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Ian Forsyth
TAFECOM New South Wales

The idea of convergence in educational technology generates an image of concentrating numerous services as if entering a tunnel. In this paper, it will be argued that it is what happens at the other end of the tunnel or the user end, the divergence, that also needs considering.

The paper is in three parts. Part One looks at one aspect of convergence in the development of Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) telephone technology. Part Two will present a current case of the use of that technology in New South Wales TAFECOM and the characteristics of that trial. Part Three will look at the future of technology and the need for divergence within convergence.

Short anecdotal history of the telephone as convergent technology

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell is reported to have said, "Mr Watson come here, I want you"[1] . By the middle 1990s we will, as teachers, trainers and as private citizens be seeing others at the end of a telephone line as if they are in the same room. This used to be the fantasy behind the science fiction of The Jetsons and detectives such as Dick Tracy. In a recent report of the Sydney Morning Herald the development of the "wrist phone" is in progress.[2] The video phone already exists in R&D Departments of telephone companies around the world. But more importantly video conferencing and related to it video instruction using telephone lines is being tried and used in Europe and Australia.[3]

In the early 1980s the Elliston Project[4] would have been one of the first to use a range of technologies to converge on the telephone line and to re-emerge at the other end with reasonable accuracy. In the last eight years the technology has progressed.

In the mid-80s the Victorian [state of Australia] school system with assistance from agents such as Country Education Project and the Innovations Program, developed electronic messaging systems in the remote Mallee and East Gippsland areas.[5] In late 1989 the University of New England trialed interactive video conferencing between the central campus and a study centre.[6]

In Europe and the UK the use of telephone to support student learning is well reported. The Open University of the UK has for some time been expanding the use of modem links for students enrolled in courses requiring the use of computers.[7] Similar examples exist in countries such as Denmark. In Denmark, the Aarhus Consortium is exploring the use of the telephone lines as an interactive instructional device.[8]

At the moment, most of these examples use a very limited set of sites where instruction can take place. In part this reflects on the 'experimental' nature surrounding these attempts to use the telephone line as means of converging the technologies. But there are further considerations about access to this technology.

In the short term the access to much of this 'new' technology is costly and this can be a barrier to participation for some learners. For both the instructor and the learner to connect and make the telephone lines useable, the information must be translated into digitised data. This requires a computerised digitiser for vision, a modem, appropriate software packages and a printer for any hard copy. The cost of such equipment for the learner could be prohibitive, whilst for the institution, the provision of equipment could cause a drain on available resources.

In the long term the cost of the technology is expected to decline. One unanswerable question, as yet, is will the cost decline to a level where it can be claimed that using technology is not a financial obstruction to participation in courses.

The second factor in the 'limited site' for trialing and evaluation is the need to schedule the presentation of course material. A real consideration in the near future is going to be an answer to the question: How do you handle multiple sites? At the moment the limited sites of trails are determined by the limitations of yesterday's technology. This is disguising the fact that with tomorrow's technology, the reality will be in home [as distinct to in house or on site] delivery of instruction.

But what of today's technology? The next section outlines a trial conducted within TAFECOM New South Wales on the use of ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] Microlink from July to September 1990.

A present case: ISDN Microlink in TAFECOM New South Wales

At the time of writing this paper, TAFECOM New South Wales is entering into trials using ISDN Microlink technology. The trials will look at data transfer, interactive computer conferencing with multi screen capabilities and the use of visuals in interactive settings. One concern of this trial is not to fall into the 'technology traps' of concentrating on the glamour of the use of ISDN. One hope of the trial is that the technology will prove to be transparent in terms of any effect on course material delivery.

It must be restated that TAFECOM is an education and training environment. Within this environment both instructional correctness and the need for certification of skills and knowledge gained are central. The charter of TAFECOM is to present appropriate course material in a timely and cost effective manner. The need for high resolution images of 'talking heads' may do wonders for the ego of the presenter in high cost technology delivery modes of broadcast television or satellite distribution. However the emphasis on emulating these high cost settings also skews the intent of producing the instruction away from presentation of content. In the TAFECOM context most of the presentation of content is illustrative and demonstrative. These techniques are within the technical capability of the current ISDN 'Microlink' technology. This makes ISDN one more means of delivery.

In this trial the possibilities and modes of operation will be canvassed. The stages of the trial are to speculate, to attempt and to evaluate the results. The aims of the trial are as follows[9]:

Whilst it is possible to speculate on the uses of ISDN, the first purpose of the trial is to determine parameters of use in an education and training setting. Having determined these parameters trial material based on the guidelines will be produced and tested. This will set the educational and training use of ISDN in context. The key factor will be interactivity.

One use that will not be trialed is the distribution of a lecture. This is a misuse of the technology because it denies the capability of interaction. If one way communication is needed then broadcast television or TVRO [television receive only] satellite services could be used for the distribution of that one way information. It is also arguable that such a distribution service is more economically provided through the use of pre-recorded video tape. But other considerations are often overlooked.

In the case of one way 'talking head' presentation the humble audio cassette with support print material is a viable alternative. The pre-recorded audio cassette has many instructional advantages. The audio cassette has no requirement for visual attention to be focussed on the unchanging video screen of the talking head. With appropriate audio design, the visual attention can be directed to note taking and referencing to diagrams and still photographs to enrich the aural message. Using these techniques very effective teaching materials are able to be produced and distributed for a reasonable cost.

The TAFECOM trial of ISDN is being developed and designed to avoid the inappropriate use of this technology. The intention is to define the parameters for optimal interaction in a variety of instructional settings. One activity to take place with all trial teachers/instructors will be to select appropriate course content and designing interactive techniques to facilitate learning of the content.

The trial will use content from various Industry Training Divisions within TAFECOM. This will allow for a spread of industry, training and educational settings to be evaluated. One important element in the trial is that TTS [Telecom Training Services] will participate in the trail alongside TAFECOM staff. This has important spin-offs for both organisations.

The future as today

The future of ISDN technology is with us. As a digital system data and audio have been available for some time. It is now possible to compress a video signal to 1% [yes, One Per Cent] of that signals original bandwidth, transmit that smidgin of a signal down the telephone line, and reconstitute it to the full glory of the original at the other end. The ISDN service is available across Australia and within most major centres as this paper is being written.[10]

Because ISDN Microlink is an n x 64 kb/s service it offers advantages for data and voice over the [current 9.6 kb/s] data modems and analogue audio. With the development in video digitisers, interactive video is possible. It must be recognised that this is not full bandwidth video. What is showable, however, is real interaction. What must take place to produce effective interactive education and instruction is the recognition of the limits of ISDN as a tunnel of convergence. At the same time the ability of ISDN to be a means of divergent presentation to students and to 'open up' learning is attractive.

However the future is not so simple. The competition for the telecommunication business of the private, business and public sectors is 'hotting up'. AUSSAT, OTC and Telecom are looking at each others networks and market because of the financial return. Therefore the 'owner' of the technology for delivery may change in the future. What must be remembered is that in the next five years most households currently connected to the telephone network will have the option of a fibre optic line or ISDN capability to service their needs. These services could be replicated or deliverable by satellite or subscription cable networks if further deregulation of the telecommunications industry does take place.

The future then is not just one of convergence. The future is one where the range of services available through ISDN technology or the other distributive technologies will be selectively used for education, training or for pursuing the simple pleasures of communicating. In education and training the range of education and learning strategies available through ISDN technology offers a diversity of choice for presenting courseware. ISDN is a technology that is a focus or a convergent technology. However the effective use of ISDN will require decision making to be sure that appropriate technologies are selected to support the interactive instructional potential. It will require course designers to be divergent in their thinking to optimise the course reception possibilities at the other end of the ISDN tunnel. Whilst this will increase the opportunities to learn, the full benefit will only be achieved when course developers demonstrate the flexibility to utilise the diversity of technologies accessible through ISDN telephone lines.


  1. Bell A. G. (1989). Cited in Bloomsbury Dictionary of Quotations, p.28. London: Bloomsbury Publications.

  2. "Ol' Dick Tracy might get us yet". By Peter Hughes, Sydney Morning Herald, p.3. 9/2/1990.

  3. Progress Report on the Light College - Adelaide College Video Conferencing Network Project. Occasional Paper, 15 November 1989. Adelaide: Department of Employment and TAFE South Australia.

  4. The Elliston Project (1981). A Trial in Distance Education. Education Technology Centre. Adelaide: Education Department of South Australia.

  5. Wilson, J. (1989). Technology in Distance Education. Conference Proceedings 9th Biennial Forum ASPESA.

  6. UNE/TELECOM (1989). Trial of Interactive Video Using Data Comprehension Techniques Between UNE Armidale and UNE Coffs Harbour 3-13 October, 1989. Armidale: University of New England.

  7. Castro, A. (1989). Information Technology at the British Open University. Institute of Distance Education, Deakin University.

  8. DEUS Newsletter (1988). (Danish Enterprise University System Training Network) December, page 6.

  9. Forsyth, I. (1990). ISDN Trial Management Plan. TAFE NSW.

  10. McIntosh, D. (1990). Homework. Sydney Morning Herald, 15/4/1990 p.131.

Please cite as: Forsyth, I. (1990). Divergence. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 42-46. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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