledge and information based on local needs. Like work in a virtual corporation, learning can become less associated with an actual facility and more with ideas, information, and the application of knowledge.

The Internet can play a pivotal role in distance education and preparation of the US workforce. For example, the WWW allows novice computer users to easily access text, audio, and graphics. The information is based on what the worker or learner needs, providing the user is familiar with the technology. Because information is linked together, the WWW acts like a comprehensive concept map containing bits of information and knowledge linked together by key words and phrases into an open-ended learning resource. In this way, learning subject matter could be specifically linked and tailored to community, industry, or individual needs for education and workforce preparation.

As an educational medium, the Internet is an unprecedented form of educational delivery because it is interactive and responsive to individual needs and provides multimedia information on-demand (unlike remote television or local classroom education). With the ability to access and use the Internet, any community member has the opportunity to conveniently tap resources available through the WWW as a form of 'just-in-time' education where employees seek information as needed. Timely access to information will improve individual and community competitiveness in a technological world.

Local communities can enable their citizens to work and learn on the Internet. Pontell and Murphy (1996) called for communities to form network alliances that work together to benefit from distant educational and commercial resources. They defined such a local community, termed SMARTCommunityTM, as any group of individuals, organizations and institutions located in the same area that have made a conscious effort to employ information technology to transform a major portion of their region. These different community groups benefit from the Internet resources by working together to financially afford, access, and apply knowledge of the Internet to their lives. In summary, local communities need to 'bring people together to put knowledge to work' -- a saying long used by the Cooperative Extension system.

Cooperative Extension and the Internet

There are tremendous opportunities for Cooperative Extension (CE) on the Internet. These opportunities are for improved functionality of the CE system, and new opportunities for communities that sustain the CE system. With information age changes in work and learning tools, methods, and needs, CE must recognize the evolving needs of local stakeholders in their communities. Many local CE offices may find a new role in facilitating community Internet development as part of its greater role in community outreach and life-long education.

For county and state CE leaders to effectively facilitate community use of Internet and digital technologies, CE itself must better utilize these tools. Local and state CE leaders should evaluate the new and emerging tools of the Internet to improve their own functionality. By doing so, county CE offices could benefit dramatically from more extensive use of the Internet.

For example, CE educators and their audiences need convenient access to a wide range of scientific publications. Such publications are costly to print and take up valuable storage space (Jones, 1990). Additionally, electronic publications reduce the dissemination of out-of-date information (Shaffer & Hussey, 1992). Dynamic information (such as pesticide information) needs to be updated often and delivered quickly to county offices from research centers. This information could be supplied via Internet PDF (printable document format) that enable printing of timely, high quality bulletins, newsletters, and research articles, as needed by the user. The Internet enables electronic publication of documents which are not in print due to low forecasted demand. Copies of newsletters can be reviewed, bookmarked for later reference, or printed by those who need the information.

Some CE offices already benefit from use of the Internet to move drafts and documents between communities, industry, and academia by way of file transfer protocol (FTP) or as attachments to email messages. This transfer of documents is nearly instantaneous, and requires no postage or paper.

The Internet should also improve communication between groups. Because higher status individuals and males tend to dominate face-to-face discussions while electronic communication tends to minimize these influences (Becker, Tennessen, & Young, 1995 and references within), email may enable some individuals to more easily let others know their feelings on sensitive topics (Herr & Parsons, 1995; Becker, Tennessen, & Young, 1995). Although email might promote input from a broader cross-section of our Extension community, CE should find ways to enable individuals who do not use email to remain informed.

Like the CE system, local communities could enhance their productivity by utilizing information and resources available on the Internet. Local communities can work with CE to achieve local Internet awareness and access. CE education programs are generally based on individual and local needs and therefore could be enhanced with the Internet. Through the Internet, information exchange forums can be accomplished via bulletin boards, listservs, and through "chat" rooms such as an electronic coffee shop, such used by Agriculture Online (Meredith Corp., 1997), where farmers exchange information.

The Internet is already being used to enhance learning in some K-12 and college classrooms (Singletary & Jordan, 1996). Why not use it for local youth clubs who want to study world agriculture or world politics. Clubs can enrich any local library's holdings on a wide variety of topics by use of the Internet. The learner can easily move beyond the initial subject into related subjects such as international affairs or trade. This method of learning can go beyond a specific course or seminar that is limited by time and by scope of the teacher or presenter and is well matched to needs of non-formal learners who have a specific question to ask or a specific need or application of knowledge. The information exchange can go both ways because surveys, tests, and evaluation tools can be administered via the Internet.

Unlike remote universities or colleges, the Internet can provide a form of just-in-time knowledge to deal with on-going local government, industry, or community problems. The Internet could be better utilized by local communities if community members knew where to find Internet access and how to use and evaluate Internet information.

Local CE offices and local communities will need to find human and financial resources, infrastructure, and a critical mass of people interested in the Internet to fully develop an Internet community. A strategy such as an Internet consortium, as described in Pooling resources in the information age (Tennessen et al., this issue) may help to stimulate interest and achieve Internet access in remote locations.

Access to this rich and varied electronic information may be critical for local communities to keep pace in the global economy. On the other hand, these work and learning resources may potentially widen the technology and information gap between communities instead of diminishing it. Local CE offices that are not functional with the Internet, and its supporting digital technologies, may be less competitive and less capable of leading local communities in the information age.

Future Communities and Past Ghost Towns

Location is becoming less important as people live, play, work, learn, and govern remotely, using the Internet. One company has successfully established 20,000 of its employees in electronic offices at remote hometown locations (Becker, Quinn, & Callentine, 1994). For corporations, the employee's functionality will become more important than their physical proximity (Becker, Quinn, & Callentine, 1994). While many businesses may soon consider location of their electronically connected employees as secondary, those employees will be looking for a place to live that enables Internet access and functionality. Location may, in fact, become an asset of small communities because decisions on residency in the information age may be based on quality environments in which to live, rather than based primarily on transportation and employment opportunities.

Individuals may be more likely attracted to relocate to those communities with better Internet access. And individuals who presently commute may be forced to telecommute in the advent of an energy crisis. These employees can be a valuable asset to small communities. The information age and the Internet may broaden the criteria for where people live, work, and play. In this way, the Internet may become part of the economic engine of small towns and communities. These communities will need to assess and pool their resources and learn how to use the Internet for local needs -- initiatives well suited for the CE system.

By facilitating synergistic Internet alliances in small communities that enable local access and better utilization the Internet for work and learning, the CE system will partly fulfill its mission of "enabling people to improve their lives and communities through learning partnerships that put knowledge to work" (Anderson, et al., 1995). Town participation on the Internet electronic highway has been described as being as economically important as getting on the railroad was in the early part of this century (Pontell & Murphy, 1996). In this respect, perhaps computer hardware and Internet access may become more important and cost effective than the CE's county car.


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