Technology Mediated Learning:

Building Capacity in Rural Communities

David W Bruce
Mount Allison University ,
<dwbruce@mta.ca>

Victoria Hagens
Concordia University
<Victoria.Hagens@gmail.com>

Katrina Ellis
Mount Allison University
<klells@mta.ca>


Abstract

Internet access in rural Canada increases opportunities for learning and interaction among community leaders. Research on the use of chat room technology to facilitate learning and development revealed that there were significant barriers, including time constraints, lack of prior social and professional contact among participants, and limited value placed on informal learning relative to other daily activities. Communications technologies such as chat rooms have the potential to help meet personal and community goals, but they must be effectively combined with other community assets and circumstances for the benefits of their use to be realized.

Introduction

Rural communities in Canada as elsewhere are facing economic difficulties inlcuding lower levels of education attainment compared with urban communities, and continuing unemployment and other market failures. All of these are making it increasingly difficult for rural residents to succeed in the global economy (Bruce, 2003).

Many of these communities were once dependent on local natural resources. In many cases these resources are now depleted due to over extraction and excessive use, are the communities are looking more and more to new communications technologies as tools for developing knowledge-based or service-based economies and for improving their access to health and education services. In the course of these efforts, communities are learning how to incorporate new forms of information technology into their daily lives and their local economic practices (Faris, 2001), and thus increasing their capacity to survive in the changing social and economic landscape.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be highly useful in connecting and improving networks and services across geographically separated regions. It is not simply the use of ICTs that is important, but the development of their use into strategies and applications to further advance local economic development initiatives, achieve social justice, foster political empowerment, and ensure local access to education and health services (Gurstein, 2003). Although much time and effort has been spent on creating local Internet access points for rural communities and to bring high speed internet to rural areas1, very little time has been directed towards expanding local capacity for developing and making effective use of ICT systems within these communities. Such development is important, and when designed with the communities’ initiatives in mind these systems can be useful tools in transforming community conditions.

In this paper we explore the potential relationship between community capacity and new information technologies. In doing so, we will describe a recent experimental project in which Internet chat room technology was used to link community workers across rural Canada. The primary objectives of the project were to promote collaborative learning around issues which are important to rural communities, and to help people to improve their knowledge and use of Internet technologies to assist them in their work and everyday lives.

A major interest among public policy makers, researchers, and others is effective use of communications technologies for creating wealth and opportunities within rural regions – going beyond the question of access to consider how the use of new technologies can help to benefit the community and its users over time (Gurstein, 2003). While many Canadians, particularly in rural and remote regions, still do not have Internet access (neither high speed nor dial-up) at home or at work, even those who do have access do not necessarily possess the skills required to engage effectively with the technology (Rideout & Reddick, 2005, p. 51). More work needs to be done to help communities find productive ways of using the Internet to help meet their needs and increase their overall capacity, so that access to the Internet can be transformed into a true asset for rural people. For while technology is seen to be just one of many tools which can contribute to a community’s ability to meet its goals, it is a tool which is steadily gaining in significance in today’s rural society and economy.

Capacity, Social Capital, and Internet Use

New communications technologies are generally seen to have the potential to impact (among other things) social interaction, economic development opportunities, and, ultimately, community capacity. It remains unclear what impacts of these have actually been in society however, and there are numerous conflicting research reports and arguments on this topic within the literature. For this paper we draw on that research but also we draw heavily from the work of Bill Reimer and the New Rural Economy (NRE) project, which provides a model for understanding capacity that has been designed and tested for the explicit purpose of working with rural communities in today’s changing economy, and which we believe can help bring new insight to the relationship between community capacity and Internet communications.

Reimer describes capacity as the ability to use assets and resources to achieve desired outcomes (Tiepoh & Reimer, 2004, p. 431). Key elements of community capacity are described by Reimer (2006) in a ”capacity model” (Figure 1). It is understood that while communities have many assets at their disposal for development purposes, these assets (such as people, skills, money, and infrastructure) are used or managed through a variety of social relations as they are transformed into outcomes. It is the interactions that occur between and among people – whether these interactions are based in the communal, associative, market, or bureaucratic spheres – which can turn the resources of a community into positive results. It is also the resources of a community which provide the opportunity for successful interactions to occur in the first place. The model therefore includes a “feedback loop”; indicating how outcomes of social processes can in turn become assets or liabilities for further development.

Social capital is a key asset for communities and organizations as can be seen in this model, since it because it is an element in all four types of social processes. The impacts of the Internet on social capital, and indeed on social interaction overall is discussed in the literature where there is general agreement among researchers that the Internet has the potential to support or even to increase social networks and interaction – both on-line and off-line. But whether or not this occurs in practice is a matter of debate. The positive effects of Internet usage on social capital argued for by some authors include the expansion of personal networks (McQuaid & Lindsay, 2003); an improved ability to communicate one’s needs to service providers and policy makers (McQuaid & Lindsay, 2003); increased or facilitated civic engagement (Gaved & Anderson, 2006) and (Wellman et al., 2001); improved communication between individuals with pre-existing off-line relationships (Wellman et al., 2001); and the building of trust, cooperation, and reciprocity within communities (Simpson, 2005). However, few longitudinal studies have been undertaken where there was the opportunity to adequately test the depth or endurance of these effects (Gaved & Anderson, 2006, p. 6; Meredyth et al., 2004, p. 197).

Some research in fact suggests that the results of Internet usage are anti-social – taking people away from their communities and families (Meredyth et al. 2004, p. 200). The basis for this argument is the assertion that online interaction is inferior to other forms of interaction; that time spent on the Internet competes for time with other activities (much like television); and that use of the Internet can depress or alienate people from social interaction (Wellman et al., 2001, p. 439).

A third position, put forth by Wellman et al. (2001), is that the Internet neither increases nor decreases social capital, but rather supplements it – acting as an extension of offline activities (p. 440). They suggest that social interaction is indeed facilitated by the Internet’s ability to connect people and organizations, but that it may be “more useful for maintaining existing ties than for creating new ones” (Wellman et al., p. 440).

When seen within the context of the capacity model (Figure 1), we believe that access to the Internet can be viewed as an asset which has the potential to be used for beneficial outcomes, such as increased social capital, but which must be combined with other assets and interlinked with social processes in order for that potential to be realized. We do not argue that Internet use necessarily either increases or decreases social capital, nor do we propose, as do Wellman et al., that Internet use simply supplements social capital. Rather, the capacity model suggests that we must consider the circumstances under which social capital is affected by the Internet. And if we want to use the Internet to increase social capital and capacity, as we have attempted to do with the above referenced pilot project in rural communities, then we must pay close attention to those circumstances.

Two of the assets which must be combined for effective Internet communication are infrastructure and human capital. Human capital is the ability, knowledge and learned skills of individuals, which can be drawn upon and mobilized to help meet community goals (Reimer & Wilkinson, 2003). In this case we are looking at the ability of humans to use technology to help them to develop their knowledge and skills through on-line discussions, as well as the ability to learn how to incorporate new forms of technology into their everyday lives, either through their participation in the local work force or through the voluntary organizations to which they belong.

A third key asset for effective Internet communication is social capital itself. As Putnam (2001) has suggested, social capital must be already present in order for the Internet to be used for social means (Gaved & Anderson, 2006, p. 27). Thus, social capital can be viewed both as a prerequisite for, and as an outcome of, effective Internet communication. In the capacity model this relationship is reflected in the “feedback loop” (Figure 1).

When considering the effects of the Internet on social capital we must also keep in mind that the Internet itself includes a wide variety of tools and functions – some social and some a-social. Studies on Internet use have on occasion found that the less social tools such as on-line entertainment and on-line shopping have the effect of taking people away from interaction with other people and towards more anti-social behaviour (Meredyth et al., 2004, p. 200). These studies serve to highlight the importance of helping individuals and communities to find effective uses of the Internet, rather than simply focusing attention and resources on access alone.

There is no doubt that the Internet has the potential to be used for social and communicative purposes, and because our project was designed to help increase social capital and lubricate associative relations, we focused our activities on the use of a highly social Internet tool – chat rooms.

Technology Mediated Learning: A Rural Pilot Project

The Technology Mediated Learning project is an attempt to build capacity in rural communities by linking community workers across the country into virtual networks for collaborative learning. The process of networking and computer mediated interaction is intended to increase social capital by bridging communities and facilitating useful contacts among workers who deal with similar issues. It is also hoped that knowledge, ideas, and ‘best practices’ shared among these workers will benefit both the individuals and their communities, increasing the assets available for accomplishing shared goals. Finally, because the project is introducing a new technology – chat rooms – to people who have for the most part not used this technology before, it is attempting to build the skills and abilities of the workers involved, giving them a new tool which they may find useful for communicating in their work or in their personal networking.

It is important to note that this project is not about creating or improving access to Internet technology. Indeed, participants were all already accessing the Internet and were all already using electronic mail, although most did not have high speed access. Rather, the project is about introducing a new reason to effectively use the Internet which is relevant and helpful to rural people, and introducing a new method by which the Internet can be used for communication.

Project Design

This pilot project is based on the research interests of the New Rural Economy (NRE) project, initiated by the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. NRE researchers developed a ‘Rural Observatory’ consisting of 32 systematically selected field sites. Sites were identified from the 1991 boundary files for Census Subdivisions, ranging in size from 130 to 5,997 residents, across all provinces and two territories in Canada (Reimer, 2002). The NRE research project has completed field work in 22 of these 32 sites, and it is from those 22 sites that individuals were invited to participate in the Technology Mediated Learning pilot sessions.

Nine categories of community workers, which can be found in most or all of the 22 field sites, were identified to participate in the Technology Mediated Learning project:

  • Economic development officers

  • Tourism representatives

  • Chief Administrative Officers

  • Newspaper editors or staff

  • Chamber of Commerce members

  • Environmental organizations representatives

  • Community Access Centres (CAP) committee members/staff

  • Recreation committee members/staff

  • Volunteer group representatives

The categories were chosen using information gathered at each site, where key informant were asked to identify priority issues and topics for their communities. We refer to these categories as ‘community workers’ due to their on-going roles and responsibilities in addressing the priority issues identified and because of their explicit engagement within their local communities. Not every category was present in every site, and the sizes of the groups varied. For example, there was at least one site with no municipal government and therefore no Chief Administrative Officer to participate in the project.

From the nine categories, prospective participants were identified in each site. A three-step process was used to communicate with them about the project. First, a general press release about the project was distributed in each community involved – through the local and regional papers, to municipal offices, and to other important locations and outlets. Second, a personal telephone call or e-mail was made to each potential participant to share with them the details of the project and to invite their participation. Third, an e-mail was sent to each individual who agreed to participate, with further details and instructions about how the on-line chat rooms would function and the plan for the rollout of the project.

To begin this project an on-line chat web site, chatzy.com, was chosen. The program is simple and free to use, and easily accessible. Participants were contacted by e-mail and invited to participate in a scheduled on-line facilitated discussion, on a topic linked to their specific interest group. The on-line invitation to join the chat room was sent just prior to the scheduled time of the event. Participants were electronically directed to some on-line background material, such as a website or a PDF file for most of the sessions. They were asked to review these prior to the discussion, as these learning materials would be referred to during the session. Each chat session was led by a “moderator”, a member of the research team. The moderator had the additional responsibility of selecting learning materials in advance for participant review, introducing the topic(s), posing questions to the participants, inviting their comments, encouraging their interaction with one another, and performing any other role which facilitated learning and exchange for the participants.

These pilot sessions were tracked and assessed in three ways. The is an on-line assessment and evaluation survey completed by chat room participants. Before participating in their first on-line discussion, participants were asked to complete an on-line assessment of their Internet experience and skills. These assessment questions examined the types of technology participants have used in the past, their comfort level with information technology, their computer access, their topics of interest and basic demographics. As well, following each scheduled discussion, participants were asked to complete an evaluation survey. The evaluation questions concerned the usefulness of the technology, whether they might use it again in their work, and what other forms of technology they might be willing to try. Participants’ responses to several of the questions from both the assessment and evaluation surveys were analyzed to determine if such on-line learning would be useful for further learning and development and if it could help rural and remote residents to build capacity and gain useful knowledge.

The second approach concerns the on-line discussion transcripts. A full record of each chat room discussion was saved as a transcript within chatzy.com. A content analysis methodology was used to analyze the transcripts to determine wether:

  • participants are using the technology in other settings;

  • there is interest in using the ideas presented in the discussion in some other context;

  • there is further online networking taking place outside of the sessions, either with other participants or with the discussion moderator;

  • the discussion was useful to participants;

  • those participating in the discussion were sharing ideas and knowledge with one another.

The third information source is the correspondence, such as e-mails or conversations with chat room participants, concerning their participation in the project.

A total of 17 facilitated discussions took place from September 2003 to February 2004. One session was held for each of the nine categories of community workers, and some categories held a second or even a third session, generally including some of the same and some additional participants. In total, 40 people took part in the sessions from across the 22 communities, 24 women and 16 men. Assessment and evaluation surveys were completed by 26 of the participants.

Bridging Communities for Collaborative Learning

The project was designed to link community workers together for collaborative learning. Bridging and networking across geographical distance is an important aspect of learning for rural community workers who may not have nearby access to resources and peers within their field of work. New methods of technology where they can enter into virtual communities are allowing people in once isolated rural and remote areas to participate and be brought into collaborative learning environments (Meredyth et al., 2004),. These allow them to communicate with their peers or others who are in similar situations and facing similar issues.

Internet chat rooms are one way to provide opportunities for bridging across distance through virtual learning. Virtual learning communities can be created using two approaches: synchronous and asynchronous on-line learning methods. Synchronous learning means that the learning among participants is occurring at the same time. People who are divided by time and space learn together in real time, through instantaneous messaging. Chat rooms are a form of synchronous learning, which operate in real time and form an on-line community where people are able to meet and share/discuss ideas with one another. Asynchronous learning, not functioning in real time uses e-bulletin boards which allow users to post messages and their thoughts for later use or viewing for others. Asynchronous learning can be useful for learning content and issues, though it is not as useful for developing an on-line community. The knowledge that is generated from these two methods of interaction links interaction and the environment in which people are participating. The ultimate goal is to create a learning community where people are able to build their own capacity and build upon knowledge gained from others (Dykes & Schwier, 2003; Schwier & Balbar, 2002).

In order for collaboration over the Internet to be meaningful, certain circumstances must come together or be developed. Physical access, or the ability to access the technology in order for it to be used, is fundamental. Lack of skills or of financial resources can also be barriers to participating in these on-line learning communities. People who have difficulties using computers or using certain programs, or who do not have the means to upgrade their computers or pay for courses, automatically become less able to benefit from on-line learning. Those who do not have high speed Internet connections may also experience problems when participating in real time chat discussions. Those using slower dial up connections may have difficulty keeping up with the flow of conversation (Bartolic-Zlomislic & Bates, 1999; Katz & Rezaie, 1999). For our pilot sessions several potential participants experienced difficulties with the technology due to connection speed or in some cases due to lack of skill, making it not possible for them to participate.

Beyond the physical and skills-based circumstances, it is also important that participants feel some level of commitment to the others in their group, and are able to find a common time to meet on-line for collaborative learning. When such a commitment is created, participants feel more responsible and tend to be more productive or produce better work, as they are concerned for the success of others as well as for themselves (Katz & Rezaie, 1999). Commitment can be difficult to create, however, when off-line relationships do not exist between participants, and when the Internet chat session is the first (and only) opportunity to establish bonds and create group norms. As well, time constraints due to work or personal commitments or different time zones create conflict towards the creation of virtual communities or group learning. In this pilot project we found that it was these two factors – commitment-levels and time constraints – which had the greatest impact on the learning sessions. Finding workable times to meet, and developing commitment within the group of learners, becomes all the more challenging when working with individuals in different parts of the country who have not met in person, as compared for example (as is most commonly discussed in the literature) to working with students in a university class, who live in the same time-zone and regularly spend time together in the classroom.

Project Outcomes

The pilot project involved 40 participants, 26 of whom completed the assessment and evaluation surveys on which our data is based. Of these, 73% were women, and between the ages of 35 and 64. Participants self-selected to take part in the project, and these demographics are a general reflection of the demographics of community workers in the sites. Generally those holding these positions in rural communities are of not of the younger, more computer-savvy generation, though it was found that all are using the Internet to some degree in their daily lives.

Table 1 presents the participants’ use of technology prior to their involvement with the Technology Mediated Learning Project (TMLP). Almost two-thirds of the participants had used telephone conference calls; about half had used a chat room at least once before their participation in this project; and very few people had experience with the other forms of communication technology listed.

Table 1: Types of Communication Technology Participants

Have Used or are Currently Using


Current or Previous Use

Telephone Conference

65%

Chat Rooms

48%

Discussion Boards

27%

Chat Programs (Downloaded)

24%

Web Camera

5%



While nearly half of the participants had used Internet chat rooms prior to the project, only 34% characterized their comfort-level with this technology as either good or very good. This contrasts with telephone conferences, where all of those who had used the technology listed their comfort-level as “good” or “very good”.

Participant Evaluation

The experiences of participants in the TMLP are analyzed using the evaluation surveys complete at the end of the project. Table 2 presents the usefulness of chat room technology, on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is not “very useful” and 5 is “very useful”. Over half of those participants who provided an evaluation found the chat room discussion and technology to be “useful” to “very useful” (4 or 5 on the scale).

Table 2: Chat Room Technology and Its Usefulness

Usefulness

1 (not very useful)

2

3

4

5 (very useful)


8%

23%

15%

39%

15%



In Table 3 we can see the perceived “usefulness” of the discussion topics. Again, over half of those who responded felt that the topics chosen for discussion and the discussions were “useful” or “very useful”.

Table 3: The Topic of Discussion and Its Usefulness

Usefulness

1 (not very useful)

2

3

4

5 (very useful)


8%

15%

23%

31%

23%



Participants were asked whether they experienced any problems with or while using the technology. Most respondents (77%) encountered no problems while participating in the discussion. It is known that there were others who were not successful in participating in the chat sessions because of difficulties with the technology. Some individuals were unable to log on to the sessions, or found that their dial-up connection was too slow to enable them to participate. It is not known, however, how many of those potential participants who did not show up to the sessions were deterred by these technical issues.

We also asked participants whether they might continue to use this form of technology in their current work. Relatively few were certain they will use it (27%); however, 65% gave their answer as ‘maybe’, indicating that they are at least thinking about how they might incorporate this into their work place.

Table 4 looks at other types of communication technologies that respondents said they would be willing test, if they were given some training and guidance. Many said that they would like to try on-line video seminars. This type of technology provides participants with face to face interaction and thus with the ability to see who you are communicating which in many instances is an important aspect of creating efficient and lasting connections with those with whom one is working. Telephone conference calls, electronic bulletin boards and web cameras were all ranked next highest as forms of technology people would be willing to try.

Table 4: Other Types of Technology Participants Would Be Willing to Test


On-line Video Seminar

Telephone Conference Call

On-line Discussion Boards

Web Camera

Chat Programs

(downloaded)

Percentage who said ‘yes’



62%



54%



54%



54%



42%



Discussion Transcripts and Correspondence

Transcripts from the facilitated chat-room sessions were analyzed based on four general questions:

  1. Are people using the technology in other settings?

  2. Do people find the discussion and the ideas presented to be useful?

  3. Do people express an interest in further networking either with other participants or with the discussion moderator?

  4. Are those participating in the discussion sharing ideas and knowledge with one another?

In the course of the 17 discussions which took place, it was mentioned by participants in four separate chats that they would be using this form of technology in another setting, such as at work or for other committees or organizations in which they are involved. This was mentioned by participants in the economic development, Community Access Program (CAP), and Chamber of Commerce discussions. One of the participants applied the chat room technology to her work with a province wide committee which normally meets face to face. Instead of everyone driving an hour or more for a meeting, the committee met and held their meeting on-line, eliminating travel time and expenses for everyone.

Participants in seven of the 17 discussions indicated that the discussions were indeed useful. Positive comments were made about the benefits of particular examples or suggestions given during the course of the discussions, and individuals said they would look into using or applying these to their day-to-day work. Economic development, CAP, Chamber of Commerce, and also recreation discussion participants made reference to further use.

The notion of expanding or furthering networking capabilities with other participants was also examined. Interest in networking and exchanging ideas with others was mentioned in eight out of 17 discussions, as people made mention of following up on an idea or suggestion with another participant or moderator. The Chamber of Commerce participants expressed the most interest in the “further networking” idea, while participants in economic development, environmental, tourism and recreation discussions also showed interest. Correspondence with several participants included such comments as that they looked forward to being in contact with or networking with others who are in similar situations but in different environments and regions of Canada. Several of the participants also followed up with the moderators, asking them questions pertaining to important contacts they needed to make, while others were seeking advice concerning problems or specific areas of concern.

The final topic related to participants openly sharing their ideas and knowledge with other participants within their chat session. Most of the discussions (13 out of 17) had participants sharing and providing others with useful information by answering questions, providing web sites that may be of assistance to others or providing them with examples of what happened locally in their community and how things were fixed/changed. All of the nine categories with the exceptions of tourism and volunteers were active in sharing ideas. One e-mail that was received from a participant made mention of how she looked forward to “participating in the project, as it followed their work philosophy of sharing and communication among communities.”

Discussion

The primary objective of the learning sessions was to link participants with others who are working on similar issues in other rural communities. Other objectives included helping people to improve their use of Internet technologies and improving their ability to gain new ideas and knowledge from others. Although the results of these goals are difficult to assess given the short-term nature of the project, they allow us to consider the potential of chat room technology to impact the social capital and human skills of individuals, and to explore the circumstances under which a community’s capacity might be increased through the productive use of ICTs. Using the experience of this pilot project we can identify some of the important opportunities offered by new communications technologies for rural capacity building, and we can also identify some of the key challenges which can make the effective use of these technologies difficult for rural people.

Through the use of the Canada-wide ‘Rural Observatory’ of the New Rural Economy project, we were able to bring together community workers from across the country into virtual networks. Participants were thus able to communicate in real time with others who are engaged in similar work in similarly rural and sometimes isolated situations. While the use of the Internet to facilitate interaction across distance and between communities is not novel, the linking together of community workers across the country in this way is an approach to rural development which is only in its beginning stages.

Data collected from the chat sessions and from participants indicate that web-based communication, with the possible exception of email, is not something that most community workers in rural areas have experienced or are comfortable with. The technology is still relatively new and there remain many parts of the country with little or no high-speed infrastructure. As well, most of these community workers are not of a generation which was formally educated using computers or the Internet.

While the current level of experience with new communications technologies is low, most of those who tried Internet chat rooms for this project found the medium to be useful and would consider incorporating it into their work activities. This is an indication that even a short introduction to a new technology can impact peoples’ knowledge and confidence in using that technology. It also suggests that Internet chat rooms may indeed serve productive purposes for rural communities, although the potential impacts of this would require further experimentation and study.

For the pilot project we had no difficulty in finding community workers in all parts of the country who were interested in trying new communications technologies. These workers are most interested in those technologies which would give them the most direct contact with one another, allowing for the most highly social communication. Thus, many of the participants expressed a desire to try video-conferencing, a form of technology which allows for an even higher degree of social communication across distance than either Internet chat rooms or teleconferencing.

Beyond finding the technology to be useful, most of the community workers who participated in the project also found the discussions and networking to be beneficial. Of all of the categories of workers, those involved with economic development and the Chamber of Commerce expressed the most enthusiasm for the chat sessions and the greatest interest in using chat room technology in their work. These groups may, in some ways, have the most to gain from networking with people in other towns and regions and from sharing information with others in rural communities who experience similar challenges. As was pointed out at the beginning of this paper, changes in the global economy are among the driving factors to incorporate new information technologies into local economic practices. Therefore those working most closely with the development of the local economy may have an added appreciation for the potential of new technologies to help them in their work.

By engaging in relevant discussions via ICT’s, we see that there is the potential to provide community workers in rural and remote areas with useful information to assist them in learning to overcome some of their problems. Stoecker (2005) points out that “[community] workers, next to community members, are the people that Community Informatics most needs to serve, as they are the intermediaries to the community itself” (p. 20). Beyond providing these workers with useful information, Internet communication can function as a tool for networking among individuals who would not otherwise have the opportunity for social interaction with others facing similar issues in different parts of their regions, provinces, or country, and it is this communication function of the Internet which may ultimately have more of an impact on the capacity of communities to accomplish their desired goals (Gaved & Anderson, 2006, p. 19).

Building Capacity: Challenges and Opportunities

We now return to the question of under what circumstances social capital and capacity can be positively affected by Internet communication. The role of the “feedback loop” in Reimer’s model of capacity (Figure 1) is particularly evident in the results of the chat sessions conducted for this pilot project. While the purpose of the project was to build the assets of the individuals and communities, it was clear that a high level of certain resources were needed before the chat sessions could occur. Physical infrastructure was required to allow participants access to the real-time discussions; the skills of the individuals needed to be sufficient for them to log on and learn to use the technology; and the interest and ability of participants to interact and engage with one another needed to be great enough to overcome the physical and social distances between them. Thus, the positive outcomes of the sessions – such as the ability to use a new technology and the social capital resulting from broadened networks of collaboration and interaction – could not have occurred (and in some cases did not occur) without a certain level of these assets being already present in the communities.

As Stoecker (2005) points out, our efforts in community informatics projects such as this one should be in making sure that the community goals drive the technology goals, and not vice versa (p. 16). A community’s receptiveness to these projects and initiatives “is influenced by the extent to which the initiative matches the community’s aspirations, values and needs, or is perceived as contributing to the future well being of the community” (Simpson, 2005, p. 112).

The chosen topic for this project – linking community workers across rural Canada for collaborative learning – was developed based on extensive research into the particular challenges and opportunities faced by rural people; and the chosen technology for this project – chat rooms – is effective in that it is a freely available technology (for those with Internet access), and is relatively easy to use. Social capital can be developed, and relevant ideas and information shared, through the communication between individuals facilitated by this technology.

However there remained significant obstacles to creating successful collaboration and social linkages using the topics and medium chosen. Most significantly, time constraints of the participants combined with the physical and social distance between them made the commitment and investment in the chat sessions somewhat tenuous. A great deal of effort is required on the part of organizers to make the sessions work, including developing interesting materials, overcoming scheduling problems and technical issues, and helping to encourage networking and sharing both within and between the sessions. There must be a vested interest both on the part of organizers and participants for virtual collaboration to be continued beyond the initial introduction to the technology.

The question of how to effectively transform Internet access into a true asset for rural people is an important one, and remains open for a great deal more experimentation and effort. New communications technologies such as chat rooms, electronic bulletin boards, video conferencing and others have the potential to be used productively to help meet personal and community goals in today’s changing economy, but they must be effectively combined with other assets and circumstances in order for their benefits to be realized.

The Technology Mediated Learning pilot project is an example of a project which has attempted to draw together and build upon all of the necessary assets for collaborative learning to occur using the Internet. Combining the necessary infrastructure, human skills and abilities, and social capital for successful technology use and successful social interaction has proven to be both a challenging and rewarding endeavor. Rural people are interested in learning how to incorporate new forms of technology into their lives and their work, and although the Internet is just one potential tool in helping to build rural capacity, it can be a crucial tool for the capacity of rural and remote communities to survive in today’s changing social and economic landscapes. Such endeavors are therefore worthwhile, and while simply having access to the Internet remains a useful goal to achieve, our emphasis now should be on how to transform that asset into successful outcomes for Canadians.

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1 The Community Access Program – CAP (http://cap.ic.gc.ca) and BRAND (www.broadband.ca.ca) are two prominent federal programs in Canada.



The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441