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Abstract -- Potential Users and Virtual Communities in the Academic World Users Track
U6: Community Networking

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Potential Users and Virtual Communities in the Academic World

Silvio, Jose ( j.silvio@unesco.org)


Physical connectivity problems in networks are being solved at a relatively rapid rate, and the focus of attention has gradually shifted from the infrastructure and technology to the users, resources and information contents. The spectacular growth of the INTERNET, particularly in developing countries, has taken place so fast that the mechanisms of incorporation, training and development of unexperienced users has not evolved in a similar fashion. A large population of potential users, from very diverse education and research commnities, still remain ouside of the virtual world.

Alongside the development of virtual communities of users, we are witnessing and impressive growth of what might be called, academic "associationism" and "integrationism". An evidence of this trend is the proliferation of many kinds of cooperative networks and associations of individuals and institutions, which do not yet function in a virtual environment.

Academic "associationism" has, to a large extent, been furthered by various international organizations. UNESCO initiated in 1991, the UNITWIN Programme (University Twinning), a worldwide program of University cooperation, encompassing all fields of knowledge, with the aim of promoting the development of networks for academic cooperation and integration, to facilitate the international transfer and management of information and knowledge, with a view to a more sustainable development. In 1994, the Commission of the European Union started the ALFA Programme, to support the development of networks for academic cooperation, between Europe and Latin America.

The "non-virtual" communities which have emerged from UNITWIN, those which are emerging from ALFA, and others which are taking shape outside them, more spontaneously, are of particular importance to the INTERNET, since they are sources of potential users, starting points for the development of virtual communities, and sources of information resources and contents which could add significant value to the electronic networks.

Although the training of users and the development of virtual communities in the INTERNET has been relatively spontaneous, very valuable efforts are also being made to support them in a more systematic fashion, as can be seen from several papers discussed in INET'93 and INET'94. The work done by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, through its NISP/Mailbase programme in Europe, and by the USIS Working Group of TERENA are a very good example. Other developments, at a more specific level, include: UNINET (Norway), EDUCATE (Sweden and other european countries), ELSA (Europe) and CICNET's Rural Datafication Project (USA), University of Hawaii (USA). The experiences of community networks and the Free-Nets, of a broader scope, are also very useful for the indicated purpose.

Furthermore, organized efforts have also been made for the purpose of monitoring the evolution of the vast structure of networks' connectivity, users, services and resources the "Matrix" worldwide,which has been furthered mainly by the valuable research and information work carried out by Matrix Information and Development Services (MIDS).

All these efforts (virtual and non-virtual, user-oriented and network- oriented) should be coordinated in order to facilitate the incorporation, training and development of new users and new communities into the INTERNET and into the Matrix in general, thereby adding value to networks and to the academic work at the same time.

We need:

  1. an integral approach of networks and of computer mediated communication, as an integration of users, technology, services, resources and contents, from which we could build and apply coherent development strategies;
  2. an adequate framework to study the actual and potential users, their communities, to identify their characteristics, needs and expectations, and to design and apply strategies for each segment of the user population, to facilitate their incorporation, training and development and the relationships between different actors;
  3. the establishment of firmer bases for the development of virtual communities, and the organization of their services, resources and information contents i a coherent way;
  4. a permanent monitoring of the development of "associationism" and "integrationism" in order to develop adequate infrastructures and methodologies for international management of information and knowledge in a virtual environment.