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    Small Business Gateway Project Begins
    by Ralph Alberico, Dean of Libraries & Educational Technologies

    The Libraries and Educational Technologies division of James Madison University will soon begin a project funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, with the goal of helping small businesses, business students and educators become more efficient and more knowledgeable consumers of digital information.  This project is a partnership involving JMU Libraries & Educational Technologies, the College of Business, CISAT, the Small Business Development Center and other agencies. The effort will produce

    • an online gateway to useful, authoritative information from multiple sources on the Internet

    • online courses of interest to small business

    Clearly the Internet offers tremendous opportunity to the small business community.  It is a source of useful information that connects businesses to suppliers and customers and provides knowledge on which to base decisions.  At the same time, the Internet exposes the small business community to great potential risk.  The same technology that puts businesses in touch with potential customers can expose them to misinformation and con artists.  Bad information can lead to bad decisions. 

    Up-to-date information on technologies, markets, trends, geography, demographics, products, regulations and business methods is essential to small business success.  Yet training tailored for the small business community on how to locate and use these information sources is not readily available. Further, because many sources of unreliable and untrustworthy information are also found on the Internet, seekers of business information must develop skills in evaluating information and recognize what is useful and accurate.  Government-provided information on the Internet such as that offered by the U.S. Census or the EPA is often useful for small business, but collecting and manipulating this information can be a daunting task.  Prospective users of these data must deal with multiple interfaces, and master a steep learning curve before being able to work efficiently. 

    The gateway project will begin with a survey and analysis of small business information needs.  Information resources and information seeking strategies that are most promising for area businesses will be identified and incorporated in a web portal developed for the project.  The portal will include public domain and commercial databases with an emphasis on sources of high quality information.  Users of the portal will be able to go to a single source for the business information and instruction that they need. 

    Within the portal, users will be able to access information sources ranging from an article on a specific topic to a map of tourist attractions, or a list of grocery stores, land use zoning maps, or companies in a given industry.  The portal will link business information sources to one another and enable business people to generate maps from various types of data.  As part of the project, JMU Libraries will also purchase books and other print resources for small business and make them available for checkout by business people in the central Shenandoah Valley. 

    Another outcome of the project will be course development to meet the needs of small business persons.   Plans are to develop web-based courses that address small business needs and utilize the information resources offered via the gateway.  Short training modules on using and evaluating business information will be developed and made available on the public web.  Streaming video will be used to deliver instruction and training courseware on efficient and knowledgeable use of information.  Through training videos of business information experts demonstrating the use of various databases, business people will see how online information can be used to solve business problems.

    One of the most exciting aspects of the project will be the level of collaboration it encourages.  Librarians, business faculty, and instructional technologists will be working together to explore ways in which the Internet can be used to help businesses take advantage of online information and instruction to work smarter.  They will be partnering with members of the business community to identify information needs and ultimately to develop these online credit and continuing education courses.  Work on the project is just getting underway, and will take about two years to complete.


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