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The Victorian experience: Five years on with telematics

Ian Conboy
Senior Policy Officer, Distance Education
Ministry of Education, Victoria

In September 1986, the then Victorian Ministry of Education embarked on a project to use a 'home grown' form of audiographic communication technology which it called telematics, to improve retention rates in small isolated rural post-primary schools. The project emerged from strong educational policy initiatives; educational policy in the form of the Report into Post Compulsory Schooling (Blackburn Report),and economic policy outlined in Victoria: The Next Decade. Its implementation was based heavily on existing Country Education Project policy in Victoria, with its strong emphasis on local decision making and community participation. Although a form of equipment standardisation emerged fairly early in the project, its educational use was largely determined by the schools themselves.

What follows is a summary of some key observations after five years. It is not an evaluation. The Victorian initiative has been comprehensively evaluated elsewhere (D'Cruz, 1990). Some key observations from the project are the relationship of telematics to Ministry policies; the positive involvement of teachers who made a commitment to telematics, and the appropriateness of the chosen technology for the needs of small rural secondary schools in Victoria.

The policy setting

Any innovation in education has to meet prevailing policies of educational authorities, otherwise its future is likely to be curtailed by one or several key groups. Education policies are not static. They change to reflect the changing requirements of the community, as these are expressed through their elected representatives. Consequently, the institutions which implement these policies can never be static, but must evolve to ensure that they operationalise these policies in the most effective way possible.

School policy in Victoria during the eighties has been directed by the findings and the recommendations of the Report in Post-compulsory Schools (Blackburn Report). One of the aims outlined in the Report was to increase post compulsory retention rates in government schools to seventy-five per cent by 1995. The report acknowledged the greater difficulty of achieving this in rural areas, and recommended that electronic communication technology be used to increase the comprehensiveness of curriculum and encourage students to stay on at school. Ibis policy was a part of Victoria's social justice strategy.

Small schools in rural Victoria have the advantages and disadvantages of their counterparts throughout the world. Small classes, small numbers of teachers and a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers are some of their perceived disadvantages, while greater opportunities for interpersonal communication are one obvious advantage of attending a small rural school. Senior students seeking a broader choice of subjects were usually forced into taking one or more subjects by traditional print based correspondence teaching. School principals indicated that the lack of immediate feedback and personalised instruction usually meant that only the most capable and motivated students were prepared to attempt study by correspondence mode. Those advocating the use of telematics felt that if students were provided with at least audio feedback, they would be more willing to choose correspondence courses, or take subjects by telematics from neighbouring schools, and stay on longer at school.

From this fairly broad general policy, telematics has been further influenced by the Victorian Ministry's District Provision Policy. Where the distance between schools precludes any other form of reorganisation, schools have been encouraged to cluster together and use telematics to share scarce teaching resources, and give students contact with other students studying the same courses. For approximately thirty-five to forty small post-primary schools, clustering is considered an official form of reorganisation.

Within the context of district provision policy, telematics is also expected to contribute to implementing the Ministry's policy to provide all Year Seven students with access to a second language (LOTE). Clusters will use telematics to provide LOTE to member schools, and three regional LOTE centres use telematics to supplement this provision. Indirect support will be given to the LOTE policy by some Victorian tertiary teacher training institutions using telematics to provide language and methodology courses for country teachers.

As with many similar education innovations which use a technology, a number of second order consequences have emerged. The enhanced communication between schools encouraged a new form of school organisation, clusters. Although various forms of clusters existed prior to 1986, improved communication encouraged schools to standardise timetable times, and think seriously about sharing teacher expertise with telematics. The introduction of telematics coincided with the Ministry's push to involve girls in mathematics, science and technology based subjects. A number of female teachers now use telematics and act as role models for female students within their schools. In addition, some rural secondary schools were also able to offer their communication facilities to TAFE colleges, and became study centres for community focused courses such as adult literacy and return to study courses (Hill 1991).

The system chosen

A range of non-technology solutions have been used in rural communities. Busses are used to collect students from smaller settlements and individual farms and take them to a school in a larger centre. Teachers travel between schools where schools are within a reasonable distance from each other. Consolidation of schools through closure is sometimes necessary to give students access to more comprehensive facilities and curricula. This option is generally resented in rural communities where the school fills a number of other roles other than providing education to students. Traditionally, rural communities have relied on correspondence education for all levels of education. The advantages of a correspondence school is that a small number of centrally based teachers can serve a large number of children in isolated areas. However, central institutions delivering education to remote locations can run the risk of losing contact with their clients.

In order to consolidate small groups of students into one large class without moving students long distances, audiographic technology was developed in clusters of remote rural secondary schools. Teachers in schools indicated that they required an audio link for voice contact, the ability to send handwritten and typed assignments to students and have them returned and the ability to work on a substitute blackboard with their students. They wanted the 'extended classroom' mode of delivery to resemble as closely as possible their normal mode of teaching. While the system ultimately chosen has been criticised for not using the full potential of computers, it is usual for users in the first instance to virtually distort technology to pre-existing patterns of operation. One could argue that it is almost a prerequisite in some instances for the acceptance of technology.

Victoria took advantage of some pioneering developmental work originally undertaken by the Educational Technology Centre in the South Australian Department of Education and decided to used the DUCT (Diverse Use of Communication Technology) audio terminal to provide the audio link. This is a significant development for distance educators because it allows a group of students to talk to another group of students in a neighbouring town and work in a hands free mode. The DUCT terminal is relatively easy to set up in a classroom and fairly portable. When used in conjunction with a teleconference bridge, several groups of students can be linked together for a teleconference. Document links are provided by facsimile machines. In order to provide an acceptable visual link between schools, computer links are used. At present, some two hundred and five sites are using the MAX system with Electronic classroom software and Netcom 2400/2400 modems. Macwrite, Macpaint, Superpaint, Microsoft Works and a number of other programs have been successfully tested using this software. Using Electronic classroom, machines at two locations perform exactly the same computations, when operating a word processor or adding to a Paint document. This provides a powerful interactive teaching tool using any number of computer programs (Elliott, 1991).

One of the key features of the Telematics communication system used in Victorian schools is that it is based on the personal computer. Its potential can be compared to the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to the introduction of Ford's assembly line construction technique, automobiles were accessible only to the wealthy. Early designs were reminiscent of carts and buggies they replaced. The assembly line and the impetus given to the development of engines and transport vehicles by two world wars brought the automobile within reach of more people. The results of this access to personal transport are sometimes painfully obvious.

Growth in computer data storage and data processing speed are likely to bring changes of a similar magnitude in the twenty-first century, as the automobile did in the preceding century. Using computers in an educational communication system provides users with a 'gateway' of experience not only to improvements in communication, but to the improved 'management' capabilities of computers for delivering multimedia education.


Rather than establish a limited number of trials, the State Advisory Committee which managed the telematics project felt that there were students in isolated locations throughout most of rural Victoria who could benefit from telematics. Education regions were asked to identify groups of schools with students in this category. Four clusters of schools were funded initially and a further thirteen established at various times. In total, seventy-nine small post-primary schools were equipped with telematics equipment. They nominated staff to attend training workshops. This process ensured that schools in most need of supplementing their curriculum from other sources participated in the program.

Another aspect of the implementation process was a strong commitment by the planners to the importance of classroom teachers in schools, and to an understanding that technology has a supplementary role to the work of teachers in schools (Victoria: The Next Decade). This approach has contributed to ensuring that a body of expertise and enthusiasm for using telematics is found in many schools throughout rural Victoria. There is a belief that all teachers should have an awareness of the use of communications technology in education, even if they chose not to use it themselves. Rather than provide expensive facilities or costly educational software and courseware, schools and teachers were provided with technology which was portable and easy for them to use. This in part ensured that they could develop many of the skills necessary to use telematics without requiring long and costly professional development programs.

Using telematics to provide professional development

A number of professional development activities have been delivered to county teachers in their schools. One, a media studies activity demonstrated that this form of delivery was acceptable for some forms of professional development. While professional development by telematics does not appear to allow for the richness of personal interaction which occurs between presenter and teacher during a conference or seminar, in practice, several teachers from the one school are now able to take part in in service activities after school. They actively discuss the content among themselves. While evidence of all forms of professional development effectiveness is relatively vague and inconclusive, the prospect of having five or six teachers from one school skilled in an area and prepared to discuss the issues actively is valuable. Telematics has been combined with other modes of delivery such as interactive television delivered by satellite, print and face to face seminars to deliver professional development in mixed ability teaching skills to teachers in the Loddon, Campaspe-Mallee Region. This is a fourteen week trial of a mix of delivery modes for professional development.

Teachers' attitudes towards using telematics

The nature of the innovation process in schools is determined partly by circumstances (e.g. access to expertise, available finance, PTA support) and partly by any innovation's capacity to persuade teachers of its real worth in terms of the need for it, its innate worth and its practicality (Wright, 1987). Teachers need to see a purpose to any innovation in a way which ascribes a place for them and a function.

The telematics project in Victoria has been characterised by a high degree of teacher loyalty to the project. While not all rural teachers have been willing to use telematics, those who have used it have been very willing to keep using it. Many teachers who did not see the need to use telematics for teaching purposes have indicated that they see its practical value for senior country students. Most teachers cite a number of reasons for their initial involvement. Apart from increasing opportunities for students, teachers develop additional skills; sometimes they can continue teaching the subject of their choice and using telematics allows some of them to continue teaching senior students. Other teachers who may not have taught with telematics have used it for meetings and for receiving professional development.

In retrospect, their continued involvement is probably due to a number of factors. Teachers are not forced to use telematics. They are approached by cluster committees and school with principals and their cooperation is sought. In general, most teachers who choose to teach telematics have at least ten years teaching experience. These teachers are competent and have a sound knowledge of their respective disciplines, and they have status within their own schools. They can take up a new innovation and promote it in relevant school committees and forums.

Some advantages of the technology

Most importantly, telematics is affordable. Initial establishment costs range from approximately $5,000 to $9,000 depending on the functions required, and this has enabled over two hundred and five sites to be equipped to date. This in part reflects an approach adopted by the original Management Committee which saw value in developing a rural network of communication equipment which could not only be used for delivering instruction, but also for professional development, administrative meetings, accessing information from other locations and perhaps even assisting with delivery of student services such as speech therapy.

Not only is the system multi-functional in educational terms, but the equipment itself is multipurpose. Each of the three components can be used individually for other tasks. The loud speaking voice terminals can be transferred to other telephone points and used for meetings. Schools use facsimile machines for administration as well as curriculum materials, and the computers are used for curriculum materials preparation and classroom management tasks when they are not required for telematics. This versatility makes the system more cost effective, and increased its impact within each school. Some teachers were introduced to computers through telematics, and communities became aware of its potential through parents and community groups using it.

A further advantage of its basic three part configuration is that each component is capable of being upgraded independently. The total system need not be discarded, and at least some part of the system can be 'state of the art' technology. These are considerations in maintaining staff and student interest with the system. Closely allied to this is the ready market for resale of computers among teachers and rural communities. This provides schools with a financial base to upgrade its system.

The ongoing development in the software to link the computers together as electronic blackboards has been an interesting feature of the project. From the beginning, the developer has actively involved teachers in the development process, usually by audio teleconference. This has not only guaranteed that the software that meets the practical requirements of teachers, but has established an ongoing development model for the whole project. It has created a dynamic climate where improvement is constantly being sought.

The system has also enabled some teachers to phase in their use of telematics. Many have commenced with the audio and facsimile components and then moved to using the more challenging computer link when they gain confidence.

While some of these factors individually may seem inconsequential, when taken together, they enhance the suitability of the system for Victorian rural schools.

Some caveats

The role of key administrators is crucial to any educational innovation, and this is true for telematics. Although a detailed memorandum was published and circulated to all schools involved in the initiative, the philosophy and spirit of the initiative was not well understood by some administrators at the outset of the project.

As with many innovations in education, their success is heavily dependent on key personalities. While the decentralised nature of the administration of this project has meant that expertise has emerged in many schools, the relatively small number of active telematics teachers each year has meant that the project is still heavily dependent on key individuals. The exponential growth in the use of telematics will in time reduce this dependence, and give the initiative a broader base of support and expertise. Because telematics requires considerable preparation and commitment, the Victorian project has only attracted those teachers willing to make this effort. While this ensures that very good teaching occurs, it exposes the program to the need to have committed teachers using telematics, and this can give a false indication of its educational effectiveness.

The choice of a technology is the result of a relatively complex set of trade offs between educational requirements, available budgets, ease of use, anticipated durability and so on. In the case of the Victorian MAX (Max, fax, DUCT) system which was chosen, the ability to transfer colour still images was traded off against the advantages listed above.

Finally, the use of any technology capable of being networked between schools requires a significant change in traditional thinking about relationships between schools, and between schools and other educational providers. These attitudinal changes cannot occur immediately, and in some instances, they may never occur. This should not be perceived as a fault of the technology, but the result of far more complex social factors.


After five years of telematics , it is probably the second order consequences of the technology which have had the biggest impact on rural education in small rural secondary schools in Victoria. While many senior students in small rural schools now have access to a more comprehensive curriculum through their clusters, and receive more immediate feedback from their Correspondence School teachers, outcomes such as increased communication between schools, the use of telematics in conjunction with other modes for delivering professional development and its positive impact on teachers both male and female are likely to have the biggest impact for rural education in Victoria in the long run.


D'Cruz, J. V. (1990). Technology in Education: A Study of Policy and Practice in Rural Schools. Ministry of Education, Victoria, Australia.

Elliott, Neil (1991). Victorian Telematics Manual (Revised Edition). Ministry of Education, Victoria.

Hill, Robert et al, (1991). It Doesn't Just Happen! A Report of the Ministry Telematics Network Support Project, Ministry of Education and Training, Victoria.

Ministerial Review of Post-compulsory Schooling (1985). Ministry of Education, Melbourne, Victoria.

Victoria: The Next Decade (1987). Government of Victoria.

Wright, Ann (1987). The process of microtechnological innovation in two primary schools: A case study of teachers' thinking. Educational Review, 39(2).

Please cite as: Conboy, I. (1992). The Victorian experience: Five years on with telematics. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 559-563. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/conboy.html

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