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Promise and problem: Interactive technologies and the DEC

Ian States
Deputy Principal
Upper Secondary Distance Education Centre
Ministry of Education

Responding to the opportunities for applying interactive electronic technologies is a matter of both promise and problem for the Distance Education Centre. It enables the DEC, a correspondence institution, to overcome at one stroke the greatest limitation to its effectiveness: the time/space gap between teacher and student, between teaching point and student intake. On the other side of the ledger, however, such technologies present problems for a correspondence institution heavily based upon and committed to the print medium.

From the point of view of matters beyond the DEC's control, much of what happens over the next five years depends on decisions emanating from the Ministry of Education. It will determine, ultimately, the DEC's client base and its teaching mission in terms of print and electronic media.

These things aside, an institution which has a massive intellectual and physical investment in the print medium faces critical decisions about it teaching and operational practices in the light of the changes already being pondered and trialled.

With the proliferation of electronic and computer based media, opportunities have arisen to expand correspondence teaching into the era of interactive, real time teaching and learning. Costs of equipment have declined rapidly and the costs of transmission are on the way down too. Hence reduced costs are making the use of such technologies much more feasible for both providers and consumers.

As a result, there are implications for the way in which the DEC operates across the board. Teaching practices, lesson production and pastoral care are only some of the areas that will be effected. Planning to introduce these technologies will mean planning in all areas of DEC operations to reflect and support the changes as well as to absorb and generate further changes that are bound to follow.

Some of the technologies already in operation or under consideration include:

The DUCT system and live TV broadcasts of science lessons have been part of the DEC's operations for some time whilst the Electronic Classroom has been run on a trial basis. Video conferencing has been operating on an ad hoc basis as and when satellite time becomes available from third parties such as TAFE. Infotalk is due for introduction later this year on a limited basis but could well be expanded for interactive instruction in the near future. The necessary equipment and expertise for preparing CAL packages exists but no development has occurred to this point. The production of video lessons using software such as MacroMind Director, MacroMind MediaMaker and Swivel 3D is currently being investigated.

It should be obvious from the preceding that the DEC is already involved in delivering, planning, developing and investigating media for electronic teaching. Yet a master strategy is in urgent need of development. A coherent set of policies, procedures and structures together with an allocation of resources would enable the DEC to articulate its role and function in electronic teaching in relation to its students and other schools. It could also be an important strategy enabling the Ministry of Education to extend its mantle of equity, access and participation to the isolated and disadvantaged sectors of the student population.

The DEC: An archetypal correspondence school

The DEC is an educational organisation that delivers an education distinct from both private study and conventional, school based education. It is a unique organisation, uniquely positioned to service students isolated from conventional schools and/or their resources. Hence the DEC is a surrogate devised to satisfy the statutory obligations of the government and the educational needs of the isolated. Its effectiveness is based on a comprehensive set of assets, human and physical, organised to service a diverse and geographically dispersed clientele.

Through the late 80s and into the 90s the DEC underwent a massive curriculum overhaul. At the same time it adopted the Macintosh for its desktop publishing operations and produced policies and procedures to put its publishing operations on to a professional footing. The Publishing Unit was established to lever both the writing and publications into the required professional standards. DEC print materials are now regarded as among the very best in Australia.

Yet the DEC remains a traditional correspondence institution delivering a comprehensive education from K to 12. It is bound by its history and fulfils the functions ascribed to it by the Ministry of Education. It fits neatly under the umbrella definition that covers most distance education institutions.

Distance education: A comprehensive definition*

*Based on Learning for Tomorrow: The Role of Distance Education by Desmond J Keegan

The DEC and interactive teaching

During 1991 the DEC conducted an interactive teaching trial using Electronic Classroom software with a group of Year 11 and 12 students at Jerramungup District High School, a small country school 450 kilometres south east of Perth. The trial heralded a new era for the DEC in the integration of electronic and print media.

The sudden appearance of the trial might have met with some resistance. After all, traditional distance education, with its enormous print resources and comprehensive subject expertise, has been able to supply an education at least equal to that available from conventional schools. Tertiary entrance results are a testimony to the ability of the DEC to deliver a high quality product. Yet there has always been a recognition by DEC teachers that there are limits to their effectiveness. The telephone allows for some interaction with students, but this has always been limited to addressing specific problems and does not constitute an instructional program.

Technologies that allow for interactive teaching present teachers with the opportunity to develop and present instructional programs which:

However, the printed materials continue to provide the bulk of the content as well as the assessment and reinforcement activities. Perhaps more importantly such materials provide both the student and teacher with the course structure and an always available reference for revision, activities and, most importantly, content guarantee. Bringing together the strengths of the printed materials and interactive teaching in coherent ways must result in student outcomes that are superior to both those that arise from traditional distance education on the one hand and conventional classroom instruction on the other.

Target curriculum areas for interactive teaching

Many schools in this state are unable to deliver every course request generated by their students. The growth of DEC enrolments from senior high schools in recent years is clear evidence of this circumstance. In addition, country schools are increasingly seeking to satisfy demand for curricula from students staying on in rural communities as opposed to entering boarding accommodation of one sort or another in the city or larger country towns.

Four curriculum areas need to be targeted by the DEC:

Curriculum gaps arise in most senior high schools because some subject expertise may simply be unavailable in the school, whilst timetabling constraints often prevent students from taking all subjects requested.

Specialist curricula constitute subjects that have small student numbers in individual schools but aggregate to large numbers, eg. Japanese. The DEC would prepare the materials in print and electronic form and teach these interactively in the appropriate medium as well as in print.

CAL packages, perhaps in HyperCard format, are ideal for handling remedial problems in reading, mathematics and study skills. Indeed, in the longer term all subject areas would present remedial and bridging courses. These have the advantage of being both interactive and self paced.

Some courses generally available in all schools would, nevertheless, benefit from television broadcasts such as the DEC's Live Science. It is also interactive in that there is a phone in session at the end of each broadcast. The instructional style of the teachers also promotes the reduction of psychological and social distance between the teacher and student. In addition aggregative economies of scale are the highest of all categories, and it also lends itself to the maximum of substitution of electronic for print course material.

In relation to the needs of the state education system as a whole, the first two categories are clear imperatives for the DEC. The type of interactive media to be used for and within each category is likely to vary and should vary according to effectiveness and appropriateness for the particular teaching process envisioned.

Integrating interactive media into DEC operations

Other than targeting appropriate curriculum areas, it is a matter of justifying the DEC's investment in the new technologies and the concomitant overhaul in teaching and management practices. It is vital to conceive of and conduct the DEC's response to the challenge of incorporating electronic teaching into its core function in a rational and. coherent way. In order to maximise return on investment of resources and teacher time, it will be important to model the DEC's electronic teaching development plan in accordance with a number of principles. These include: 1. Economies of scale. To maximise return on teacher time, one of two types of economies of scale must be met.

Replicative economies of scale are those that arise from a teacher interacting with students grouped at several locations taking the same lesson. Preparation and interaction time are maximised in this manner. Examples of replicative economies include the Electronic Classroom and the DUCT system.

Aggregative economies of scale are those that typically arise from a single delivery being received by individuals and groups in diverse locations. Examples of such economies include TV broadcasts for large aggregates. Currently these aggregates are country based but there is no practical reason why this cannot be extended to the city and there is good argument for doing so as a matter of priority.

2. Curriculum complementarity. This principle is an extension of the current basis on which the DEC involves itself with the curriculum offerings of schools. The DEC fills gaps in those schools unable to offer all courses in demand by students. Many metropolitan and country schools are availing themselves of this service through the DEC's correspondence system. The next step is to offer the service in the electronic teaching mode.

Curriculum complementarity with external agencies is only one half of the planning required. Equally important is the need for complementarity within each curriculum offering of the DEC. Simply put, this means a need to address the mix between print and electronic media within each curriculum. A systematic and analytical approach will need to be developed to facilitate decisions about apportioning curriculum to print and electronic media on the grounds of appropriateness and efficacy.

3. Interactivity. Whilst in some ways the DEC already encompasses the first two of the principles, it is the principle of interactivity in real time that is new and establishes an imperative for change in the way the DEC operates. The danger is that "distance teaching institutions based on the industrial model suffer from the disadvantage that their whole organisation, and especially their management and decision making process, is built around requirements of the mass production of 'one way' teaching materials." (Bates, A.W., Third Generation Distance Education: The Challenge of New Technology. Research in Distance Education, April 1991) The message is clear: the DEC will need to make a commitment to change at all levels within its organisation to bring about the necessary climate to make electronic teaching a viable option incorporated into its mainstream operations.

Marketing and management strategy

In order to mainstream electronic teaching, a strategy for managing the introduction and maintenance of electronic teaching at the DEC will be required. At the same time, a market for it must be identified. Naturally enough, the specific characteristics of the market will have an impact on the management strategy. Management will involve issues relating to technology, human resources and the teaching process.

Market may appear to be an inappropriate concept for an institution fulfilling a statutory obligation to teach school age students. However, the idiosyncrasies of the distance education mode of delivery and the diverse nature of the student population means the DEC will need to tailor its offerings and delivery to suit a variety of student groups.

Two distinct student groups offer themselves as the market for electronic teaching. The first of these is the home based, isolated student. These students are the most disadvantaged sector of the student population in terms of access, equity and participation. They enjoy neither the educational advantages nor the socialisation opportunities of students in conventional schools. It is this group of students that is most likely to miss out on the benefits of access to electronic media. A simple lack of resources may limit their opportunities to little more than print and some telephone feedback.

The other segment of the market is that of students based in conventional schools where curriculum gaps exist. If most of the students' subjects are done in the school with the DEC providing the extra subject, in many cases the work required to do the DEC subject is placed in the lowest priority by students simply because of the students' real, live interaction with teachers for their school subjects. Also because the DEC teacher expertise is not at hand, there is a difference in accessibility that usually means the student will tend to approach the school based teachers for problem solving in school subjects long before the DEC teacher is contacted. As a result, DEC subjects are often not given the attention or time they require. Consequently, student performance in these subjects does not match subjects being done at the schools themselves.

With the Electronic Classroom, for example, point to multipoint teaching would enable students based in schools and home based students to become associated in an 'extended' interactive classroom. Such an arrangement would have educational values for these students and socialisation values, in particular, for the home based student. The latter is a crucial factor for the isolated student's development and ability to slot into mass society and/or conventional schools at some later time.


The success of the Electronic Classroom trial should form the springboard for a coordinated program to introduce electronic teaching/interactive learning into the DEC's mainstream operations. Research consistently reinforces the power and efficacy of interactive learning in distance education above all other factors, including excellence of print materials. No findings to the contrary have so far been identified

A strategy to introduce electronic teaching into the DEC's operations requires detailed planning and careful monitoring. The first and most essential task is to establish interactive teaching/learning as a component of the DEC's school development plan in the form of a mission statement reflecting the ethos of a DEC commitment to interactive teaching/learning. To actualise the mission statement will require a management team and structure empowered to produce policies and put in place the consequent procedures. Resources, human and capital, will need to be identified to enable progress to be made. And throughout the process a means of monitoring and modifying policies and procedures will need to be in place. Finally, the impact of electronic teaching on the use and production of print materials will need to be tracked so that ultimately a more rational mix of electronic and print media becomes a feature of the DEC's educational offerings.

Please cite as: States, I. (1992). Promise and problem: Interactive technologies and the DEC. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 635-640. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/states.html

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