Volunteers Offer Help to Web Surfers

A new volunteer program through Colorado State University Cooperative Extension is helping residents keep up to pace with the Internet. The Colorado Internet Masters program promises to help Coloradans catch the wave of surfing the net, and keep them competitive in job markets, in touch with others, and in tune with additional resources.

The hands-on program, co-sponsored by Rural Development Councils in western states, is geared for Web beginners who have little basic computer experience, especially people who live in rural areas. The program teaches surfing strategies; Internet concepts and terminology; protocol; etiquette; copyright provisions; Web page planning and design; how to evaluate sites, sources and information on the Internet; software and other tools to capture, exchange or program data; electronic commerce and security issues; and Internet marketing strategies.

"The digital divide between rural and urban areas is severe, and it’s getting worse every day," said Flo Raitano, co-chair of the Internet Masters Program in Colorado and executive director of the Colorado Rural Development Council. "Look back to the implementation of the interstate highway system. Those communities that are close to an interstate, especially those with access to the interstate via off-ramps, thrive and survive. Those communities that are farther away from an interstate have suffered economically. It’s the same phenomenon with the information superhighway. These rural communities and the people in them are getting left behind because the technology of the Internet — from the wiring to carry it into homes to the knowledge of how to use it — is slower to reach rural communities."

Raitano expects participants in Internet Masters to be from all age groups, professions, and geographical areas. In addition to people in rural communities, others who may be interested include people in the middle-aged and elderly populations who may not have had as many opportunities to learn about the Internet.

The course will be taught throughout the state by a spiderweb of volunteers who have already completed the program and who are specially trained to teach others to become Internet savvy. Everyone who completes the Internet Master’s Colorado course is required to volunteer for 30 hours before they are certified as passing the course and becoming an Internet Master. They must volunteer in an Internet-related activity in their community, such as working in their local library to help other citizens access information.

Those who want to become trainers must take the course, an additional trainer workshop and then co-teach Internet Masters courses before they are certified as a master trainer.

"The Internet is such an integral part of our everyday life," said Sheila Knop, also a program leader, and Colorado State Cooperative Extension’s Center for Rural Assistance specialist. "It’s important for all citizens to have an opportunity to learn how to use it. We’ve found that this kind of training is critically needed in Colorado."

But Internet Masters Colorado does more than teach people how to use the Internet. Raitano added that the courses also will increase the demand for more and better access to technology in rural areas, because more people will know how to use the Internet and will want access to it. The program also will help bridge the technology gap in rural areas.

Once more people know how to use the Internet and get access to it, they’ll be able to help their communities with any number of issues because their ability to research information, their access to information and ideas, and the opportunity to communicate with others will be greatly improved.

"This program embraces the spirit of community and working together," added Knop. "It’s a true partnership; we rely on volunteers to teach it, and we need community organizations, businesses and agencies to sponsor the local courses, which will keep the program affordable."

The program evolved four years ago when Rural Development Councils in western states recognized the need for technical education in rural areas. It was designed by the Colorado Rural Development Council, Colorado State Cooperative Extension, Colorado Small Business Development Center, and Colorado rural technology programs. For more information or to find out about local classes, call the Colorado Rural Development Council at 970-262-2073 or visit its Web site at soba.fortlewis.edu/sbdc/internet_masters.htm.