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Using communications technology to increase participation in the delivery of international education

John Kirk
Adelaide Institute of TAFE


The scramble (or clamour) among Australian educational institutions for a slice of the lucrative Asian and Pacific education market has often lacked cultural sensitivity and led to short cuts in the quality of program delivery. One government (Hong Kong) was so concerned at what appears to be educational dumping that it was considering legislation to control the delivery of international education.

This paper offers an alternate approach to the delivery of offshore programs. Opportunities are being missed by many Australian institutions in their push to enrol students in their twinning programs or to bring them to Australia for study. Communications technologies have the potential to provide a more interactive, participative model for the delivery of international education programs. This may result in two benefits: an improvement in the quality of existing programs and activities and the opening of new markets in the areas of in service training for teachers, staff development for employees in both the private and public sectors, and retraining of workers, government officials and managers.

But first, an explanation of terms:

Participation is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as "to have share, take part (in thing, with person)". In an educational context, participation implies that students have an active, direct involvement in the learning process.

Interaction has many meanings, including exchange, interchange, correspondence, come together, interplay, interconnect, reciprocation, symbiosis, cross fertilisation and communication. It is almost a truism to state that most learning materials involve some form of interaction. However, current usage tends to focus on interaction with machines (particularly computer games, computer simulations and computer based learning). The emphasis in this paper is on human interaction, particularly the use of technology to help people separated by distance to interact with other people: students and lecturers, students and students.

Cooperative is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "working together to the same end". In an ideal offshore relationship, cooperation would mean involving local partners and ensuring that the program includes strengthening the capability of local institutions.

Localised refers to the need to modify existing curricula and learning materials to suit local culture, learning styles and context. It also includes a consideration of language issues. cultural sensitivities and the use of appropriate technology.

Finally, dumping is used to refer to the practice of western universities selling off the shelf courses to students overseas with little regard for suitability, consequence or support services.

Why change?

Business is brisk: twinning programs are expanding rapidly, student enrolments are on the increase and Australia's status as a quality provider is growing. So why change?

Existing methods cannot cope with the demand

Together with the development of social, economic and technological infrastructure, education and training are key factors in the rapidly expanding economies of the Asia Pacific region. People are desperate to study overseas, as they see this as an essential step to a greatly improved lifestyle. Yet to limit the potential overseas market to mainly undergraduates, is to ignore the often much larger need for post graduate study, staff development, teacher training, in service and short courses, vocational and technical training.

It is clear from information available from our neighbours that traditional delivery methods alone, cannot cope with the demand for education and training. For example, in order to implement curriculum changes Indonesia has 1.2 million teachers to upgrade and the demand for qualified teachers has been intensified by the increase in compulsory school attendance from 6 years to 9 years. It is estimated that it will take 30 years to train these teachers using current methods.

Other countries in the region, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand have similar dilemmas.


Some countries in the region are becoming increasingly concerned about the cultural effects of their students spending long periods abroad. The following extract from a December 1992 report on the Malaysian Education Industry by the Australian Trade Commission in Kuala Lumpur, highlights possible developments in Malaysia.
The Government is increasingly aware of the brain drain from the country, a major cause of which are students who do not return from their studies overseas. Increased regulations on travel overseas, tor example, the imposition of a travel bond or similar for students going overseas, has been explored by the Malaysian Government. Should such restrictions be imposed, the number of students able to pursue overseas study will decline.

Need to improve quality of delivery

The need to improve the quality of delivery to overseas students is slowly being recognised by some Australian universities. Unlike local distance education programs. current offshore programs involve very little interaction with students. For many institutions, these programs once established, often become a case of out of sight, out of mind. Competition between institutions has caused price cutting, resulting in poor quality learning packages, unsatisfactory educational models and very little student support.

At a recent distance education forum held in Adelaide, Hong Kong educators expressed concern about the way Australian and other western universities were in effect dumping courses on that country's students. Their research showed that students were largely left to fend for themselves with few foreign institutions offering adequate support (Back, Cheng, Lam and Godfrey, 1993). There were also serious organisational shortcomings in that courses were often incomplete, non-accredited, or the content not adapted to local contexts.

Develop a competitive edge

For many years, distance education was considered a second rate form of education: these were the courses you did when you couldn't win a place in a proper university. Today, it is the fastest growing sector of education across the globe. The choices are many and are not limited by national borders. From a marketing perspective, institutions involved in this sector need to provide a different approach to their competitors. They need to provide that little bit extra, to achieve the edge.

Australian institutions have a significant time zone advantage over the long established and well respected American, Canadian, British and European institutions. The use of communications technology to provide interaction and contact between offshore students and Australian academics has the potential to provide this edge. A catch cry might easily be "We keep you in touch with your Professor".


Commentators and researchers have raised a number of issues about distance education in developing countries. These provide a useful context when considering the role of educational technology and how it might improve the delivery of these programs. Some recent comments are included to stimulate thinking about these issues.

Fitness for purpose

"Distance education has in some ways been more a model of cultural imperialism than a model of appropriate development. Attempts have been made to export models of Western systems to cultures and contexts which render them unfit for their intended purposes. Perhaps this is not too surprising if it is considered that aid assistance comes under conditions that do more to support development in the land of the donor rather than the recipient." (Meacham. 1993)
Distance education for all?
"Assertions that distance education is for all, unrestricted by geography or other dimensions of isolation, are simply not tenable in many rural areas of the developing world ... The system should accommodate a critical analysis of the existing infrastructure, the potential for cost effective improvements and an acceptance of the limits of accessibility; such a view being predicated on a rejection of equity of access as the purpose of distance education" (Meacham. 1993)
From a historical view of developed world assistance
... developed to developing world assistance in education has tended to be provider driven and/or aid politics driven..."

In future, it needs to be "more aware of its undermining potential with regard to local education, expertise and education for long term development; and more appropriate in terms of its transferred cultural, economic and social models." (McMechan and Matthewson, 1993)

The need for student support
"... where North Island College has offered non-traditional learners greater structure and support (especially in our live televised courses) completion rates and student satisfaction have soared" (Persons and Catchpole, 1992)

"If distance learning is to be provided it is essential that adequate student support be provided and that overseas students are not treated as second class students who receive less support than 'home' students" (Back, Cheng, Lam and Godfrey, 1993)

The need for two way communication in distance education
"In distance education there is a growing need and appreciation of sustained two way communication in the process of analysing and developing knowledge. Meeting the demands of an educational transaction at a distance is dependent upon communications technologies which provide frequent and regular interaction between teacher and student, as well as student and student ... Replacing the teacher with a package of course content does not make learning more student centred. It simply risks making learning more private and therefore less likely to transform the views and perspectives of the learner in a positive developmental manner" (Garrison, 1990)
Effective use of telecommunications
"A technological revolution has occurred, and it has produced so many opportunities for enriching and enhancing instruction, for connecting people who are geographically distant. and tor redefining the classroom that the challenge is not whether to use telecommunications as part of higher education. but how to use it." ("Going the Distance", 1992)


There are two myths perpetuated in relation to the use of communications technology for distance education programs in developing countries.

It's too expensive

This is the myth used most often to dismiss the potential use of alternative delivery methods. It is also the hardest to refute as each situation has a unique set of variables and often people attempt to compare apples with pears. Comparisons with face to face delivery for the same program are not always satisfactory as many other political, social and cultural variables impinge on the final result. Informal conversations with people engaged in twinning programs revealed that most assumed that the use of technology was too expensive, but none had conducted a cost benefit analysis to confirm their opinion.

The cost of communications hardware and services is on a rapid downward spiral, as advances in technology and increased competition take effect. Each educational scenario needs to be considered on its merits and cost benefit studies undertaken to determine the appropriate level of support for students.

The technology is too sophisticated for people in developing countries

This is a myth that is more easily dispelled, with numerous examples to be found of indigenous and other so called under developed peoples easily adapting to the use of radiophones, computers, video recorders, telephones and other consumer technologies. The Aboriginal Education Teletutorials begun in South Australia in 1985 showed clearly that remote aborigines living in outback communities were able to make effective use of audio conferencing technology to learn English language at a distance. During the 1970s in the remote jungles of Sarawak in East Malaysia, Christian missionaries used HF radios to spread their message amongst the local people.

The perpetuation of such myths through ignorance and prejudice limits the opportunities tor activities in the region.

Why participation?

It is now time to focus on the benefits of increasing student participation in the learning process and the potential role of interactive technologies in creating opportunities for direct, real fume, synchronous communication between students and teachers. Technology can bring people together, it helps break down the barriers of distance and creates a group feeling amongst students. In essence, it can provide a high tech/high touch approach to learning. Using anecdotal experiences and limited research, the benefits of participation might be summarised as: Some potential problems with a participative approach might include: Various levels of participation are the keys to successful projects. The provision of education and training must be considered for the benefit and development of the recipients, not for the host/ deliverer. The need to seek local institutions as partners must be stressed, as is the need to train local staff to provide student support services and counselling. Local participation will also provide expertise for adapting learning materials and delivery methodologies to suit local culture and learning styles.

Some harsh realities

A number of harsh realities exist for those contemplating distance education projects overseas. The most significant of these is that distance education is not a model suitable for all, as it may continue to reinforce existing inequities in education provision. That is, the most likely beneficiaries will continue to be wealthy, middle class, urban, employed, males. (Meacham, 1993). However. despite the many problems, the rewards are often great.

Possible interactive technologies

Not all communications technologies are appropriate tor use in developing countries, with cost, environmental and cultural issues all determining the final selection. The following technologies may have a role to play in offshore programs:

Audio conferencing: using telephones to teach

The ubiquitous telephone has been around for many decades (even in the more remote areas of the Asia Pacific region), but its potential as an educational delivery tool is still largely untapped. Recent advances in equipment design and function mean that this once predominantly conversation only device can now be used tor a range of education and training purposes.

Audio conferencing using loud speaking (hands free) telephones can link multiple parties of remote groups or individuals creating the effect of one gathering. The telephone provides an essential link between remote trainer and trainee: it facilitates tutorials amongst groups or individual students separated by geographic or other circumstances; it can be used for meetings between busy executives, reducing the need to travel, thus creating savings in both costs and productivity.

The Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang) evaluation of its teletutorials was consistent with findings from similar activities. It was noted that they:

HF radio (voice & data)

High Frequency radio is a technology that has been used for basic communications over many decades. Installed in remote areas outside the range of the telephone networks, HF radio is best known for its role in the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air in outback Australia.

It is a one way at a time technology requiring some discipline for effective use. However, experiences in Australia over many years have proven HF radio as an effective method of providing both social and educational interaction tor isolated children and adults. The technology is well established in most countries where an HF Radio Call Service (RCS) for subscribers in rural or remote areas is linked with the public telephone network.

Recently, the Malaysian Ministry of Education has successfully undertaken some test trials using HF radio for fax and data transfer in addition to voice communications, with the aim of reducing the isolation of both children and teachers in its most remote areas.

Talkback or Business Television (via satellite)

Talkback or business television can provide one way broadcast or narrowcast video and audio, via a communications satellite to large numbers of people in widely scattered locations. Interaction between the participants is achieved by return audio via telephone or radiophone. The methodology used is essentially audio conferencing with images, supported by print materials and other audiovisual components making up an integrated package. It is not to be confused with video conferencing which links designated centres in a network with two way video and audio communications.

By using broadcast technology, talkback television is able to provide interactive learning to people in the most remote areas using comparatively cheap reception equipment. Viewers within the satellite footprint are able tune in to the sessions, which are usually open for telephone calls to discuss issues with lecturers and guest experts.

Presentations (lectures, conferences, seminars, workshops, tutorials) are uplinked to the satellite from central classrooms or lecture theatres, or transmitted via video conferencing links from regional centres, if a network exists. In this way, students in remote areas can participate in activities occurring in any of the major regions across a country.

In addition to being able to broadcast programs to a wide area, a number of narrowcast options exist with satellite communications, particularly those with an encoded signal like the B-MAC system used in Australia and elsewhere. Programs are transmitted to preselected sites as a 'closed' session, ensuring privacy and confidentiality. When students enrol in a course of study, unique identification numbers are used by the control computer to activate each decoder. The concept of narrowcasting may alleviate some concerns about satellite broadcasting held by governments in the region. Talkback television:

Video conferencing (including desktop video conferencing and videophones)

The term video conferencing is used to refer to just about anything involving interactive video communications. It extends from full bandwidth satellite links between broadcast television stations for live 'hook ups' with politicians, to a host of activities using compressed digital video communications. There are huge differences in function and cost.

Most commonly, video conferencing refers to fully interactive, two way video and audio communications between a network of sites using digitally compressed video technology with the signals transmitted via digital telephone links, often through optic fibre cable. It is essentially a point to point business communications tool, that has been successfully adapted for the delivery of education and training. When used with appropriate methodologies, video conferencing is able to provide a learning environment between remote locations that very closely approximates face to face classroom activities. Practical demonstrations, tutorials, role playing and seminars are often more effective than traditional lecture presentations as they encourage greater interaction between participants.

This may be culturally appropriate for those preferring traditional delivery methods and could be considered as an alternative for some residential in service activities as well as for meetings and seminars. For industrial applications, the technology has the capacity to provide cost effective communications links from training providers to work sites, reducing the need for costly overseas travel and providing more personnel with access to a wider range of courses.

The great advantage of this form of delivery is its potential to maximise limited expertise both within countries and throughout the region. Human resources that are often concentrated in a few centres can readily be shared with clients in widely separated areas while minimising travel time, accommodation costs and lost productivity.

Video conferencing offers:

Computer conferencing (interactive mail and chat sessions)

Lastly, interactive computing and computer conferencing provide a largely untapped resource to assist moves towards a multinational, cooperative approach to education. For years, international bulletin board services and electronic mail systems have provided academics with valuable information exchange and contact with their fellows overseas. Yet beyond the marketing of software and user training, not much has been tried with this form of delivery.

Computer based training, computer managed learning, and other forms of computer involvement in education have also been around for decades. Refinements in hardware and software have enabled program design to transcend programmed learning. The availability of low cost desktop systems, providing high level graphics and sound, has overcome the previous dependence on high cost, high powered computers for the creation of interesting and stimulating multimedia learning environments.

Innovative applications now include surrogate laboratories where students can experiment with simulated equipment without fear of accidents and explosions, language learning programs that provide both aural, visual and written training and multi media programs that provide a rich mix of moving image, graphics, sound and text. Progress through the programs can be carefully monitored by the computer which is also able to provide reports on achievement to both the student and teacher.

Audio graphics (electronic whiteboards, and other computer based interactive graphics systems) also fall within this category. Software like The Electronic Classroom being used extensively by students in schools throughout Victoria provide a visual dimension to voice and print based activities.

Advantages offered by interactive computing include:

Towards a model

To be effective, the move to increase student participation in offshore learning programs should follow a developmental path, building on existing activities. For example, existing correspondence based external studies programs might introduce audio conferencing for tutorials and discussions. Distance education programs using broadcasting could introduce talkback segments into live television and radio programs to allow discussion with viewers. Lastly, the introduction of video conference links between campuses in a twinning program would reduce both student and lecturer travel. The links would also reduce the problem of out of sight out of mind, as it is difficult to ignore students if they are on the line talking each week. Cohorts of students would be kept together in their own country, in non-threatening, familiar surroundings, avoiding being separated and scattered over a huge campus in a foreign country. Most students dream of travelling to a foreign country to study. In reality, this dream will come true for only a lucky minority. For the others, these innovations offer an opportunity to achieve a similar level of attainment at less cost and with less disruption.

The technologies suggested in this paper have proven to be effective in a variety of situations throughout both the developed and the developing world. There have also been a lot of expensive and spectacular failures. Ultimately, it is the choice and application of the technologies together with appropriate methodologies and training that will ensure success.


Back, Cheng, Lam and Godfrey (1993).Exporting Distance Learning: The Question of Student Support. Distance Education Futures (ASPESA)

Eckermann (1993). Quality Issues in International Distance Education Programs Offshore. Paper presented to IDP National Conference, October 1993.

Garrison (1990). An analysis and evaluation of audio teleconferencing to facilitate education at a distance. American Journal of Distance Education, 4(3), 13-24

Going the Distance (1992). Annenberg/CPB and PBS Adult Learning Services publication.

McMechan and Matthewson (1993). A Commonwealth Asia/Pacific Distance Education Network. Distance Education Futures (ASPESA).

Meacham (1993). Quality and Context in the Developing World: Fitness for Purpose, Whose Purpose? Distance Education Futures (ASPESA).

Persons, H. and Catchpole, M. (1987). The addition of audio conferencing to interactive telecourses: An experimental analysis of dropout rates. Distance Education, 8(2), 251-258.

Author: John Kirk, Principal Lecturer, Innovative Learning Systems, Adelaide Institute of TAFE, 20 Light Square Adelaide, South Australia 5000, Phone (618) 207 8524; Mobile 015 394 785; Fax (618) 207 8555.

Please cite as: Kirk, J. (1994). Using communications technology to increase participation in the delivery of international education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 151-157. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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