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Distance education in the Mallee Secondary College Cluster

Warwick Matthews
Telematics Coordinator, Mallee Secondary College Cluster

John Brookshaw
Senior Teacher, Sea Lake Secondary College

The Mallee Cluster is attempting to broaden the curriculum offered to Year 11 and 12 students through the development of a computer based, interactive, remote teaching link. This 'Telematics' link allows small classes in several schools to be taught by one teacher, usually providing specialist subject teaching. In the past such small classes have either not been offered or have been taken by Correspondence. The provision of a quality remote teaching environment has taken the form of an audio link using DUCT terminals, a document link using a Fax machine and photocopier and most importantly, a visual link using Macintosh computers, LCD units, graphic tablets, modems and unique, interactive, multipointing software. A demonstration of this teaching environment, linked back to Victoria, will be a feature of the presentation. Participants will also be given the opportunity to get 'hands on' experience.

The Mallee Secondary College Cluster consists of five schools in the far north west of Victoria. The five schools have a combined enrolment of about 1100 students, with the smallest school having only 70 students and the largest having around 450. The schools are up to 200 km apart and are between 60 and 120 km from the most central school (Ouyen).

In May 1985 the Victorian Government released the Blackburn report. This report indicated the need for all schools to offer a broad, comprehensive curriculum at senior levels if retention rates were to be increased. The report was silent on credible models for the implementation of such a curriculum in small country schools. Rural communities were, in the main, not attracted to the formation of senior colleges and hostels, with students absent from home for extended periods of time.

The Government soon after announced plans for the Victorian Certificate of Education. The VCE will involve a substantial restructuring of Year 11 and 12 curriculum. The VCE consists of 13 fields of study with three of these (Australian Studies, Technology Studies and Information Technology) being studies that were not covered to any extent in the traditional high school curriculum. In March 1986 the five schools produced a formal re-organisation document and in March 1987 a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Government. This reorganisation was based on the premise that by 'clustering', a more efficient use of physical and human resources could be made.

In particular the Mallee Cluster had two objectives in mind. Firstly, to deliver courses in Information Technology and Technology Studies and secondly, to allow very small classes in traditional curriculum areas to be taught by combining such classes across the Cluster. The Cluster has developed two separate modes of course delivery in achieving these objectives - Tekpaks and Telematics. Both modes of course delivery have .spread throughout Victoria, with many small rural schools now gaining the benefits of 'clustering'.


The Tekpak concept of mobile, self contained work units has been used to facilitate the sharing of physical resources within the Cluster. Tekpaks have allowed a far greater investment in capital equipment than would have normally been possible since a much more efficient use is made of the equipment. A Tekpak contains all the physical resources to equip and run a course as well as a curriculum resource folder that contains a variety of approaches to the teaching of that course. The Cluster is at present teaching, trialing and/or developing units of work in:
Computer Assisted Graphics
Power technology (small engines)
Power technology (multi-cylinder engines)
Control Technology
Machines and Mechanisms
Media Studies
Information Technology
Joining Materials
Alternative Energy
Engineering Technology


Small rural schools have always faced difficulties in offering a broad choice of curriculum to senior students. The schools are staffed on the assumption of class sizes of 25, yet in many classes less than half this number is the norm. Classes of five or less students have often had to take their studies by Correspondence and in reality students often choose another subject rather than do so. If a greater variety of senior courses are to be offered then the teaching resources within the schools must be used more efficiently.

Telematics allows very small classes to be run efficiently by combining several small classes across the cluster into one larger class. The Telematics classroom concept therefore has a teacher at one school taking their own class, and in addition, teaching small numbers of students in several other schools. Students choosing specialist subjects can now be taught full time and also gain a far greater contact with students of similar interests.

The Telematics classroom concept recognises that teachers use a variety of media in their everyday lessons. A class run with Telematics must be able to access those media if it is to be a viable alternative to the normal classroom. The Telematics classroom as it now stands (and it is continually developing as technology improves!) consists of the following:

Teaching media

  • a Macintosh computer with a Kodak Datashow display facility
i.e. a blackboard and/or OHP
  • a Macintizer graphics tablet and stylus
i.e. chalk or pens
  • a DUCT teleconferencing unit and Confertel bridge
i.e. voice contact
  • and a Facsimile machine (Fax) with a low volume photocopier
i.e. handouts/handins

The Telematics system does not provide a replacement for 'eye contact' or body language nor does it allow the transmission of real time video. These limitations are due to the restricted data transmission rates available where telephone lines are used to convey information. The system does allow for hand written input via the graphics tablet, typed input via the keyboard or the use of input from a software application such as ANUGRAPH or EXCEL. The hand written input is of comparable quality to that obtained on a blackboard. Whatever appears on the teacher's screen is also seen on all the other remote screens and the same holds for any changes made to any of the screens. In addition teachers can pre-prepare materials using off the shelf Mac software and call up their material at will. This is similar to the use of pre-prepared overheads, slides or video stills. To help in this preparation of material each school has a Mac in the staffroom and also a Canon/MacScan image scanner. This last item allows diagrams, maps and other graphic work to be quickly copied from texts and other references onto the Mac screen.

A variety of software has been used in the pre-preparation of lesson material and as applications during trials and lessons. The bulk of lesson preparation has been done with Microsoft WORKS, the graphic desk accessories DESKPAINT or CHEAPAINT and specialist desk accessories such as Macsigmaqn. Applications such as ANUGRAPH and SUPERPAINT have also been used extensively. All functions resident in any Mac software package are available when used in this system, with the communications software being 'hidden' in most respects.

Communications software and hardware

The communications software has been under development for over two years. The majority of trials and dependent classes have used Intermac, a desk accessory that allows point to point 'dual processing'. Each Mac must run the same software, and changes on either Mac are simultaneously shown on the other. Where Intermac is used in conjunction with a Paint program and a graphics tablet, a very powerful blackboard is simulated. If Intermac and a word processor (with a paint desk accessory) are used then a blackboard/slide projector/OHP simulation is achieved. Intermac can also be used with other software such as databases, spreadsheets or accounting packages. These alternatives can be used to show remote students (or teachers) the uses of such software or as actual teaching tools. Intermac does not ( at present ) have a file transfer facility so either both Macs must have access to identical files or any work is started from scratch. This places a great importance on teacher preparation of files and the ability to pre-send the files prior to a lesson taking place. Intermac is also restricted to point to point situations.

These limitations have been addressed in a newly developed communications desk accessory called Sideband. Sideband runs on an Appletalk network and with the use of remote servers allows multipointing of schools to occur. Sideband only requires one of the Macs to have the prepared file present with all other Macs having an exact copy of the host's screen. All users have control over all functions of the software so a truly interactive environment is available. There is a small delay initially in sending a screen to remote users but amendments to the screen are rapid. Although no dependent teaching has occurred as yet to fully evaluate its potential, it would appear from trials so far that Sideband is close to the 'remote teaching' ideal as seen by the Mallee Cluster.

The speed of any communications program depends on the modem used. At present Netcomm 24/24 (2400 baud) modems are used and these provide sufficient speed for Intermac. The Cluster intends to use Trailblazers for future Sideband multipointed trials to gain the extra speed required in this approach. The Telematics classroom therefore requires three Telecom lines - one used on occasion for Fax, one used all lesson for DUCT voice transmission and one used all lesson for data transmission. It appears likely that both voice and data transmission at a sufficiently high speed may soon be available over one line.

Staff in-service

Given that the Telematics concept is still in the developmental stage it is not at present being widely used for dependant classes. In the meantime the Cluster has concentrated on in-servicing a large number of teachers in developing competence and confidence in the use of Macintosh computers. The issue of staff training is of vital importance in the introduction and acceptance of new technology and the ease of use, coupled with the flexibility and power of the Macintosh made this machine the first choice of the Cluster as a communications vehicle. The strong and very favourable response from our staff to the Macintosh as a lesson preparation environment has vindicated our initial decision, with around 90% of cluster staff being 'Mac literate'. However relatively few staff have as yet been fully exposed to the initial versions of the communications software. The Telematics system has already been of enormous benefit in the administration of the Cluster, in course development and for local in-servicing of teachers. Mallee Cluster schools are involved in the trialing of level 1 and 2 VCE courses in 1989 and the teachers involved are already planning the use of Telematics in fulfilling elements of study designs that cannot be met from limited community resources. This may involve activities such as the use of specialist teachers, guest speakers and joint school discussions.


The Mallee Secondary College Cluster has developed a wide range of Tekpak based courses in Technology Studies and Information Technology. In country Victoria another five clusters have been funded for development of courses using this model, and another eight clusters have expressed interest. Over 60 schools, in ten or more clusters across country Victoria, have the elements of the Telematics system installed. This system of distance education has been developed to more efficiently provide teacher resources to very small classes at the senior school level. Traditionally such small classes have either been taken by correspondence or not run at all. The Mallee Cluster does not see the application of Telematics in a more widespread manner, but where the small sizes of many of our senior classes would ordinarily reduce the breadth or depth of curriculum offered to our students, then Telematics can provide a valuable and enriching experience.

Authors: Both Warwick Matthews and John Brookshaw are teachers in the Mallee Secondary College Cluster. Warwick is responsible for coordination of the Cluster Telematics program and is a member of the Victorian Working Party on Telematics. John has been extensively involved in the trialing and development of the Cluster Telematics program and is also responsible for the development of our Information Technology courses. Neil Elliott (the remote link person) is Regional Consultant and Convenor for Facilities, Resource Agreement on Retention and Technology.

Please cite as: Matthews, W. and Brookshaw, J. (1988). Distance education in the Mallee Secondary College Cluster. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 113-116. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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