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Open learning and telecourses: The role of television in adult education in Australia

Graharne Ramsay
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
The role of television as a resource for open learning and distance education has been placed on the national agenda with the apparent success of the TV Open Learning project. This paper examines the project within a historical context and compares it with the much larger proposed Open Learning Initiative. The inter-relationships of governments, universities, video producers and broadcasters in the current project will be compared with previous efforts for adult education via television. This paper also considers some of the broader issues that TV Open Learning raises. How is "open learning" to be defined in the Australian context.? For whom should this service be provided and how should it be funded? The paper analyses the major differences between TVOL and OLI and suggests some likely policy outcomes for the future.

In search of "openness"

The term "open learning" has been appropriated by the Federal Department of Employment Education and Training (DEET) to describe the pilot educational project: Television Open Learning (TVOL). It has also been used, for a larger proposal by DEET, called the "Open Learning Initiative" (OLI). The actual meaning of "open learning " as it is used in these projects is complex. Although the term has been frequently used to describe the nature of education offered by various organisations, open learning is a term that defies precise definition.

Rumble (1989) suggests that there has been a monstrous misuse of language to describe some projects as "open learning" which are in reality "closed" in their approach. The terms open learning and distance learning have come to be used by some people as if they were synonymous. He emphasises that "open learning" techniques are not the exclusive preserve of distance education and can, also, be used to deliver courses for on campus education. Rumble provides a taxonomy of characteristics that have been applied to "open learning" These include criteria of access, freedom from the constraints of time and place, alternative presentation options, flexible assessment and support services (Rumble 1989, p35).

How "open" is TVOL?

TV Open Learning is built around the broadcast by the ABC of television programs which provide the initial resource for the learners. The system is "open" in the sense that anyone can tune in and it costs nothing to watch the programs. Students only pay if they want to purchase written resource materials or enrol to do examinations that lead to course credit. If we apply the range of criteria for "openness" identified by Rumble then the present project displays many, but not all, of the characteristics of "openness".

  1. Access criteria
  2. Access objectives were a key part of the rationale for the TVOL project. It was intended to "extend access to those in the community, who, for reason of isolation, or family or work responsibilities were unable to attend on campus courses" (TVOL Background Paper No 2). Three levels of student participation were allowed: watching the television programs only; purchasing the study materials; and completing assessment tasks to gain credit for the subject.

  3. Place and pace of study criteria
  4. In this regard, TVOL allows students to study at home but the pace is less flexible than some other projects. The pace is regimented, to some extent, by the once a week telecasts of the subject video. This compares with other distance education courses where the individual can work through non broadcast video or audio materials at their own pace or rely entirely on written material.

  5. Alternative presentation criteria
  6. The TVOL project displays some flexibility, for learners, in their decision about what media to use to assist their learning. For each unit there is a study guide, readings and broadcast notes. Just how interdependent these materials are, is hard to judge. The "instructional" style of different TV programs varies. Some stand alone while others need the written supplements to be fully understood.

  7. Assessment criteria
  8. Rumble includes the learner's ability to negotiate the method of assessment in determining "openness". In these terms TVOL is relatively closed. The student prospectus emphasises that the students must register for assessment in the study period in which the unit is offered or when the unit is repeated. There are only two exam periods per year. This apparent inflexibility is an obvious part of a desire for TVOL to be seen as equivalent to similar university subjects and a practical consequence of a short term pilot project.

  9. Support services criteria
  10. Each of the Universities providing subjects for TVOL provide quite varied support services. They include telephone tuition for a fee and some other hot lines to assist students. The group tutorials used in the British Open University are not a major part of TVOL in its pilot form.

Adult education and the ABC

Direct curriculum related support for adult education has not been a feature of ABC television programming until recently. There are many reasons for the ABC's late entry into this area. They include funding, absence of charter responsibility for adult education, institutional conservatism, and a fear that any move into adult education would be at the expense of school broadcasts (Ramsay 1988). With just one TV channel (unlike the BBC) the ABC has been constrained about broadcasting in this area. The recommendations of various committee's has supported this. In 1974, a committee investigating whether a British Open University model was appropriate for Australia warned that it would be virtually impossible for the ABC to use its limited airtime for an Open University/BBC style project. The committee felt the ABC would have little time left to provide programs for a general audience, Karmel (1974 p91) A sub-committee of the ABC Federal Broadcasts Advisory Committee joined others in 1979 in calling for adult education via an additional ABC television channel, Gilmour (1979 p71).The advent of SBS, the additional public service channel, provided for the multicultural needs of adults but not specifically adult education.

Another reason is the diversity of the adult education audience. The schools audience, by contrast, is a large and visible client for the ABC. The audience for the program Behind the News is estimated as more than one million children.(Palmer & Black, 1987) The adult education audience is less well defined and is serviced by a wider range of curricula and providers.

In areas of specific need in adult education, programs have been produced when outside money has been available. In 1987, Learning Network Pty Ltd, an outside commercial company, proposed to use the ABC and SBS early morning time slots to deliver "telecourse" material. Individuals and educational institutions would pay a licence fee to record and use these materials. The project faltered in 1988 because of, lack of Australian produced material and under funding, public sector resentment to a private sector initiative, competition from educational institutions with their own TV production facilities and Federal budget cuts to the States (Widdowson, 1990, p165)

Adult literacy was the next move by the ABC. The "Fresh Start " series was broadcast in 1990 with outside funds as a consequence of the International Year of Literacy, (Perlgut, 1991). This project has been extended in 1992 to become the "National Television Literacy " series. It is planned for day time transmission in August 1993. The objectives of the new series are to provide practical instruction in literacy and numeracy and to inspire potential students to make the first step towards formal classes, (Outline of the proposed series July 1992).

TV Open Learning

The funding of TVOL was announced as part of the 1990-91 budget statement. The Commonwealth Government decided in advance that television and independent learning materials was an appropriate means of improving access to higher education. DEET asked for universities and broadcasters to tender for some two million dollars to set up a project to extend access to higher education. This tender process is part of the current "economic rationalist" approach of consortiums of educational institutions competing like commercial companies for offerings from Canberra. A consortium of five Universities led by Monash University with the ABC as the host broadcaster won the tender. The other universities were: University of New England, Griffith, University of South Australia and Deakin University.

The lack of entry requirements for TVOL is the most obvious difference for students of TV Open Learning compared to students of traditional on campus education. There are no educational prerequisites, no higher education scheme fees, no quotas and no age limits for TVOL.

The TVOL project was to have been conducted on a small scale and used to evaluate the potential of educational television to improve access to higher education and promote open learning. In fact before the independent evaluation of TVOL is even complete, the Minister for Higher Education, is proposing to go ahead with a much larger project. Submissions have been called for the Open Learning Initiative (OLI). The perceived success of TVOL has been used as a reason for the OLI to be developed. Just how can we measure the success of TVOL which has only been going for six months.

Independent evaluation of TV Open Learning

The independent evaluation of TV Open Learning Project started in January 1992. The team from the University of Sydney, School of Educational Psychology, Measurement and Technology is directed by Associate Professor Bruce Keepes and is quite independent from the TVOL consortium. Their work is on going with the interim evaluation report submitted to DEET in April and some additional survey information available in August.

Some possible measures of " success" are implicit in a lot of the data from the interim report. One indicator is the response by people wanting to become students. An astounding 38,657 people rang a 0055 number to inquire about TVOL. Some 3,762 people purchased study material for the five programs telecast during the first study period. This was some ten times the market research estimate for the units of 400 people. Each of those people who purchased materials were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Their responses have been analysed as part of the TVOL Interim Evaluation Report.

An increase in access to higher education was a key objective set by DEET for TVOL. The interim report concludes

the project has provided equity and access to higher education for many who, because of isolation, work or family commitments, did not previously have such access. For these students, TVOL is seen as an alternative to conventional distance education and on campus study (Keepes, 1992, p16).
However some specific results of the survey indicate some of the assumptions implicit in the rational for the Open Learning Initiative may be faulty.

  1. Unmet demand
  2. The students enrolled in units in TVOL were not predominantly students who had missed out on a place at university (unmet demand). Some 12% of TVOL participants had applied for a place a university and were not accepted. Numbers in individual units were higher with the most in the marketing subject (21.8%). Some 42% of the total sample already had a degree or diploma from a University or CAE so they were not school leavers seeking a place at university.

  3. Reasons to study through TVOL
  4. The vast majority of students lived within a catchment area for a university and could have theoretically attended a university. The main reasons given for studying through TVOL were interest in the subject, to refresh knowledge, work commitments, time factors, flexible and easier to study at home and to broaden the mind. These reasons accounted for more than 75% of the responses.

  5. Broadcast times and videotaping
  6. Some 80% of the respondents videotaped the programs. The vast majority of respondents "strongly agreed" that TV was a good supplement to the print materials. The results of a follow up questionnaire has given data on the progress of students. The most recent information on the units in Marketing, Australian Studies and Religious studies indicates a potentially high completion rate. An average of 80% said they would complete all the segments of the subject. Nearly half of those students said they planned to undertake assessment for the units they were studying. Unlike on campus education students in TVOL could decide whether to complete assessment or merely purchase the study materials and leave it at that. If they wanted to be assessed this was an additional charge and included an examination and other assessment tasks. Many students may actually complete the unit but choose not to be assessed. The pass/fail rates for those who have undertaken the exams are not yet available.
The question of whether these students would want to do their whole degree through TVOL presents a split with more saying yes, they would, but a large group of the others saying it was unlikely.

The main insights we gain from these two surveys are that the population of students in TVOL is different from the population in Universities, that television is perceived as an important component of the process and that although they could theoretically have attended University to complete these subjects, most have chosen not to. One interesting exception is a student in the Northern Territory who is studying marketing through the University and TVOL simultaneously. The diversity of the students is remarkable with "French in Action" attracting the youngest student, a 13 year old girl, and the oldest, a 72 year old man.

The Open Learning Initiative

The Open Learning Initiative has been justified, in the main, on the basis of the success of TVOL. The two projects have many features in common but there are also some key differences between them. The OLI is aimed to alleviate unmet demand in a much more direct way than TVOL. This is a response to the record shortfall of university places by nearly 50,000 for 1992.

TVOL has attracted a lot of publicity and been favourably reviewed by academics and commentators. The Open Learning Initiative has been less well received. The Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, Professor Roy Webb is reported to have said that "brokering Open Learning nationally was really a way of introducing full fee paying students while possibly watering down standards" (Australian 22/7/92:13) The Australian Vice Chancellors Committee also has expressed fears that the plan might threaten the quality of university education and create a "second class of smorgasbord degrees." (SMH, 17/7/92, p11).

A de facto tender process has already begun for the OLI with "expressions of interest" from universities and broadcasters due on 7th August, 1992. The briefing document indicates some of the expanded features of the OLI compared to TVOL.

  1. Access
  2. This is still crucial but the specific target groups (mature age students, isolated people at home) have been removed and replaced by a more market led target for subjects in high demand. The TVOL project was heavily subsidised by the Commonwealth government with only token financial contribution from the students, the universities and the ABC. The proposed OLI works quite differently and is meant to be self funding by 1995.

  3. Place and pace of study criteria
  4. The OLI is planned to provide up to a whole degree by open learning. In this regard OLI seems to be moving towards the re-organisation of Distance Education Centres under the effective control of "an independent organisation." This new organisation would act as a broker between the students and the education providers. This change is quite possible because the present Distance Education Centres have no promise of funding after 1995. The benefits for students of OLI, according to DEET, are in the increased flexibility and innovation in the provision of high quality tertiary education services.

  5. Alternative presentation criteria
  6. The OLI will have a range of delivery modes. These will include computer assisted learning, audio and video materials, and radio and television broadcasting. The DEET information also instructs potential providers that "the proposal will need to demonstrate that the educational benefits of the technologies applied are commensurate with the costs." (DEET, 1992, p2).

  7. Assessment criteria
  8. The assessment techniques to be used are left up to the broker in cooperation with the education providers. There is a specific reference to the question of quality and standards. The broker is to institute quality assurance mechanisms to ensure "parity of esteem" between open learning courses, assessments and awards and those available through existing arrangements. This idea of "parity of esteem" seems ambitious in the university sector where differences in" esteem" between courses and institutions have been a persistent feature. "Esteem " is a difficult thing to measure and will vary on quite subjective criteria from course to course whether it is open learning, distance education or contiguous education.

  9. Support services criteria
  10. Under the proposed OLI project students could expect in return for their fees: access to library services, assessment including examinations, an advisory service to help them plan their program of study, appropriate credit transfer and the ubiquitous menu of purchase options. However DEET suggests that students will have to pay extra for some support services. The extent and cost of support for students is not clear. Is any "free" contact allowed with tutors or is it all an extra charge?
The whole document and the thrust of OLI vacillates between a private enterprise/user pays model and access and equity/open learning model. These two models are, in many ways, incompatible. The market forces /user pays approach would seek to recoup costs and make profits by requiring students to pay for everything. The access and equity/open learning approach seeks to encourage flexibility and even subsidise students. The project is meant to be self funding by 1995. Yet a number of clauses in the proposal call for flexible and optional payment structures, minimisation of hardware costs for students and a limit of $2,400 on the fees charged per year.

The project also has another set of agendas with the additional optional requirement for the broker to provide services beyond the university sector and for educational export.

The future

The diversity and commitment of people to TVOL indicates a needs and a market for this style of higher education. The Open Learning Initiative moves towards a much larger degree program. It is immersed in the issue of the administration of Distance Education Centres and the perceived political imperative to provide more university places cheaply and fast. It may well work but there are a whole range of technological options that can also be considered for the future. Pay television, narrowcasting, compressed video, optical fibre links, satellite networks to factories, colleges and universities. The selection of these technologies should be carefully made in the light of needs, costs and benefits and sound principles of adult education and instructional design (Hedberg, 1989).

The fate of the Open Learning Initiative may well be determined by the outcome of the forthcoming Federal election. Some observers see OLI as a desperate measure by the Australian Labor Party to win votes and capture the potential disaffected student and mature age voters who can not get a place at a university. The self funding aspects of the proposal may also be attractive to the Liberal/National party if they win office. Creative national use of educational television for adult education has, I believe, been established by the success of TVOL. The reason it has taken so long to get this in Australia is the need to have an union of purpose between the three parties of government, universities and a broadcaster. Previous attempts have failed to gain this tripartite support.


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Ramsay, G. (1992). Adult Education and School Programs: The two co-funded ABC educational television services. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 8(1), 35-50.

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Author: Grahame Ramsay is a lecturer in postgraduate subjects in postgraduate subjects in educational technology as well as coordinating the Media Production Specialisation at UWS, Nepean. He has a background as a producer/director with the ABC for 10 years and worked in the areas of journalism, and educational television. He is the current treasurer of ASET (NSW Chapter). His address is Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Western Sydney, Nepean, PO Box 10 Kingswood NSW 2747.

Please cite as: Ramsay, G. (1992). Open learning and telecourses: The role of television in adult education in Australia. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 259-266. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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