University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
The following article is from the 1996 Volume of American Cooperation: An Annual Review of the Year in Cooperatives" Copyright © 1996, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. To order a copy of the book, contact:
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
50 F Street NW
Suite 900
Washington, DC 20001 USA

Cooperative Education Via Super Highway

Robert A. Cropp, UWCC

Cooperative education via super highway? Yes, cooperative education is now, and will be even more so in the very near future, facilitated via super highway. This super highway is computer technology. This super highway is the Internet, email, listservers, gopher, and the World Wide Web (WWW). This computer technology is connecting individuals interested in cooperatives not only nationally but world wide. Before examining what is happening with cooperative education via computer technology, let's define some terminology.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is a network of computer networks. That is, it is technology that can connect computers and thereby allow individuals, across the nation and internationally, to communicate with one another. There now exist around thirty-five million users of the Internet. This number is doubling annually in over one hundred countries.

Internet Technologies

What are some Internet technologies? E-mail, listservers and gophers are major applications of Internet. E-mail exchanges text messages with anyone on the Internet. It is a very effective method of corresponding with one or more individuals. Text material may be loaded and sent via e-mail.

Listservers may be developed for groups of individuals having a common interest in a subject area, like cooperatives. Individuals on the listserver can quickly communicate with the entire group of individuals having this common interest. The number of individuals on the listserver is unlimited.

A gopher may be created. The gopher is a menu-driven program that fetches information from a data base. Articles, speeches, research documents, and other information may be available from a particular gopher site.

The newest Internet technology is the WWW. The WWW [as you have probably noticed --editor] allows the transfer of text material, graphics, photos, and indeed video and sound. This technology has tremendous potential for cooperative education world wide.

Applications for Cooperative Education

The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives (UWCC) began exploring cooperative education via Internet during the spring of 1995. With assistance from International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) a gopher site was established. The gopher is an electronic filing cabinet of cooperative information. The list of cooperative information on the gopher is growing and is accessible by anyone in the world having Internet capabilities.

UWCC also established a cooperative business listserver. Currently almost two hundred individuals [now over 300, from twenty-one countries --ed.] have joined the listserver and communicate on a daily basis on a variety of cooperative topics. It is a very effective means of exchanging ideas, seeking others' opinions on cooperative issues, or seeking specific information. The most active participants have been those individuals interested in or associated with consumer cooperatives. The listserver is experiencing increased activity on a daily basis.

UWCC recently created its own homepage on the WWW. This homepage places additional visibility on UWCC's activities, but more importantly, it allows the transfer of cooperative information in a more sophisticated way with the inclusion of graphics, photos, and even video and sound. The homepage links users to cooperative resources around the world.

Others have also created their own homepages including ICA, Credit Union National Association, and GROWMARK, a farm supply cooperative. Producers who are members of GROWMARK may enter the homepage and find out a variety of information on GROWMARK, its products and services, as well as ask questions that can be answered by appropriate GROWMARK personnel.

There are others who have or are considering developing their own homepages. As those are developed they will appear on the Internet for access by users world wide [and the UWCC will link to cooperative homepages as they appear --ed.].

Implications for Cooperatives

The Internet builds upon a traditional cooperative strength: a non-hierarchical, bottom-up structure. It reduces distances through reduced communications costs. The use of the Internet can increase the channels for exchange of cooperative experiences and knowledge. It allows the reaching of a wider cooperative audience than what has been possible before and at less cost.

A real potential for strengthening the cooperative movement worldwide is the use of the Internet for distance learning. The University of Wisconsin is currently offering independent study courses via Internet. UW-Extension Independent Learning now has its own homepage as well as a gopher site. This service brings together distance education information and resources from not only Wisconsin, but national and international sources. The gopher version is text based. The WWW version enhances that text with maps, photos, and other graphics designed to assist the user in interpreting the information. New information and resources are being added on a continuing basis. There are also links to resources such as listservers, on-line journals, and other distance education sites from Wisconsin, the United States, and around the world. Soon a total of thirty-five courses [if not more --ed.] will be available through this Internet distance learning service.

Currently, UWCC offers an independent study course. From one hundred to 175 individuals are enrolled at any one time. UWCC plans on developing this independent study course for distance education via the Internet. The Internet allows quick correspondence between the student and instructor. Students may send a question, and the instructor can send a timely response.

Other potential applications of the Internet for cooperative education include audio and video conferencing. There is the possiblility of an ever-evolving, ever-growing "Internet movie" about cooperatives. The movie could be readily updated as new cooperatives or cooperative topics come about. It would never become outdated.

UWCC will continuously add information to its cooperative gopher and homepage. A full-time staff person is being hired to manage the system. [This position has been filled by Anne Reynolds with assistance and web coding by Enid Williams. --ed.] UWCC is the home of America's most extensive library on cooperatives. Access to the library by researchers, educators, and others interested in cooperatives will eventually be much more available with connecting access via Internet. ICA will continue to work with UWCC to develop an international network of information on cooperatives via Internet. It is hoped that cooperative associations and individual cooperatives participate in this national and international effort. The Internet may be the mose efficient and cost-effective means of fostering the cooperative movement worldwide.

Let me end with a quote that may well state what is happening with computer technology.

"In terms of global communications we now contemplate a leap into the future. This is likely to be as great as the changes brought about by the development of printing, the internal combustion engine, and powered flight. But it will take place over a much shorter time scale. We will all need a new kind of literacy -- network literacy."

Gillian Shepard, 1995.

Quote fromSuperhighways for education: Consultative paper on broadband communication. United Kingdom, Department of Education, Northern Ireland. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

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