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NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service Forms Rural Telecommunications Task Force

ALBUQUERQUE- New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service is forming a new Rural Telecommunications Task Force to set up teleliteracy programs and projects in rural communities around the state. The programs will offer high-tech workshops and training for business people, government officials, community leaders and local youth to establish e commerce and local online services.

The task force, which will include NMSU personnel and Extension staff from around the state, will rely on the Extension Service's statewide business network to carry out its goals. Extension will work with small business development centers, Internet service providers, local teachers, county Extension offices and others to reach the most isolated rural communities.

"The goal is for Extension to become a key point of contact for teleliteracy education in rural areas," said Billy Dictson, Extension director for New Mexico. "Through the task force, rural businesses, government agencies and local Extension staff around the state will be able to draw on NMSU's human and material resources to teach about and develop high-speed access to the Internet."

Through ongoing educational campaigns, the task force will address three basic concerns: the lack of telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas; the need for "teleliterate" citizens who can make informed decisions about how to use the Internet for e-commerce and other functions at the local level; and lack of appropriate government policies to encourage telecommunications development in the countryside.

As its first project, the task force is setting up a series of teleliteracy workshops in six targeted communities: Alamogordo, Aztec-Bloomfield, Espaņola, Portales, Raton and Silver City. The workshops, planned for the first half of 2001, are part of an 18-month educational program called Teleliteracy Assistance for Businesses and Communities or Teleliteracy ABC's. The project is funded by a $250,000 grant from Qwest Communications International Inc. (formerly US WEST). NMSU's colleges of business administration and economics, and arts and sciences are assisting with the project.

Once the 18-month project ends, Extension's new task force will work to set up similar workshops in other rural communities. The task force will also create more advanced courses that will provide business people, professionals and government officials with high-tech tools and assistance to set up e-commerce programs and online services. All workshops will include train the-trainer components to empower local communities with the knowledge and skills necessary to continue teaching others.

The task force will also act as a statewide information clearinghouse on telecommunications issues. For example, NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is now conducting an online survey of rural firms around the state that have successfully established e-commerce capabilities. The results will be made accessible online so that other businesses can learn from the success stories. (Businesses willing to participate in the survey are requested to fill out an online questionnaire at http://ruraltelecommunications.org.)

The task force will rely on contacts with businesses, government and community representatives, who will provide feedback to the task force about needs and potential problems around the state.

Beyond responding to immediate needs for teleliteracy education in rural New Mexico, a major goal of the task force is to develop an effective model for telecommunications education that can be applied university-wide and emulated by other institutions at the state and national level, said Jerry G. Schickedanz, dean of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Using the Extension Service for rural teleliteracy could represent a major breakthrough in the effort to bridge the growing "digital divide" between rural and urban areas.

"Creation of the task force and use of state Extension is a very novel approach to promoting teleliteracy in rural areas," said Bob Coppedge, an Extension rural economic development specialist and co-coordinator of the new task force. "If successful, New Mexico can be a national model for Cooperative Extension Service and other land-grant universities throughout the United States."