February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA5

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Virtual Communities and University Outreach

The use of the Internet and networked computers are becoming commonplace within universities. However, the general public, natural resource industry, and public agencies typically lack experience with this communication technology. This article describes an Oregon pilot effort to enable rural leaders to use networked computing and worldwide databases through the Internet. The pilot project reveals ways the technology can be used to facilitate communication between diverse audiences separated by distance. It also demonstrates one way that universities can extend education to clientele upon demand by using networked computing technologies.

Bruce DeYoung
Associate Director
Oregon Sea Grant College
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: deyoungb@.oes.orst.edu

Peggy Harris
Program Associate
Oregon State University Extension Service

Lori Larsen
Graduate Research Assistant
Oregon State University

While the use of Internet and networked computers are becoming commonplace within universities, the general public, marine industry, and many natural resource agencies lack experience with this communication technology (Pirch, 1993). The lack of computer related equipment and/or skills can disconnect rural clientele from enriching collaboration or information exchanges with universities, agencies, and other sources (Findlay, Zabawa, Morris & Oben, 1993).

Bolstering genuine collaboration and useful information exchanges between clientele, universities, and agencies are critical to Extension's future (Astroth, 1991; Bennett, 1993). This can be accomplished through imaginative applications of current technology. By educating clientele on information technology and mobilizing their use of this in public decision processes, new communication and collaboration frontiers are possible.

This article describes a successful innovation enabling rural Oregon leaders' use of networked computers and worldwide databases through the Internet. This pilot effort reveals ways that networked computers can facilitate communication between diverse audiences and how university extended education can be electronically delivered to participants upon demand.

Opportunity Knocks

In 1992, the Oregon legislature created a governor's advisory council for the purpose of drafting policy recommendations to manage Oregon's portion of the nation's territorial sea. Called OPAC (Ocean Policy Advisory Council), its membership includes more than 30 leaders of marine industry, local government, state agencies, Indian tribes, conservation groups, citizens, and the university. To provide for geographic balance, the governor appointed OPAC members from widespread coastal locations and provided a modest operating budget.

Almost immediately, OPAC encountered a challenge preventing timely communication and collaboration by delegates. The disparate location of OPAC delegates spread out over half the state at great distance from each other hindered their work. Steep travel and communication expenses stymied routine interaction and timely information exchanges. Fortunately, Oregon Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension learned of the roadblock in time to provide technology assistance.

Working with Oregon's Coastal Management Program, a computer network called OPACNET was fashioned to bring these marine leaders together across time and distance. Believed to be the nation's first successful "virtual marine community," OPACNET is providing new insights on ways that networked computers can be used for delivering university outreach. It is also demonstrating how this technology can facilitate communications between diverse public and private representatives engaged in public policy development.

Building A Virtual Community

A virtual community is a collection of people with mutual interests, communicating through linkages provided by networked computers. Networked computers tied into the Internet, an international web of computers linking more than 20 million users, are often characterized as the "highways of the mind." These communication networks are formed through the integration of computers, telecommunications systems, and database technology (Reinhardt, 1994). This powerful convergence of technology enables network users to interact with each other and quickly retrieve diverse sources of information.

To insure OPACNET success, this virtual community was designed to avoid the five common pitfalls vexing computer novice involvement in sophisticated computer networks. Typical computer network barriers to success include: lack of hardware or software for prospective users; high telephone line charges incurred by distant participants; lack of training to mitigate technophobia; and, lack of on-line technical assistance for users (Dix, 1994).

Although some OPACNET members owned or had access to a computer, most lacked the hardware or modem necessary to become interconnected with others. This obstacle was overcome through hardware loans or donations made by local industry. The Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service provided modem access to a toll-free WATS telephone line connecting its field offices with the campus, thereby eliminating costly telephone charges to individual OPAC members. Communication software and an electronic mail program (Pegasus) were installed on OPACNET computers at no charge to participants.

An information server located at the university routes OPAC electronic mail messages and draft policy documents between various users. Almanac software (UNIX based) developed at OSU and mounted on this server enables decentralized database activity. The server provides a gateway for OPACNET delegates to make easy connections to the world's libraries through the Internet. All of these factors encourage rural community leaders to browse library databases for relevant marine information. An unanticipated bonus for OPACNET participants is the opportunity to exchange electronic mail messages with White House and congressional staff.

Oregon Sea Grant and the Coastal Management Program collaboratively funded an OSU graduate student to address participant training and assistance. Fortunately, this individual has a professional background in networked computers and is completing graduate work in marine resource management. She provided technical support, inservice training, and a "help desk" function for the project. The graduate student also scanned various marine databases for relevant information and periodically shared relevant articles electronically with OPACNET participants.

Connecting Electronically

A formal evaluation of OPACNET by participants indicated that most were very pleased with their virtual marine community. This is demonstrated by the ten-fold increase in log-in rates during the network's first year. OPACNET'ers found the network's electronic mail capability to be an especially attractive feature for connecting with each other. The flexibility of this communication system is demonstrated by log-ins taking place throughout the 24 hour period of each day. Most OPACNET log-ins take place during 8:00-10:00 a.m. and 2:00-4:00 p.m.

To experiment with the delivery of outreach via the Internet, the Oregon Sea Grant College placed an array of electronic publications on OPACNET. According to users, the most useful information being retrieved electronically included abstracts and bibliographic data for print material being distributed by universities. In considering ways to improve university interaction with networked clientele, OPACNET participants believed that university distribution procedures for printed materials should be modified. They suggested that universities create systems to receive electronic orders for printed publications.

OPACNET users also observed that the process of paying for printed materials could be streamlined by allowing financial transactions to take place electronically through the use of credit cards and/or debit cards. This would set the stage for later electronic distribution and payment for publications distributed internationally by universities.


The OPACNET demonstration indicates citizen readiness to use emerging technology for tapping into university information and developing natural resource public policy. The OPACNET has created a virtual marine community among people who were initially strangers. These friendships have blossomed into working relationships which assisted rural citizens to fashion a sophisticated Territorial Sea Management Plan.

As a direct result of this pilot, 16 other major public universities are asking for assistance in utilizing computerized marine outreach mechanisms. Another Sea Grant college is also exploring the creation of a virtual community based on Oregon's OPACNET model as a way to interconnect their state's coastal leaders.

The creation of virtual communities through the use of Internet technology holds much promise for Cooperative Extension workers. For instance, home study groups of youth or adults can be formed as a virtual community around a topic of interest. The educational materials can then be provided electronically, with participants entering into "virtual discussions." This would allow Extension staff and clientele to interact across space, time, and cultural bounds!

Likewise, agricultural producers with specific interests can be formed by Cooperative Extension into virtual communities around their business focus. Then, an array of Extension and research faculty would be able to convey various pieces of information and respond to questions with and between participants via the Internet. In this way, the producers would gain valuable insights without travelling great distances sometimes through poor weather.


Astroth, K. A. (1991). Getting serious about strategic alliances. Journal of Extension, XXIX(Fall), 8-10.

Bennett, C. (1993). Interdependence models: Overcoming barriers to collaboration with other agencies. Journal of Extension, XXX(Summer), 25.

Dix, J. (1994, January). Teaming with technology. Network World, pp. 8-13.

Findlay, H., Zabawa, R., Morris, C., & Oben, M. (1993). Computer awareness among limited resource farmers. Journal of Extension, XXXI(Spring), 22-23.

Pirch, R. A. (1993). Impact through cooperation and technology. Journal of Extension, XXXI(Spring), 5-6.

Reinhardt, A. (1994, March). Building the data highway. Byte Magazine, pp. 46-74.