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Teaching with telecommunications technology in an educational administration course

John Schiller
The University of Newcastle

Rapid changes in society necessitate the upgrading of the skills and competencies of school leaders to cope with a more complex school environment. For the practising school or educational leader, options for undertaking university award courses have been restricted to part time, evening courses or distance education courses. Time and travel constraints, which restrict accessibility to regular on campus, evening sessions, and the lack of regular interaction with the lecturer and other members of the class in an off campus course, are seen by potential students as restricting factors. This paper describes an innovative approach to teaching and learning in a postgraduate subject in educational administration in which a 'mixed mode' approach is used to combine the best features of face to face interaction with the techniques and strategies of distance education approaches. When these mixed mode techniques are coupled with the newer communications technologies, effective 'interaction at a distance' is possible. In addition to occasional face to face sessions, printed distance education packages, containing content, activities, readings and school based exercises are used in conjunction with teleconferences, which allows synchronous interaction at a distance in 'real time', and electronic mail, which allows asynchronous interaction at a distance between class members and their lecturer at times convenient to them. Difficulties in implementing these mixed mode approaches are discussed and suggestions are made for coping with the complexities of using newer communications technologies in a postgraduate teaching and learning environment.

Rapid changes in society necessitate the upgrading of the skills and competencies of school leaders to cope with a more complex school environment. The need for training of school leaders is now stronger than ever before. Options for retraining include short courses offered through in service programs or award courses in educational leadership at universities. For the practising school or educational leader, options for undertaking university award courses have been restricted to part time, evening courses or distance education courses. Time and travel constraints, which restrict accessibility to regular on campus, evening sessions, and the lack of regular interaction with the lecturer and other members of the class in an off campus course, are seen by potential students as a restricting factors.

To provide more flexible ways of undertaking university courses, recent reports on higher education in Australia have recommended use of mixed mode approaches to teaching and learning. These reports suggest that the materials, methods and technologies used in distance education could be applied to conventional, face to face teaching and learning to provide more flexible, open methods for content delivery and interaction in all university courses (Johnson, Lundin & Chippendale, 1992; Mawer, 1993). Distance education techniques for delivery of content have been refined to a high degree by institutions offering distance education courses. Use of study guides. collections of readings, and distribution of audio tapes, computer discs and videotapes provide content and learning activities for distant students. However. maintaining effective interaction at a distance remains a complex issue.

With the increasing affordability and availability of newer communication technologies, effective interaction at a distance, through use of audio teleconferencing, video teleconferencing, audiographics, telematics, and use of email, is possible. The rapid growth of AARNet (Australian Academic and Research Network) as a significant electronic mail (email) system illustrates ways in which communication between academics is dramatically changing and demonstrates the possibilities for increased interaction at a distance between lecturer and student and between student and student (Castro, 1990).

This paper reports on the initial stages of a Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) project in which distance education techniques and interactive technologies were used with a postgraduate class traditionally taught face to face. It also explores some of the difficulties of implementing change in teaching methodologies and highlights problems of the 'implementation dip' (Fullan, 1991, p106).

Description of the project

The content area for this project was a 14 week (one semester) educational administration subject, traditionally taught face to face at either of the two campuses of the University of Newcastle, Australia. The major purpose of the initial stage of the Project was to explore a variety of content delivery and interaction modes in order to reduce the number of face to face sessions at the second campus 80 kilometres from the main campus, and yet increase interaction between lecturer and student, and between student and student. The purpose of the second stage of the project was to apply these techniques to a regular on campus postgraduate class and thereby reduce face to face on campus attendance requirements. The aims of the project were twofold: first, to explore the use of mixed mode strategies within a post graduate subject in order to increase flexibility of delivery and interaction, and, second, to expose educational leaders to new applications of information technologies.

Rather than use the traditional lecture/seminar format of postgraduate classes, textbooks and collections of readings provided the major content for the course. Study guides, similar to those used in distance education courses, acted as tutorials in print (Rowntree, 1990) and suggested ways of applying this content to the school leaders' context. Face to face sessions were used at the beginning of the subject to develop class cohesiveness and at several times throughout the semester to fulfil students' expectations for a familiar environment for interaction.

To retain the interactivity of regular face to face seminars, tutorials and class discussion, teleconferencing and electronic mail (email) were introduced. Teleconference tutorials (teletutorials) provide group interaction at a distance but are constrained by the need to meet at specific times (Thompson, 1991). On the other hand, email has been promoted as an appropriate interaction strategy with students at a distance as it is not limited by time restraints. For the lecturer, the ability to transfer to and receive computer files from distant students has appeal. The facility for students to communicate with the lecturer and with each other, at any time, and to ask questions and to respond to questions and issues posed via email, appeared to be an effective substitute for face to face interaction (Dekkers & Cuskelly, 1989). The literature on email, however, tends not to explain the processes by which users acquire the necessary skills, hardware and software to effectively use email. This paper describes and reflects on issues involved in establishing email as a means of interaction between lecturer and students.

Combining telecommunications with traditional distance education approaches

As the lecturer responsible for the Project, I had previously taught this subject at the second, distant campus in a conventional way and was familiar with the abilities and needs of postgraduate students. I had been involved in offering distance education subjects for a number of years and was familiar with the instructional design techniques necessary to structure content and activities for students working at a distance. Furthermore, as an administrator in charge of a distance education unit, I was familiar with the use of contract writers to prepare modules of work and the choice of layout and design factors necessary to appropriately package self instructional distance education materials (Rowntree, 1990).

Therefore, the first step in the project was to restructure the face to face content of the semester length subject into a series of modules focussing on topics within the subject. Ten printed modules were prepared, each one containing overview statements, objectives for the topic, time requirements, summaries of the topic content, study guides relating to sections of textbooks and assigned readings from journals, and school based activities to gather and analyse data relating to each topic and assessment activities.

The next step was to determine which sections of each topic could be used for interaction through teleconferencing and email. I had experienced various techniques appropriate for teleconferencing and was aware of its strengths and limitations. I knew how to structure a teleconference by distributing a set agenda in advance, how to ensure contributions by each participant and how to implement other factors necessary for a successful teletutorial (Thompson, 1991).

The final stage was to prepare ways in which email could be used for interaction. Although a proficient user of word processing, I was not familiar with email, nor did I possess the necessary equipment and competencies to use email. Rather than consider these factors as limitations, I thought that I would be in the same position as the class - that is, having a reasonable understanding of computers but little or no understanding or experience with email.

On reflection, many of the issues listed below seem trite, simplistic and relatively insignificant, but at the early implementation stage they were seen as significant challenges, and, sometimes, as almost insurmountable obstacles to using email. These issues are explored further elsewhere (Schiller, 1993) to remind readers that changes in teaching and learning methodology, particularly those changes involving technology, are far more complex, demanding and time consuming than expected; something often overlooked or ignored by those advocating change (Fullan, 1991).

In summary, seeking advice on setting up the necessary equipment and learning how to use email was more problematic than anticipated as university staff development courses on uses of email were initially not available or were inappropriately designed to cater for the diverse needs of participants. Second, physical connection to an email network necessitated use of a modem rather than an ethernet connection to university mainframe computer. Third, acquiring the necessary modem and communications package for my computer introduced me to another bewildering array of options in hardware and communications software. Fourth, obtaining advice from university support staff tended to confuse rather than clarify as some staff did not appear to fully appreciate the level of my misgivings and apprehension while trying to explain protocols, Kermit, baud rates, AUSTPAC, downloading, ASCII files, offline and other bewildering terms. Further, because I was not sure of the questions I needed to ask, my anxieties and misunderstandings were frequently ignored or misinterpreted.

Fifth, my first tentative attempts at online communication were frustrated by the limitations of the communications software installed on my computer such as an inability to backspace. the precision required when addressing email, and the need to use carriage returns at the end of each line - something I had never learnt as a computer touch typist. Offline composition of messages was straight forward but transfer of these files to email proved to be very complex until compatible versions of Kermit, Windows and WordPerfect for Windows were installed on my computer and their use demonstrated by computer literate colleagues. Sixth, my situation was made more complex as I tried to learn how to use two email systems simultaneously to meet the need of the students. Finally, I was not prepared for the enormous amount of time required to obtain relevant advice, learn the basic competencies of email, and practise the skills required for it to facilitate easy interaction at a distance (Schiller, 1993).

Variations in student entry level computer skills

To assess the students' entry level of understanding and experience with computers and email, data were gathered via survey, class discussion, and audio taped comments during teleconference tutorials at the beginning of each semester.

In the first student cohort, seventeen experienced teachers and school leaders (7 females, 10 males) enrolled in this subject in the second semester 1993. Most participants in the class had extra administrative roles such as Head of Department, Deputy Principal, Regional Consultant or Principal. Two female students indicated that they had no knowledge or experience of computers at all, whereas two males indicated that they had considerable computer experience ranging across a variety of software applications. Surprisingly, most of the class stated that their computer skills were very basic, limited to preparation of student tests and occasional preparation of papers. Seven members of the class had a computer at home or occasionally took a computer from school for home use.

In the second student cohort, four teachers, a computer consultant and a social worker (2 females, 4 males) enrolled in the first semester 1994. As with the first cohort, abilities in computer usage ranged from a very basic level to an advanced level.

Written comments on initial surveys indicated a high level of concern by students that computer usage would be a requirement of the subject, and an even greater level of concern that some interaction within the subject would necessitate access to a modem and require word processing skills to prepare material for transmission. It became immediately obvious that the first cohort had high levels of concern about the proposed use of email and felt inadequate to cope with what they perceived to be its demanding requirements. Therefore, the challenge of using email tutorials as a significant aspect of the subject, was considerable. These concerns were addressed in different ways.

Difficulties of student access to appropriate technology and training

As the first semester of the project progressed, it became obvious that two different email systems would have to be made available for student use. During the initial planning phase, the assumption was made that the majority of the students would be teachers from schools of the NSW Department of School Education. As there had been assurances from the Computer Consultants within the NSW Department of School Education that every government school in NSW had a modem and that Keylink was the email network used by the Department, the assumption was that access to email would be fairly straight forward.

A number of factors complicated these initial assumptions. First, over one third of the class came from non-government schools. In most cases these schools did not have modems and if they did, they were not connected to Keylink. Second, some government schools did not possess modems, despite the consultant's assurances. Third, access to a modem was denied in some schools as the school policy dictated that the modem was only for dedicated use such as the school banking system, online ordering of school supplies, or for use with the 'Office Administration System in Schools' (OASIS). More than 70% of the class had no ready access to a computer and modem. Finally, most members of the class had never used a modem and were unaware of the ways in which electronic mail could be used.

Access to the electronic mail system on the university's mainframe computer at the second campus site was explored as an alternative to use of Keylink. However, this also posed difficulties. Because of the lack of sufficient telephone lines to the new campus, only two terminals, located in the library for the purposes of undertaking library searches, were connected to the mainframe computer. Access to these terminals would be difficult, however, as the terminals were constantly in use by students for accessing library information, and, therefore, the librarians were reluctant to allow them to be used for email. In addition, the Computing Services Centre indicated that student access to email on the mainframe computer was restricted to students undertaking computer courses. Negotiating access for an educational administration class to the mainframe took some time.

For the second semester in which this project operated a completely different strategy was adopted. As all students were enrolled at the main campus, access to an account on the mainframe VAX computer was arranged. Procedures had been changed so that any postgraduate student could access the mainframe computer as long as the lecturer obtained permission from Computing Services. Although access to computers terminals, which were connected via ethernet to the mainframe computer, was now possible throughout the campus, it was decided to lend each student a modem so that they would have access to the network from their homes. Each student was supplied with a modem, communications software and instructions on setting it up. A support person was hired to provide telephone advice. To ensure that all students in the second cohort knew the basic operation of email before they received their modem, an intensive workshop was provided by a member of the Library staff who was familiar with use of email.


In the early part of the course, one of the major issues addressed was the high level of student concern about using email. Hall and Hord (1987), in their explanation of individuals coping with change, explain that concerns which focus on self are to be expected in the early stages of change as individuals seek information about a change and assess how it will impact on them. They highlight however, that these concerns must be addressed by the change facilitator to enable individuals to cope with the change. Therefore, my introductory explanations of how email works and why it was proposed as a means of communication, were kept as simple as possible, with minimum use of technical jargon. The voluntary aspect of using email was stressed and reassurances were given that the varying levels of computer competency would not be taken into account for assessment purposes.

Every member of the class was encouraged to talk with a computer user at their school and to locate someone familiar with email who could demonstrate how it worked. Several groups of students organised informal workshops with the computer 'expert' at a neighbouring school for this purpose. They felt that it would be more beneficial if several people worked together and learnt from each other. However, despite attention to their concerns, most students in the first cohort were unable to spend sufficient time to establish their system and use email, nor did they give it priority. Furthermore, the level of expertise available in each school was insufficient to provide the type of advice needed for users to become confident.

Difficulties for teachers in gaining access to computers in their schools was surprising. Moreover, the even greater problem in gaining access to a modem was unanticipated. Even where a modem did exist in the school, some school administrators expressed concern regarding their perception of costs in using Keylink. With devolved budgeting, additional costs to the school, no matter how small. are questioned and may inhibit use of email as costs are not fully understood. Security of the modem was also a concern of school administrators, some of whom insisted on locking the equipment away for most of the time.

For the second student cohort, the modem had been supplied for their use at home. An intensive introductory workshop using the university's ethernet system ensured that every student could establish an account on the VAX mainframe computer and that basic email operations was understood. However, the transfer of these skills from a university based, ethernet connected system to a home based, modem operated connection proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Some students were able to connect their modem, install their communications software and operate their system with a minimum of difficulty. Others, including the computer consultant, had considerable difficulties in installing their modems and, despite assistance from the resource person, Computing Services Centre personnel, and colleagues, took several weeks to get their system operational.

Reasons for difficulties in installing and operating modems in students' homes included; use of incorrect cables, misinterpretation of instructions, lack of understanding of software installation procedures, incorrect use of settings on the modem, lack of understanding of email commands to the VAX computer, lack of reasonable keyboard skills, and disruption to family life when a modem is connected to the only phone line, thereby preventing use of the phone.

Change is a process which takes considerable time. Moreover, change does not occur unless individuals change (Fullan, 1991; Hall & Hord, 1987). For the lecturer, an enormous amount of time was required to understand the complexities of the many options of hardware and software combinations available for email use. Unravelling issues of incompatibility, or at least, mismatches, of hardware and software, and coping with the complexities of learning to use email, took far more time than expected.

Having spent a great deal of time, however, and having sought help from a range of colleagues, I am now a confident user of electronic mail, at least in its basic form. Email messages can be read and sent. files can be transferred via email, I am a subscriber to an international bulletin board, I have posted messages on international bulletin boards and I have email contacts in Australia and overseas. Importantly, I have overcome the 'implementation dip' which is characteristic of individuals coping with change (Fullan, 1991:106) in that the positive experiences outweigh the negative ones and my use of email is now relatively smooth and trouble free.

The same cannot be said of the participants in the class! Their use of email was inhibited by the following factors; (a) use of email was a low priority of the students because of the pressures of completing assignments, time required to complete the readings for the subject and the voluntary nature of using email, (b) difficulties in obtaining access to a school based computer and modem, and (c) complexities in connecting and using a modem at home.

Lack of interest by teachers in using technology, due mainly to lack of expertise or a lack of understanding of its applicability to interacting at a distance, was also a factor inhibiting use of email. At this point in the project, the students do not see the usefulness of interacting via email. As distances are relatively small, use of fax or telephone was preferred. Frustration with not being able to access email easily, the large amount of time required to learn how to use the communications software effectively, and lack of computer skills, particularly in the use of word processing, were seen as the major negative factors inhibiting wider use of email for interacting at a distance. Student preference was for more use of teletutorials to enable interaction at a distance rather than use of email.


For email to be an effective means of interaction at a distance within a university subject, each student must have ready and easy access to a computer and modem, preferably at home or at a work location to which they have frequent access. Straight forward instruction in its use and considerable support from experienced colleagues during the initial stages of implementation is critical. Follow up workshops and assistance is essential if new technology is to be effectively mastered. These workshops should be developmental, with specific mastery exercises being built into each level, as the 'learning curve' for use of email is considerable. Finally, use of email must be seen by the student as being an effective and necessary form of interaction at a distance. For these particular groups of students, the need to use email was not seen as a priority.

The major conclusion of this paper is that mixed mode delivery and interaction can provide greater flexibility for postgraduate students and thereby reduce the number of occasions they need to attend on campus sessions. Use of printed distance education, self instructional modules are viewed positively and, when reinforced through teleconference tutorials, are an effective substitute for traditional classes.

However, although email seems to hold considerable promise as an effective means of interacting in both on campus and off campus courses, because it is not constrained by either time or distance, the initial implementation stage can be daunting for lecturers and students. Use of this form of communication is far more complex than implied by many of the writers who advocate email as a cost effective and appropriate means of interaction at a distance. Problems in using electronic technology in higher education should not be overlooked or underestimated (Tinkler, Smith, Ellyard & Cohen, 1994)

Concerns by staff and mature age students about use of technology in university courses are considerable. provoking anxiety and sometimes creating insurmountable obstacles in coping with the wide range of needs, understandings and competencies. For the person promoting change, account must be taken of the considerable variations in individuals' stages of concern about use of computers and email. It is vital that appropriate advice is provided to meet students' concerns at that time. This can be very demanding on time and resources. The view of this group of students was that the time taken to sort out the technological difficulties could have been spent more profitably on telephone interaction!

Use of email is still surrounded by sufficient jargon among devotees, complex software, difficulties of compatibility, difficult to read manuals, and equipment malfunction, to inhibit widespread use for interaction in the teaching and learning process. Changes to teaching and learning through use of email will take large amounts of time and necessitate considerable assistance from specialist personnel who must tailor their advice to the needs of the learner. Ready access by students to computers, modems and appropriate communications software remains the major obstacle to more widespread use of email as a means of interacting at a distance. The challenge is to realise the potential of this exciting means of providing interaction at a distance for teaching and learning.


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Dekkers, J, & Cuskelly, E. (1989). The use of electronic mail for distance education - a case study. Paper presented at the Biennial Forum Distance education for training in business and industry, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

Fullan, M. (1991). The new meaning of educational change. (second edition). London: Cassell Educational Ltd.

Hall, G. & Hord, S. (1987). Change in schools: Facilitating the process. New York: State University of New York Press.

Johnson, R., Lundin, R. & Chippendale, P. (1992). Changing patterns of teaching and learning: the use and potential use of distance education material in Australian Higher Education. National Board of Employment, Education and Training Commissioned Report No. 19. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Mawer, G. (1993). Minister's response to Higher Education Council Advice on Distance Education in Australia. Development Branch, Higher Education Division, Department of Employment, Education and Training, Canberra. 12th February.

Rowntree, D. (1990). Teaching through self instruction: How to develop open learning materials. London: Kogan Page.

Schiller, J. (1993). Introducing email tutorials: Managing the change. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE), UNE Northern Rivers, Lismore.

Thompson, D. (1991). Audio teleconferencing: A quality compromise or a compromise in Quality? Paper presented at Quality in Distance Education, Forum Papers, ASPESA Biennial Forum, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

Tinkler, D., Smith, T., Ellyard, D. & Cohen, D. ( 1994). Effectiveness and potential of state of the art technologies in the delivery of higher education. Occasional Papers Series: Department of Employment, Education and Training. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Author: John Schiller, Faculty of Education, The University of Newcastle.

Please cite as: Schiller, J. (1994). Teaching with telecommunications technology in an educational administration course. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 290-295. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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