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A national educational television network for Australia: Why, how and when

Andrew Greig
University of Sydney

John Hedberg
University of NSW

At last, not before time, Australia could have its own educational television network. The network would be based on consortia of educational institutions, community groups and other agencies. Each station would rely on media students and other volunteers for its operation. Output would include credit course material and a variety of other education and training programs. Funding would come from many areas but the network would be much less costly than existing broadcast networks. A pilot consortium is being set up in Sydney and is running test broadcasts on Channel 43 - the UNSW station. A superb opportunity to improve both education and broadcasting is being offered. It must be taken.

The dream is...

...a Full Power Educational and Community Television Channel for the whole country. This channel would be fully on par with the national and commercial channels. It would be based on non-profit consortia of educational and community organisations in each major centre. The main purpose of the channel would be to broadcast educational programs of all kinds together with a proportion of community programming. There would be a core of course material for credit. Each consortium would be independent and operate its own television station but material would be shared and exchanged by a variety of means (including tape dispatch, landline, microwave or satellite). The stations would be operated in a similar manner to Public Radio stations - by a mixture of professional staff, media students and community volunteers. Program material would be obtained from many areas but where possible would be produced locally. The operational and production costs would be met from a variety of sources - including student fees, income from government and industry training bodies, federal education grants, commercial sponsorship and sales of tapes and other materials. The "Network" would be associated with a national agency for course accreditation. It would also utilise other media and technologies including print, radio, tele-conferencing and computer based learning.

Community broadcasting

This paper will concentrate on the educational aspects of the station but it must be emphasised that community broadcasting will be integral to the concept. Until sufficient frequencies are available educationists and community broadcasters will have to share the same stations in most cases - but this should be to their mutual advantage in the developmental years.


In most capital cities in this country, we have a choice of five television channels - the ABC, the SBS and three commercial stations. Many of us will probably admit that there are plenty of good programs we never get to watch - (even if we could elbow aside the other members of the family who are playing computer games or looking at videos).

Why then do we need yet another television channel, albeit an educational one?

One very good reason is that if education does not get the channel someone else will. We maintain that as far as the people of Australia are concerned, no other contender will be as useful and important.

More specifically an educational television station would prove an enormously useful agency in off- campus and continuing education. The Federal Government is committed to providing forty thousand new places in tertiary education over the next few years. It has also emphasised the importance of equal opportunity in education. Television is an extremely cost-effective way of delivering course material. It is also very equitable. Anyone within range of the transmitter can watch.

There is a third reason. Even if, hypothetically, the channel resulted in no actual education at all - it would still have a use.

Picture if you will. Ms Average sitting in her home clicking her remote control at random through the channels. Amongst the Football, "Neighbours" and "Perfect Match" she will come across Educational Programming. Whether she watches it or not, education will have achieved a certain status. Just by being on broadcast television, learning will have been put on the national agenda.

Why did it not happen earlier?

One might ask why it hasn't happened before. There are several reasons.

First of all, for many years it was assumed that the ABC was responsible for educational television. But although schools programming has been excellent there has never been much support for continuing education.

Technology has also been a barrier. Until the last few years, television has been a rather expensive and mysterious business. A huge investment was required in both equipment and staff. Location work was done on film and even the broadcast videotape recorders were massive. A television network run by universities and community groups would just not have seemed feasible.

But the greatest impediment of all perhaps was that television in Australia has largely been regarded as an entertainment medium. Only recently have things changed.

Why now?

A whole number of factors have recently combined to make the dream possible.

Technology has made for much lighter, cheaper and more reliable equipment. The car-sized video recorder has shrunk until it can now be clipped onto a hand held camera.

The new technology has removed much of the mystery. With so many people learning video skills at school, at college or even at home, the idea of volunteer operators is quite acceptable.

The success of Public Radio has shown that "non-professionals" can do some very "professional" broadcasting.

With the coming of home video, educational media centres and industrial video units have multiplied and flourished. Video as a training medium is now in vogue.

In terms of Federal politics there has been a move at last to overhaul higher education - to improve its efficiency and make it accessible to more of the population.

Simultaneously there has been an immense re-organisation of the television industry. There is now a strong indication that the government is looking towards allocating the 'Sixth Channel'.

The combination of all these circumstances seems to show that the time is now ripe for an Educational Television network.

Why broadcast television?

Not a few have argued that the new technologies are making broadcast television redundant. Why not duplicate and mail videos? Why not use the satellite - or wait for fibre optic cable television?

These other methods require considerable extra investment by both the distributor and the consumer. In contrast, conventional broadcasting is well proven and it is available now.

It also has a special magic. It is often forgotten that cable "radio" was the first type of 'broadcasting'. In the late nineteenth century large cities like London had cabled sound systems which delivered music and other types of program to a variety of customers.

The revolution came with Marconi and his contemporaries in the 'wireless' radio. Wireless meant availability to everyone - it meant a resource that was free (leaving aside license fees) to the whole population - as free as the 'airwaves' it came on.

Only broadcast educational television can be free to every citizen. If washing powder advertisements come to all of us for free - how much more important that education should.

Why a new network?

Not a few people have suggested that educational broadcasting could be carried quite adequately on existing television networks. Why not use the "downtime" they say?

The truth is that there is not much downtime left on the ABC. Even the SBS is rapidly extending its hours. Education could easily be left with only the scraps. And why indeed should education accept downtime? It deserves uptime - the best times possible.

How will it operate?

On the very simplest level a television station can comprise just a videotape player, a transmitter and an aerial. Further refinements are simply a matter of money.

Many of the stations will indeed be quite simple to start with. The important issue will be the supply of videotapes to be broadcast. Fortunately there is already quite a wealth of locally produced educational material on the shelves of our institutions. Theoretically much of this should be available for broadcast at cost.

There is almost certainly a quantity of non-local material available for broadcast at a reasonable price and this source could be a useful supplement. In the long term, however, the aim must be to produce materials locally which are tailored to local needs.

Luckily our institutions and training agencies are already well supplied with educational video production houses. The quality is variable but improving rapidly. There is no doubt that a broadcast outlet would provide a terrific stimulus to raising standards.

'Hands-on' operational work and presentation will be done largely by volunteers - particularly media students. A core professional staff will coordinate, assist and look after technical maintenance.

Who will pay?

We sometimes forget that you and I pay for all our broadcast television - whether it is through our taxes for the national services or a few cents on every packet of washing powder for commercial television. Public Educational Television will be no different, except that it will probably be cheaper.

The Federal education budget will make its contribution through its overall funding of institutions. There may also be a proportion of the 1% "discretionary" funding announced in the White Paper. Industry will of course recoup its contribution through sponsorship from you (and I) the consumer(s).

However it will be cheaper in that the process will to some extent involve the liberation and re-direction of existing resources, such as the videos locked up on library shelves or the under-utilised media production centres in our colleges. The most important such resource will of course be the skills of our educational technologists and media students.


In a sense it could be said that the channel is already launched. A pilot consortium of educational institutions is being formed in Sydney. This comprises the four Universities (Sydney, NSW, Macquarie and UTS) and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. This alliance has a formidable total of technical resources - broadcast standard studios in most of the institutions and a one kilowatt transmitter at UNSW. It also has (for a short time at least) the use of a frequency, channel 43 which is licensed to the University of NSW.

The ANZAAS Congress was broadcast over channel 43 from the University of Sydney for a full week in June from a transmitter mounted on the roof of the University of Technology. Media students from a number of institutions operated the equipment. Test transmissions of educational material are now proceeding each afternoon from the UNSW's own one kilowatt transmitter in Kensington.

A detailed plan has been drawn up for the development of the consortium. This will include a substantial schedule of educational transmissions, an application for Federal funding, the development of a management structure and an application for a permanent transmission license in the near future.


A Public Educational Television Network gives this country a superb opportunity to improve the skills and understanding of our people. We must grab the chance and make the best of it.

Please cite as: Greig, A. and Hedberg, J. (1988). A national educational television network for Australia: Why, how and when. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 9-12. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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