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Rural and remote learning centres: The point of convergence for the provision of further education by alternative delivery systems

John Kirk
Adelaide College of TAFE
This paper discusses the development of community learning centres in rural and remote areas of South Australia and outlines how they have become the focal point for a range of learning delivery systems aiming to provide access, equity and participation for off campus students in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) courses.

The philosophy behind their development is summarised in the following quote from Mr Peter Kirby, the Chief Executive Officer for the South Australian Department of Employment and TAFE.

... For the future we have to find creative solutions for the critical task of managing the resources of TAFE to produce greater access to a wide variety of programs all of which meet the needs of a diverse range of clients.... It will mean breaking away from the constraints of buildings and fixtures.... We will have to reach out with unconventional learning systems. (Open Learning Newsletter No. 2, November 1989)

Rationale for learning centre development

The development of the learning centre concept grew from a concern that people in South Australia's rural and outback regions lacked access to a wide range of TAFE courses. This concern was combined with the need to provide increased opportunities for interaction between lecturers and off campus students, and to allow these students to interact with each other.

With the majority of mainstream courses offered being centrally located either in Adelaide or large country towns, the choice for country people was either to travel to the particular TAFE campus, use external studies print courses (where these were available), or simply miss out. The travelling often meant long hours on the road or a move to the city, and disrupted families and businesses. In many cases, the need to study is a legal business requirement.

For many students, studying alone using just print materials presents a daunting prospect, with the result that course dropout rates are high. By providing a place with some simple but effective technology, the learning centres have met student needs for immediate feedback, interaction, and a group learning experience.

Early trials that were conducted with learning centres, indicated a range of other benefits for students studying this way. These included increased motivation, decreased dropouts, and students being more responsible for their own learning. The use of audio conferencing also produced improved concentration and verbal skills.

Description of the learning centres

The learning centres vary according to local needs, but basically, they offer a space where rural people can travel a short distance to participate in a growing range of TAFE courses. For some students, this means being linked by telephone to an existing class in Adelaide or one of the country colleges, where they may be either alone, or with a small local group. Others study by watching videotapes of lectures, or by working through printed external studies materials with a local tutor.

Typically, the learning centres are located either within an existing TAFE campus, a local area school, or in a community building. Access is needed during the day as well as the evening. The centres aim to provide a warm, inviting atmosphere, catering for the needs of adult learners. Each centre is equipped with a DUCT[1] audio conferencing terminal, a facsimile machine, video replay facilities, and a range of distance education course materials.

Some of the centres have already been equipped with specialist technologies as part of on going trials (see the section on technology), and interactive computer links are currently being planned for others.

The centres are managed by part time managers recruited from the local community, or by full time TAFE lecturing staff as part of their duties. Through their promotion of the services offered by the learning centres, the managers have become a focus for TAFE in their own communities.

Extent of learning centre networks in South Australia

The number of learning centre networks based on country colleges of TAFE has expanded rapidly throughout South Australia beginning with the School of Aboriginal Education centres in June 1985, followed by the South East College centres in 1987. The networks now cover the majority of the populated areas of the state.

Aboriginal Education conducts courses in a variety of learning centres throughout the state, the South East College of TAFE has a network of seven centres, Eyre Peninsula College in the far west has four, the Riverland College is currently establishing five, Murraylands uses area schools, and Port Augusta in the far north has a network of five learning centres.

Map: Learning centre networks in South Australia


Each of the colleges has produced its own variation of the learning centre model.


The most common delivery method used in the learning centres, is a combination of audio conferencing or teletutorials (some with interactive fax) together with printed study guides or learning packages. The public telephone network has been largely taken for granted as an educational tool. It has the capacity to provide a cheap, effective means of communicating with off campus students. When combined with well produced study materials, good teaching methodology, and a facsimile machine, telephone based teaching is able to meet many of the educational needs in the community; especially for those people who are home bound or who live in remote areas.

The provision of a telephone line, an audio conferencing terminal and a fax machine, are the first requirements of all learning centres, and provide the backbone of the network. VHS video replay facilities are also provided for students needing to view video tape materials, either individually or as a group, and a range of the more popular external studies print materials are also stocked by the learning centres. Other print resources and practical kits needed for courses are available on demand.

In 1989, four of the most northern learning centres (Amata, Indulkana, Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta) were equipped with TVRO[4] satellite earth stations to enable them to receive a full PAL television signal from Adelaide College via Imparja TV in Alice Springs. This was part of a ten week talkback television trial (one way video with two way audio by telephone conference link) undertaken to determine if the addition of a video image to an audio conference would enhance learning.

A further development has been the installation of video conferencing technology (two way interactive video and audio) into three sites to determine the effectiveness of all participants being able to see each other as well as converse with each other. The Light College centres at Clare and Nuriootpa have been equipped with a compressed digital video link with the Electronic Classroom at Adelaide College for a video conferencing trial during 1990.

Delivery styles and methodologies

Most lecturers using audio conferencing with students located in the learning centres, aim to achieve a high level of interaction and participation. This is desirable from an educational point of view, as well as re-assurance that the students are still "online", and there have been no system failures.

The most popular methodology is the use of tutorials following the setting of work from a study guide or textbook. Ideally, the students are roughly at the same point in their study, and have common experiences to discuss with the lecturer and fellow students. Group sizes are kept to a manageable level of no more than 12-15 students, and sessions typically run for between one and two hours.

It is often believed that practical subjects or those including visual concepts cannot be learnt via the telephone. However, Word Processing A & B have been successfully taught at Port Augusta, and accounting subjects have been taught in a variety of places. The theory of diesel mechanics was successfully taught to Eyre Peninsula farmers using a combination of audio conferencing, study guides, and facsimile transfers.

Role playing also proved to be a successful way of teaching communication concepts by audio conference from Adelaide College to students in various parts of the state.

People wishing to present lectures with minimal participation by students are encouraged to use either audio or videotapes of a regular class in action. These have been very successful with some business studies subjects when combined with print materials and group discussions on site, with either local tutors or an itinerant lecturer.

Audio conferencing, through the learning centres, has also been used to share lecturing expertise between campuses, and for discussions with guests and VIPs. These people are able to interact with the students from the comfort of their own home or office, without having the expense or hassle of travelling to remote regions.

For most of the country colleges, a stipulated minimum class size requirement prevents a number of courses from commencing in outlying branches. At least 15 students must enrol to justify a lecturer travelling to the branch to conduct the class. For many of the smaller towns and communities, these figures are unattainable.

The learning centre networks provided an ideal solution for this problem. Students within the college's region could enrol in the desired subject, and then travel to the nearest learning centre to be linked together into a class group by a telephone conference call. This aggregation had a significant advantage for the country colleges: the students that would have previously enrolled in external studies at Adelaide College, were now part of their local programs. They were also included in their statistics. In this way, the concept of hub or networked classes is a key factor in the viability of the learning centres.

The concept also allows courses to be conducted from any of the sites in the network. Classes do not always have to originate in the major centre or hub campus and local expertise can be available to all the students with a minimum of travelling and expense.

Diagram: Networked classes

The talkback television and video conferencing trials predominantly used existing methodologies with a few modifications. Videotape material and graphics were used to enhance the teletutorial techniques by the lecturers involved in the first trial. Lecturers involved in the video conferencing trial were encouraged to increase the levels of student interaction and participation during the sessions.

Support for the networks

Although not technically a learning centre, the communications centre (located in the Centre for Applied Learning Systems (CALS) at Adelaide College's Light Square campus) provides an important link with most of the networks.

Through the Electronic Classroom and adjoining rooms, the centre provides a base for lecturers to interact with off campus students in a number of ways:

Revised methodologies are needed to make effective use of these alternative delivery systems. The CALS Learning Systems and Instructional Design group (LSID) work closely with lecturers using these systems, providing training and advisory services to ensure a successful outcome.

CALS Communications Centre

Diagram: CALS Communications Centre

Effectiveness of the centres

There is no doubt that the learning centres have made a major impact on the way TAFE courses are delivered to off campus students in rural South Australia. They have broken the constraints of correspondence and centralised on campus delivery, and offered a flexible way to study a broader range of courses. The success rate of the participating students is generally well above the average for on campus groups, proving that this form of delivery is anything but second rate.

The long term viability of the networks, however, hinges on a number of critical factors.

Even in the best of all possible worlds, not all needs can be met by the learning centres. This will always be a source of frustration for both the local managers and the students! However, the learning centres have become an integral part of TAFE's move to open up opportunities for rural communities, and as the industry restructuring demand for retraining and reskilling grows, their role will become even more vital.

Appendix: Summary of courses

  • Communications studies for certificate courses in business studies

  • International Principles of Marketing between Adelaide, Pt Lincoln and two centres in the USA

  • Certificate of Rural Office Practice (CROP) & New Opportunities for Women (NOW) courses for rural women

  • Real Estate Certificate subjects

  • Introductory Accounting & Financial Accounting 1 & 2

  • Diesel Mechanics (post-trade certificate)

  • Rural Farm Management

  • Certificate of Farm Practice

  • Adult Literacy & Numeracy

  • Matriculation English, and Japanese Conversation

  • Word Processing A & B

  • Office Trainee courses: Bookkeeping 1, Work Environment, Clerical Procedures

  • Introduction to Tertiary Study

  • Human Development

  • Microcomputer Operations

  • Aboriginal Education courses:

    • Adult literacy for remote aborigines
    • Community management for remote aborigines
    • Communication studies for prisoner education
    • Introduction to Vocational Education certificate courses
  • Light College video conferencing courses:

    • Business Law
    • Computer Applications (Theory)
    • CROP
    • General Office Practice
    • Rural Communications
    • Customer Service & Sales (Tourism)
    • Communications (Business Studies)
    • Business Economics
    • Small Business Management
    • Women's Studies/Community Care
    • Rural Property Planning
    • Building Practice
    • Pesticide Applications & Safety

  • Staff development & training for lecturers in rural campuses

Special projects

  • Aboriginal Education teletutorials (1985-)

  • Interactive Talkback TV via Imparja TV & AUSSAT (1989)

  • Rio Salado International Marketing teleclasses (1989 & 1990)

  • Hong Kong Introductory Accounting (1989)

  • Light College Video conferencing (1990)

  • The Electronic Classroom of the Future (1990-)


  1. Diverse Use of Communications Technology terminal developed by the SA Department of Education.

  2. The Bordertown learning centre is located in Hawke House, the former home of the Prime Minister.

  3. The use of fax machines connected to DUCT terminals for the exchange of documents between sites.

  4. TV Receive Only earth stations for receiving the Remote Commercial Television Service from Imparja TV.

Author: John Kirk is the Senior Lecturer in Communications Technology within the Centre for Applied Learning Systems in Adelaide. He returned from working in the Northern Territory in 1985 to help conduct the Aboriginal Education Teleconferencing trial with remote aboriginal communities in South Australia. The learning centre concept was modified from similar ideas operating both interstate and overseas, and was first applied to the then Naracoorte College of TAFE (now the South East College). He has worked with other country TAFE colleges to help establish their learning centre networks, as well as working as an instructional designer on the Aussie Barbie interactive videodisc, participating in the 1989 Talkback Television trial, the 1990 Light College Video conferencing project, and the development of the Electronic Classroom.

John Kirk, Centre for Applied Learning Systems, Adelaide College of TAFE, 20 Light Square, Adelaide SA 5000, Ph (08) 213 0111, Fax (08) 231 7165.

Please cite as: Kirk, J. (1990). Rural and remote learning centres: The point of convergence for the provision of further education by alternative delivery systems. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 97-107. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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