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Large scale distance teaching and the convergence of telecommunications and multimedia

Robin Mason
The Open University, UK
The UK Open University has pioneered the use of educational broadcasting and computer conferencing for large scale distance teaching. Recent developments in technology (satellite, cable, the Internet and multimedia) have brought about the convergence of broadcasting, a one to many delivery mode, and textual interaction, a many to many mode as vehicles for teaching. This presentation concentrates on the ways in which the University is adapting its traditional production and delivery methods to the new environment created by this convergence of technologies. Results from recent evaluation studies carried out on courses using World Wide Web, CD-ROM and interactive conferencing are discussed and the educational value of these new methods assessed in the light of feedback from students and tutors.

Presentation media

The UK Open University (OU) is renowned for the quality of its educational teaching texts and its course related broadcasts and video made in conjunction with the BBC (the Open University Production Centre). Both of these media are now categorised as one to many; that is, they allow a great deal of information to be presented to a large number of students by, in our case, a small team of academics, editors and producers.

The OU, along with other dedicated, large scale distance teaching institutions, has a very favourable cost per student ratio, relative to traditional campus based tertiary education, due to the economies of scale which are possible with one to many delivery media. However, educational environments which do not support interaction between students and tutors, and amongst students themselves, are increasingly frowned upon by leading educationalists, researchers and teachers concerned to give students more control over their learning (Roberts and Keough, 1995).

Interactive media

Media which promote interaction between students and tutors began to be used in distance education about ten years ago. The OU was, in fact, a pioneer in large scale applications of computer conferencing (Mason and Kaye, 1989) and has continued to develop innovative uses of the medium. For example, a course on renewable energy, developed on the FirstClass computer conferencing system, was based entirely on collaborative exercises (Alexander and Mason, 1993), and an international train the trainers course has been running for some years online for people interested in the educational use of the medium (Rowntree, 1995).

Another type of interaction is provided by various forms of computer aided learning and more recently multimedia on CD-ROM. These media also encourage student control in that users can choose their own learning routes and feedback is provided on users' input. This kind of interaction is of a different sort from that of human to human interaction, but valuable all the same (Laurillard, 1993).

Access issues for home based students has, until recently, limited OU use of multimedia on courses, although summer schools and residential schools have offered scope to provide some students with opportunities to use computer based technologies. Fortunately, the availability of relatively inexpensive multimedia home computers in the last year, has allowed the OU to embark on a major program to develop multimedia materials for various courses across all disciplines (Daniel, this volume).

Converging media

The most exciting technology developments, however, seem to arise from the growing convergence between the telecommunications based systems (computer conferencing and the Internet) and the visual media (multimedia computer based learning). Emerging technologies combining these two capabilities are World Wide Web, video conferencing and video on demand. One way of describing this convergence is 'interactive multimedia'. While access to the Web is possible for home based students, the other two are currently only available between institutions or study centres, except in specially funded contexts. However, interactive multimedia can be provided to distance learners in the home through combinations of various information and telecommunications media, and in any case, it is important that the educational issues involved in the use of the new converging media be worked through in advance of the technology becoming available on a wide scale. Educationalists are notoriously conservative and resistant to change; furthermore, most research on the use of new technology in education shows that it is social, educational and human issues which play the largest part in the success of applications, not technical and technological factors. Finally, the students themselves need to undergo a significant learning process to adapt their attitudes, their expectations and their study patterns to the demands of interactive multimedia systems.

This paper discusses the issues surrounding the educational use of combinations of these media on OU courses. It will also examine some of the organisational implications (eg. financial and administrative) of adopting these technologies. Reference will be made to experimental uses of the very latest technologies which incorporate telecommunications and multimedia in one service. The discussion begins with an analysis of the pedagogical rationale behind the use of interactive multimedia.

Pedagogical rationale

The notion of interaction in the learning process has always been considered fundamental by educators and researchers, but in the last five years, it has risen to prominence as the sine qua non of the best programs, whether taught face to face or at a distance, and whether using information and telecommunications technologies or not.
Most theories of learning suggest that for learning to be effective it needs to be active; in other words the learner must respond in some way to the learning material. It is not enough merely to observe or read; learners have to do something with the learning material. Thus they may need to demonstrate (if only to themselves) that they have understood, or they may need to reprocess new material to incorporate it with existing knowledge, or to apply the new knowledge they have acquired successfully to new situations. (Bates, 1991)
Computer conferencing provides one facility, for distance learners especially, to interact with their tutors and other learners. Furthermore, it supports various forms of collaborative activities and joint projects.
Computer conferencing fits project learning at a distance because compared to mail it offers the possibilities of a much faster interaction and - very important - it establishes a collective room of experiences and reflections. In fact it brings the university into the students' living rooms. (Dirckinck-Holmfeld, 1995, p187)
Multimedia offers teachers new ways to structure and present information, and learners new ways to access and manipulate it. As the pedagogical evaluation of multimedia applications develops, however, educationalists have come to see that simple 'point and click' uses of the medium do not constitute real interactivity and do not exploit the experiential potential of multimedia systems.
Educational software must do more than just present information; it must actively engage the student within a learning environment, one in which there is something for them to do... an active environment that involves the learner in a challenge or mission. (Whalley, 1995, 193)
Concepts of learning derived from the work of Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Vygotsky emphasise a student centred approach involving individualised, hands on learning, teamwork and guided discovery of information. Burge spells out in more detail what these concepts mean for course providers.
To teach constructively is to provide opportunities for complex information processing related to a learner's needs and knowledge of the world, design relevant and real world (authentic) tasks, help to identify conflicting ideas and attitudes, provide complex and controversial stimuli, challenge the learner's existing knowledge structures and values, acknowledge vague structures in knowledge, help learners revisit material in greater depths, confirm the learning identified by learners, and guide learners to generate correct solutions. (Burge, 1995, p156)
All of these concepts are not only well suited to technology assistance, but, considering the economics of teaching and training, they are nearly impossible to effect for significant numbers of learners without the help of computers.

Given the educational benefits of interactivity and of multimedia, how can a large scale distance teaching institution provide both these qualities in its learning environment for home based students? Three examples of OU approaches to this question are

These examples have been applied in various ways on a number of undergraduate and professional development courses, and the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU has conducted evaluations of their benefits and drawbacks, using feedback from students and tutors.

FirstClass and the web

The Web is the latest ubiquitous technology to 'suffer' an explosion of interest from the education world. The OU is exploring its advantages in two ways: as a method of delivering additional tutorial support materials to students, and as a resource for professional updating; in other words, for teachers to present tailor made materials and for students to discover relevant materials from all over the Internet. In both cases, the Web is used as a multimedia resource. By combining its use with FirstClass computer conferencing, interaction between students and tutors about these resources should produce - in theory - a very rich educational environment.

This combination has been used on a second level undergraduate course called Fundamentals of Computing (Wilson and Whitelock, 1995). While this large introductory computing course is delivered through traditional print based units, about 100 of the 2000 students in 1995 were offered the opportunity to participate in an interactive multimedia project using additional tutorial materials and interaction with tutors and students electronically.

An eight part tutorial on files and Pascal verbs was provided on the Web for the last block of the course. Students were expected to use FirstClass to discuss this and other materials written specially by tutors and made available electronically to the students in the trial. Whilst the conferences were well used by many of the students and tutors, relatively few discussions of the extra tutorial materials took place. Telephone interviews with 20 students were conducted to find out how they reacted to the new delivery medium of the Web and what use they had made of the materials provided. Their responses reveal some of the difficulties in using the Web as a distance teaching delivery medium; for example

Other reasons for lack of use were more specific to OU and the adult distance education context Many students used their Web connection to explore other resources related to their employment or personal interests. All of those interviewed were enthusiastic about FirstClass as a communications medium to keep in touch with other students and their tutor, to find out how others were getting on with the course, to ask questions and to read the responses to other queries.

They were also enthusiastic about the potential of the Web; they endorsed the OU's willingness to experiment and innovate. None of them saw their lack of use of the tutorial materials provided as detracting from the success of the trial.

Another course which makes significant use of the Web consists of professional updating for educators and trainers interested in interactive multimedia for course delivery. Apart from an optional face to face meeting at the beginning, the course is run entirely through FirstClass and one module explores the use of the Web as a resource and a teaching medium. Participants work in small groups to carry out searches for specific material, and then construct their own Web pages to present their findings. This use avoids the problem described above where students do not tackle any materials perceived as optional. It also has the benefit of putting students in the role of active constructors of their learning rather than passive receivers of it. However, it is time consuming

CD-ROM and computer conferencing

Another combination of media which together could be described as interactive multimedia, is being examined on a large scale undergraduate course in information technology. The course material is supplied largely on CD-ROM with print reserved for study guides and a set Reader (although this is also available on the CD-ROM). Computer conferencing is used for tutorial support, for general discussion of course material. and for joint preparation of two of the six assignments.

Members of the course team were interested in using this combination of media to innovate in two ways

One block of the course was devoted to explaining the notion of resource based learning and to providing students with opportunities to develop skills in it. Each of the sections of the block gave students practice in a different aspect of resource based learning. For example, students were taught how to use the facilities of the CD-ROM to conduct searches of the articles; they were given opportunities to practise browsing articles and selecting only the most relevant sections for detailed reading; they were encouraged to concentrate on areas of greatest personal interest by pursuing these in depth, rather than trying to cover all of the material provided. Finally, the storage capacity of the CD-ROM was used to provide extensive data which students were asked to manipulate to carry out various activities, as well as software which students use for practical exercises.

Data on students' use of the CD-ROM was collected by means of a questionnaire (delivered to them on the CD-ROM and returned electronically through an attachment to a mail message). Responses to this questionnaire were further investigated through telephone interviews with about 20 students. The evaluators were interested to discover how students adapted to working on screen and whether they made use of the extensive linking and support facilities provided with each item on the database.

Of the 160 students who returned the questionnaire, by far the majority read most or all of the articles they were referred to by the study guides: about half of the students printed out many of these articles D either for initial reading or for later reference. Telephone interviews with students investigated this behaviour and the reasons for it. The main explanation was similar to students' responses about the use of Web tutorials: convenience. Distance education students have to fit their studies around a range of competing demands on their time; flexibility to study at a variety of times and in a variety of locations is all important. Consequently, students print out computer based materials to work through when they have a chance. Ibis of course, negates the value of the links to glossary items, to relevant sections of other articles and to explanatory notes provided by the course team. However, it was clear from the interviews that students did value these links and particularly the search facilities of the CD-ROM to identify relevant articles, to decide which parts to study in more details and to follow related themes from one article to another.

Another of the ironies about students printing out CD-ROM articles is that the resulting product is vastly inferior to the printed materials which the OU routinely provides as course materials, both in quality and presentation and at much less cost per page. Can the educational benefits of CD-ROM really justify this obvious inefficiency? Interviews with students about their attitude to resource based learning and to the facilities on the CD-ROM suggest that this use is justified and acceptable. Students confirmed the course team view that it is important to develop resource based skills, to take seriously the notion of self directed learning and to understand the nature and potential of multimedia materials. The ideal combination, not surprisingly, was the course reader which was provided as a text book and also in searchable form on the CD-ROM. Most students used the content in both these forms during the course of their studies.

The student interactions through computer conferencing, especially the assignment based collaborative activities, also showed some remarkably positive outcomes for the future of interactive multimedia. Online collaborative assignments had been used on previous versions of the course with some success (Mason, 1993), but the collaborative project devised for the 1995 course was much more innovative. Students working in small groups were expected to prepare a joint response to the assigned question by drawing on materials from the CD-ROM resources and their own experience. Each student wrote an individual introduction and conclusion, and submitted the whole piece to their tutor electronically. Their final grade for the assignment was made up of a collective mark and an individual mark. In their own conference, tutors considered the obvious question of what to do about those members of the group who clearly did not contribute equally to the collaborative discussions; they exchanged experiences of marking the assignments and commiserated over the technical problems which resulted from electronic submission. While the collaborative discussions of the various student groups ranged from desultory to outstanding, there was a general feeling amongst the tutors that this kind of assignment is manageable on a large scale for home based students and that there are real educational benefits for most, though not all, participants.

RealAudio and the web

Audio-vision is a term coined at the OU before the use of personal computers, for a combination of media suitable for home based learners. It consists simply of an audio cassette on which a teacher talks students through a series of paper based diagrams, photographs or other graphical materials. The method is valuable educationally; it is very cost effective and very 'low tech'. The drawbacks to it are similar to all one to many technologies used in distance teaching: lack of interactivity with the student and lack of easy updating or refining facility once produced.

A telecommunications based version of audio-vision called RealAudio is currently under investigation by the OU. It combines both interactivity and multimedia as well as an easy and inexpensive way of making changes to the content. It is accessible over the Internet and requires only one phone line and a high speed modem. Furthermore, the technology supports both real time access and asynchronous access D an ideal combination for meeting the needs of a wide variety of distance learning students.

The OU's newly formed Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) is leading the trials of this new technology and accordingly ran its first live radio program onto the Internet in October 1994. A 'question the expert' session was held with Henry Leiberman of the MIT Media Lab and Marc Eisenstadt, the Director of KMI, with telephone questions from listeners in Israel, Portugal, USA and the UK. To gain experience in the provision of on demand services, KMI have also begun to offer a variety of audio materials using the combination of RealAudio and multimedia materials on the Internet: still pictures, hypertext notes on the Web or various kinds of software. Examples include lectures with slide shows, audio samplers from OU courses, course readings and graphic descriptions for visually impaired students, and interviews with leading research personalities. Plans are also in hand to use this combination to deliver and support courses. Details of this initiative and access to the RealAudio materials can be had from the KMI Web site http://kmi.open.ac.uk/

Future technologies

Video on demand (VOD)

One of the OU's research and development projects is a video on demand trial sponsored by Microsoft. In the initial phase the project will concentrate on delivering staff development courses in the area of 'teaching using multimedia'. The video resources will be integrated with teaching materials on the Web and with discussion facilities on either FirstClass or Microsoft Network. One of the aims of the trial is to consider how this technology will scale up to large numbers of students in the future, and how video on demand can best be exploited as an educational medium.

Microsoft Interactive Television (MITV) provides the foundation for this trial of broadband technology and other software such as creation tools, navigation software and system management software developed by Microsoft to facilitate the work of course designers and managers, will be used. The OU has acknowledged expertise in the production of educational video; VOD would therefore seem to be a natural medium for the OU to investigate for the development of its interactive multimedia strategy.

Video conferencing

Little use has so far been made of video conferencing within the OU's teaching program. The reasons for this are obvious: the technology to support it (ISDN) is not yet widespread in the home and it is inherently a synchronous medium. However, as we have seen with CD-ROM and the Web, there can be justifications for using technologies which run counter to traditional OU practice. There is evidence from extensive feedback from students gathered by IET, that a minority of OU students definitely welcome real time contact. Desktop video conferencing with one student per machine has tremendous potential for offering high quality tutorial support for home based students, and at least one faculty is actively seeking sponsorship for a trial.

The Director of IET explains the rationale behind such innovations

We need to develop procedures and approaches which generate learning and develop self aware learners and which also avoid either giving learners all the responsibility and no power, or leaving them to sink or swim. (Thorpe, 1995, 176)
The richest educational resources imaginable are only as useful as the inquiry framework students bring to them. Feedback from a teacher or tutor who is able to frame and reframe the content of teaching to take into account both subject matter and student response, is equally vital. Small group video conferencing offers one model for providing this kind of feedback.

Organisational implications


Multimedia teaching materials on their own have a similar cost structure to the production of text: they are both labour intensive in production, but relatively inexpensive in delivery. However, the provision of interaction, at least between students and teachers is much more costly in presentation throughout the life of the course than the one to many technologies, and threatens to bring the cost structures of distance teaching organisations closer to those of traditional campus based education. Furthermore, many of the interactive technologies do not scale up to the large numbers of students normal in dedicated distance teaching systems. There is an inevitable balance to be struck between quality and cost.

Two approaches to this problem are

Meeting students learning needs

Evidence of technology led innovations which do not meet real learning needs, is all too commonly found. In fact it is rare for new technologies to be introduced because of overwhelming demand from students. Funding availability, enthusiastic early adopters, political and institutional pressures all distort the natural cycle of demand and response. The challenge is not so much about which new technology works best, but which models are best suited to meeting the various needs of diverse learners.

The first step in understanding the diversity of students' needs is to establish what they are. To accomplish this, there is no substitute for talking with students, both informally and formally through evaluation procedures. Secondly, the organisation must be willing and open to change.

Significant change is usually achieved, not through systematic, formal analyses, but rather through less stable and even chaotic organisations that place a premium on innovation and change. (Paul, 1995, 137)
Paul goes on to stress that organisations must come to accept failure as part of the innovative process because innovation is frequently the product of random, unpredictable and even chaotic circumstances. Willingness to encompass technical difficulties, dead end technologies and rejection by students, is essential in applying interactive multimedia tools to the real world of distance learning.


This paper has described a range of ways in which the OU is adapting its traditional production and delivery methods to the new environment created by the convergence of telecommunications and multimedia. It has considered some of the educational and organisational issues involved in innovating with the new media.

The information superhighway is said to be more critical to our future than either the asphalt highway or the asphalt runway (Keough and Roberts, 1995). The OU is making a concerted attempt to discover the best ways of exploiting the superhighway for education. However, it is equally aware of the dangers in speeding down the open road.

Historically the pedagogic rationale for the use of IT in education has tended to be 'oversold' in a rather idealistic way, with the curriculum being 'enriched' and students being 'extended' in all sorts of exciting directions. There are obvious dangers in pinning unrealistic hopes of changing the way educational establishments work on mere technology and many writers have commented on the cycle of enchantment, followed by disappointment, that educators seem to follow with each new wave of equipment. (Whalley, 1995, 191)
Maintaining close contact with students' views and attuning the organisation to changes in the external environment help to break this cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment.


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Rowntree, D. (1995). Teaching and learning online: A correspondence education for the 21st century? British Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3).

Thorpe, M. (1995). The challenge facing course design. In F. Lockwood (Ed), Open and Distance Learning Today. London: Routledge.

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Wilson, T. and Whitelock, D. (1995). Too much too soon? The pros and cons of using new technology in the presentation of a distance learning computer science course. Research Report No 95/12, Department of Computing, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Author: Dr Robin Mason
Head of the Centre for Information Technology in Education
Institute of Educational Technology
The Open University
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes
Tel: +44 1908 653137 Fax: +44 1908 653744
Email: r.d.mason@open.ac.uk

Please cite as: Mason, R. (1996). Large scale distance teaching and the convergence of telecommunications and multimedia. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 260-266. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/lp/mason.html

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