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But will it work for a "brownfield" site? Tea Tree Gully three years on

Michael Sachsse
Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE

The choice of the Tea Tree Gully campus as the venue for the Conference on Learning Environment Technology was a deliberate one. Tea Tree Gully represents an example of holistic planning in which every feature of its built environment, its organisational structures and its systems are the product of a clear vision of the sort of graduates which it wants to turn out. However, unlike Tea Tree Gully (now in its third year of operation), the vast majority of educational institutions in Australia are relatively old. It is, therefore, not surprising that the most frequent question asked by observers is, "could these innovations/ changes have been achieved had you been working with a "brownfield" instead of a "greenfield" site? The answer need no longer be hypothetical. As an outcome of the state wide organisational restructuring, the Tea Tree Gully College has been amalgamated with the Gilles Plains College to form the Torrens Valley Institute. The Gilles Plains campus of the Institute is a "brownfield " site in terms of its traditions, its architecture, its staffing structure, its practices and its methodologies. In his paper, "But will it work for a brownfield site?" the director of the Torrens Valley Institute will talk about the relevance of the Tea Tree Gully experience to more traditional learning environments.

At the time of its construction the Tea Tree Gully College, now a campus of the Torrens Valley Institute, was billed as, "a College for the 21st Century" . Although only in its third year of operation it has acquired a national and international reputation for its student centred methodologies, its flexible delivery systems, its progressive organisational structures and its use of advanced computing systems.

Whilst visitors to Tea Tree Gully are mostly impressed by the innovations, many make the observation that the planners had it easy, that they were fortunate in that they were working with a "greenfield" site. They say the planners did not have to contend with the constraints of old building stock, dated organisational structures and inflexible mind sets. The visitors go on to question the transferability and therefore relevance of the Tea Tree Gully experience to the vast majority of Australian educational and training institutions which were planned and built in the 70s, well before there was any talk of economic restructuring and certainly well before the writings of Finn, Mayer and Carmichael which collectively spell out what has come to be known as the National Training Reform Agenda (NTRA).

This paper entitled "But will it work for a brownfield site?", is a response to that question of relevance. The paper begins by providing an outline of the features which, in the view of the author, characterise a vocational educational institution for the 21st century. It also provides the rationale which underpins those characteristics. Drawing on his experience, both as a member of the Tea Tree Gully Planning Team and later as director of the Torrens Valley Institute, the author looks at the introduction of those characteristics to a more traditional vocational education institution. In doing so he makes reference to the desirable preconditions, to the problems encountered and to the management of the change process. It becomes clear that making the shift to the new paradigm touches on every characteristic viz, the physical environment, the organisational structures, the management and decision making process, the culture, the administrative systems and above all the role of staff. It becomes equally clear that the shift requires vision, courage, teamwork as well as great skill and patience.

Rationale for moving to a new paradigm

During the 80s Australia came to realise that its economy was in deep trouble, that the country's national debt and balance of trade deficit were growing at an unsustainable rate. There was also a realisation that Frederick Taylor's scientific model of workplace organisation had run its course, that no amount of fine tuning would help and that what was needed was a move to a more humanistic model of workplace organisation.

1987 saw the publication of a landmark report, "Australia Reconstructed", produced by a tripartite team of industrialists, unionists, and educators. This report provided a much needed blueprint for the reconstruction of Australia's economy, its industry and its work force. It also provided a clear indicator of the role to be played by education and training institutions in helping to bring about this restructuring. "Australia Reconstructed" was followed by numerous publications which further elaborated on these changes. Publications such as "Skilling Australia", "Wealth from Skills" and later still the seminal works of Finn, Mayer and Carmichael which recommend the far reaching restructuring of education and training provision in Australia. Collectively these recommendations, which have become known as the National Training Reform Agenda, include:

The authors of the Training Reform Agenda focus on the product of education and training. They look at the "new look workplace" with its high level of automation, its flat management structures, its reliance on teamwork, its need for flexibility as well as the rapidity with which the technology and processes are changing and they ask themselves what does this mean for the profile of the graduates our education and training systems will need to produce. They also look at the "new look society" with its changing patterns of employment opportunities, its changing attitudes towards the role of women, its concern for the environment and its move towards pluralism and multiculturalism. Again they ask what does this mean for the graduates?

In short Finn's approach is to work back from what the world of work and society want from our education and training system and then to build the linkages back to the learning environment.

What then are the characteristics of a vocational education institution for the 21st century?

If we agree that the above characteristics are indeed those which will be required in order for vocational education institutions to be relevant in coming decades then what are the implications for the existing institutions? Will they be able to make the necessary changes to their methodologies, their organisational structures, their physical learning environments, their cultures, their staffing structures, their management styles and their systems?

Since writing this paper I have become increasingly optimistic in relation to that question. The fact is that vocational education institutions are making the changes so much so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify an institution which is truly traditional. With the deregulation of the education and training market we have seen institutes move, all be it slowly, from a closed to an open approach to learning or, to put it another way, they have moved from a less flexible to a more flexible approach to delivery. All around the country we are seeing the introduction of recognition for prior learning, open entry/open exit, accelerated learning and the use of technology. The move to flexible delivery is clearly illustrated in the following diagram.

Diagram 1

Diagram I: Dimensions of flexible delivery (Diagram by Phoebe Palmieri,
Centre For Flexible Learning, Outer Eastern College of TAFE)

Preconditions for making the transition

There is nothing particularly surprising about the preconditions for the introduction for flexible delivery. They are much the same as those required to bring about any significant and complex change.

At an institutional level the preconditions are:

At the systems level the preconditions are:

The physical environment

One of the most neglected issues in the debate about flexible delivery is the physical environment. Yet it is the environment that has the potential to either greatly facilitate or be an enormous impediment to the introduction of flexible delivery. For example take a typical classroom in which you have 30 students sitting at desks which are all facing a lecturer standing in front of a white board. Chances are those students are in a lock step, teacher centred learning situation. A learning situation which includes fixed entry and exit dates, fixed delivery times, fixed exam times and fixed length of course. In short they are at the less flexible end of most of the dimensions within the flexible delivery continuum.

Diagram 2

Diagram II: Traditional classroom layout

Contrast this with a learning environment in which students find themselves sitting in a large open space at work stations which are configured in small clusters and which bear a remarkable resemblance to a modern progressive office. In this environment students have access to quality learning guides, to a range of multimedia learning materials and to facilitators instead of lecturers. They are able to work on their own or in small groups. They manage their own time deciding when to take a break. Chances are that these students are well down the flexible delivery continuum enjoying the benefits of:

Diagram 3

Diagram III: Open space, flexible delivery learning environment utilising systems built workstations configured in a way which provides for a range of learning zones.

It is our experience that the open learning environment described above actually militates against lecturing whilst facilitating individual and small group learning.

In moving to flexible delivery the changes required to the physical environment are no less important nor are they of a lesser magnitude than those required to change the curriculum, the methodologies and the organisational structure. You need to literally break down the walls to create large open spaces which can then be furnished with what are now affordable system built work stations of a type and configuration which facilitate student centred learning. The beauty of systems built furniture is that it will also take care of all the cabling (electrical, computing, telephone) which has become a feature of most modern work stations. Furthermore, because it is customised, systems furniture provides a choice about the nature of partitions and hence about the degree of audio and visual attenuation considered necessary for any particular learning zone.

The fact is the days of student desks with a sloping, lift-up lid and an inkwell in the corner are gone. Given the demands of flexible delivery and the associated use of computers the customised, flexible systems built work stations, configured to encourage individual and small group learning, are the solution for the foreseeable future.


In conclusion I would like to reiterate that the transformation from a traditional vocational education institution to one which will be relevant in the coming decades calls for a holistic approach. It will require new curriculum, new methodologies, new delivery systems, new learning environments and new organisational structures. To change one of these in isolation will simply result in dislocation and confusion.

Finally it is my belief that we have only a limited time in which to make the transition. Those institutions who do not will simply become irrelevant. They will end up as educational anachronisms and will go the way of the dinosaurs.


  1. A term used by Eric Mayer to refer to a range of generic skills such as problem solving, communication, working as a member of a team, accessing and processing information, etc.

Bibliographical References

Australian Science and Technology Council, et al. (1987). Wealth from Skills: Measures to raise the skills of the workforce: a report to the Prime Minister. AGPS, Canberra.

Bowen, A. (chair). (November 1992). Flexible Delivery - A National Framework f or Implementation in TAFE. AGPS, Queensland.

Carmichael, L. (1992). The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System. Employment and Skills Formation Council NBEET and AGPS.

Copa, G. & Pease, V. (December 1992). A new vision for the comprehensive high school - Preparing students for a changing world. Dept of Vocational and Technical Training, St Paul Minnesota.

Field, L. (1990). Skilling Australia. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Finn, B. (chair). (1991). Young people's participation in post compulsory education and training, AGPS, Canberra.

Mayer, E. (1992). Putting general education to work: the key competencies report. AGPS, Melbourne.

Palmier, R. (June 1994). Why flexible delivery? The politics, the context, the substance. Outer Eastern College of TAFE.

Sachsse, M. (November, 1993). Open Learning: Its implications for students and teachers. Post compulsory education 93 Directions Conference, Torrens Valley Institute.

Wood, G. (chair) (1994). A change of course: Options for immediate post compulsory education and training pathways in South Australia.

Author: Michael Sachsse, Director, Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE. Telephone: (08) 207 8010; fax: (08) 207 2727

Please cite as: Sachsse, M. (1994). But will it work for a "brownfield" site? Tea Tree Gully three years on. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 282-286. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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