ASET logo
[ OLNT'90 contents ] [ EdTech Confs ]

Introduction: The conference programme

Clare McBeath and Roger Atkinson
Conference Programme Organisers

A state wide conference on Open Learning and New Technology was held at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia, on 29 and 30 June, 1990. It was organised by the Australian Society for Educational Technology (ASET), WA Chapter, in response to a growing level of interest in the meaning and possibilities of open learning and the place of new technologies in education and training.

The interest came from many quarters. The Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sector in WA is being restructured so that it might respond with greater efficiency to the changing needs of industry and the community. Part of its policy for restructuring is the introduction of flexible, alternative delivery systems to courses where possible. Open learning will be a central part of that policy. The WA Distance Education Consortium (WADEC) has recently been established to coordinate the external studies programmes of the state's higher education institutions. Reforms will require the use of open learning philosophies in new designs and delivery methods for higher education's external offerings.

Federal Parliament has passed the Training Guarantee Bill requiring a 1% training commitment from companies with a payroll of over $200 000. Corporations and private companies are seeking cost effective methods to deliver high quality training to their employees and are looking to open learning methods, which they have seen trialled in other countries. This coincides with recent private sector initiatives in setting up new open learning and educational technology services. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has endorsed award restructuring and multiskilling of the workforce in the interests of career path development and micro economic reform. This will require imaginative changes in the timing, location and methods of training and retraining courses for workers in many industries.

The ASET Committee believes that the 1990s will usher in a new professionalism in the design and delivery of open learning and new technologies for Australia's training and education systems. More effective collaborative initiatives will be required to use these professional skills to their fullest extent.

There was a growing feeling that there was much to be gained from a conference of this kind, whereby the diverse sectors could meet and share innovative ideas and experiences. In many ways it seemed an opportune time to invite industry trainers, government officers, private educational consultants, teachers and organisers from TAFE and academics from higher education, to break down traditional barriers between them and search for some common insights together.

The conference was an overwhelming success. Fifty people presented papers or gave demonstrations to an audience of 155 participants. It was a first for Western Australia to witness a multisector initiative of this size, and to sense the excitement as engineers, corporate training managers, policemen and academics began to communicate with each other. Few of the participants would have been prepared to philosophise about open learning, or attempt to define it, but as the case studies unfolded from diverse and unexpected quarters, they became aware of a sense of common purpose and a new respect for each other.

Western Australia, more than any other Australian state, has had to overcome the difficulties of enormous distances and, outside the metropolitan area, a sparsely scattered population. It is not surprising that in training its people, WA has had to experiment with alternative delivery methods, including various forms of open learning. The Open Learning and New Technology Conference presented a wide ranging sample of practices in this state. We offer here an edited version of the presentations, a snapshot of open learning in practice in Western Australia in June 1990, in the hope that as we learned from each other at the conference so might the readers of this book also find interest and value in our state's experience. In this sense this volume can be regarded as an open learning package about open learning in practice.

Why open learning? Why new technology?

It is more appropriate at this stage of the development of open learning to ask the question why rather than what. Several of the papers in this book attempt definitions of open learning practice and concepts. This, of course, is useful. However, in the process of conceptualising and organising the conference, we were anxious not to place limits on the way participants perceived open learning. Many of the authors, at some stage in planning and writing their papers, asked the questions, "How do you interpret open learning? How do I know if what I am doing is open learning?" It was important to steer the questioners to focus rather on the practical application of their experiences and why they were doing what they were. "You have a unique and interesting story to tell," we advised our potential contributors. "Describe what you do and tell us why you do it this way". It was hoped that the concepts and definitions would flow from there. Indeed, by the end of the conference, participants had stopped asking for a definition. As one person commented, "I had been trying to define open learning as a thing. Now I see it as an alternative way to think about learning."

By asking why rather than what, it was recognised that any definition would necessarily be context sensitive. Open learning for the professional development of nurses at Halls Creek will be developed differently from IBM staff development programmes using the Interactive Satellite Education Network. The development of a Hypercard data base for students of occupational therapy would not be recognisable as a related concept to someone developing Traineeships for unemployed youth or modular learning for multiskilling in the metal trades. Engineers involved in simulation of laboratory exercises by interactive videodisc would invariably discuss their work in terms unfamiliar to educationists concerned with literacy issues in open learning. Each of these practitioners would produce a different definition, if asked, based on the issues seen as most important in their own context.

Where they would find common ground, however, is why they were involved in open learning. In a limitless variety of contexts, they would all consider their efforts to be firmly based on response to the characteristics of the users and the validity of their needs. Finding new ways of responding to educational and training needs is the common bond that links the practitioners of open learning.

For as long as open learning is still growing and changing, it will remain a flexible concept. The future of open learning cannot be envisaged. We can only look at current examples, as the authors have done in this book, and become aware of a commonality of purpose, based on solving the changing needs and circumstances of learners.

An obvious interdependence exists between open learning and technology. Open learning frequently separates students from the physical presence of a teacher and makes use of technologies of various kinds to communicate the learning message. The technology itself may become the tutor, as in interactive videodisc or computer managed learning. New technologies are making it easier to bridge the gap between the teacher and the learner or to link together a variety of media sources for increased interactivity, such as audiographics and radio-computer technology. While new technologies are increasing the possibilities for new approaches to education and training, it becomes more important for the designer and deliverer to use sound professional judgement in choosing the most appropriate mix for each situation. The mix might include print material, distance learning and face to face teaching, but still the principles of open learning apply. No two open learning situations are the same. Whereas LIVE-NET and other video conference projects may be ideal in certain situations, other open learning innovations may be better suited to well designed print material and nothing else.

Whatever the technologies chosen for an open learning situation, the responsibility for better instructional design expertise is always greater in open learning than in traditional teaching methods. In the face to face classroom environment the teacher has opportunities to amend or explain or to add things which have been forgotten. Such luxuries are impossible when the message is relayed by technological processes. The instructional message must be accurate and complete or the educational programme will fail.

Because of the need for thorough instructional design and the new technologies being used increasingly in open learning, there is a tendency to regard open learning systems as expensive alternatives to traditional methods. Certainly in the initial stages, planning, development and production can be expensive. Time needed to develop and refine good teaching packages has to be funded. However, there is ample evidence to prove that open learning can, and indeed should, reduce training costs in the longer term. The major saving, indeed, comes from a reduction in travel and in not having to remove staff from their workplaces.

The book of proceedings

There was a wide range of styles and approaches in the papers. Perhaps this is inevitable when seeking to build bridges between diverse sectors. Obviously academics wrote in academic style, supporting their points with citations and references, as they are expected to do in their published work. Instructors and trainers wrote as teachers; training managers as organisers, in practical, down to earth language such as they use in their jobs. Technicians and technologists wrote technological papers, emphasising the precision of technical detail. Virtually everybody used a different style guide.

Part of our task was to ensure that there was a free flow of ideas, uninhibited by set format or rules of expression. Some of the papers were excellent as they were received, informative, well written and interesting to read. Others needed some tidying, or reshaping of style or expression. However, we wanted to emphasise the diversity of style and approach and we purposely retained the flavour of each paper in its context. We limited our editorial role mainly to format, punctuation, citations and references, making the papers as consistent as possible throughout the collection.

One of the interesting features of open learning is the number of specialisms which feed into it. If one has expertise in, say, instructional design, distance education, interpersonal or technological communication, curriculum design and development, the psychology or philosophy of learning, or any aspect of the teaching and learning process, this expertise can be directed into open learning. Perhaps we had a number of instant experts in this sense, and many of the papers do deal with a single aspect, or a narrow part of open learning, rather than with open learning as a whole. This we also considered important. The reader will not find a complete recipe for open learning in any single paper, but by reading a number of papers on different aspects, will begin to see a clearer picture of the whole.

It is difficult to pick out themes or groups of papers. Globally they might be seen to fit into large groupings such as practical case studies, technical papers and statements of policy and planning Some fit into more than one category, while some do not fit easily into any.

Case studies

Distance is a frequently occurring theme. In a state the size of Western Australia this might be expected. A number of the case studies are based on attempts by individuals or organisations to train or upgrade people working in widely scattered locations. Scott and Hawley and Spice describe inservice and re-accreditation courses for nurses in far flung areas; Fox and Edwards outline the development of a telecourse in microbiology for country based nurses upgrading their qualifications to degree status; Evans writes of police training in one of the largest "beats" in the world; Moorhouse and Ellicott base their paper on the aim by Arts Access to provide a course in any of the arts wherever six or more people apply for it, and Norris and Pyke describe the Rural Outreach programme in WA.

The LIVE-NET video conference project also takes its inspiration from the distance theme, and Davy's paper is a case study in using satellite technology to open up new educational initiatives over vast distances. Diggen's paper on his work linking radio and computer technologies has the needs of isolated teachers and students in country schools as its major potential application. Gallagher's video conferenced presentation from Melbourne also emphasised distance as an important factor in the training of Telecom people. These three papers might also be categorised as technological papers and included under the next heading.

Educational and curriculum concerns are, not surprisingly, a central theme of some of the case studies. Gunningham and Fletcher look at participative curriculum development of the Certificate of Supervision (Minerals and Energy) course for the Pilbara mining companies; evaluation of fleximode courses in TAFE is the theme of Toussaint's paper; Collins analyses the design and trial of flexible, modular training courses for the metal trades. White and Watson carry the educational theme into the area of architectural design for the new Joondalup Campus, purpose built to facilitate open learning practices. Grant's description of setting up a video communication network between the WACAE campuses is a major initiative with significant educational implications.

Simulation as an educational technique is mentioned by Docherty and Edgar in their work on interactive videodisc for engineering students, and Wallace describes computer based simulation for the training of RAAF pilots.

Technological papers

The technological papers are easier to categorise. Cameron outlines the use of Hypercard to develop an activities bank for occupational therapy lecturers and students; Bresa describes the functions and advantages of Optel Telewriter; Cheng writes of IBM staff training using the Interactive Satellite Education Network (ISEN); Telecom's Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and its significance for video conferencing are described in the paper by Davies and Harding. Henson presents a short paper on the open learning centre recently set up by Select Learning. These topics were presented as demonstrations at the conference and the papers are descriptions of the technology.

Also in this technological category is Temple's interesting and well written account of his work in setting up the Ningaloo Reef interactive video project. This paper is also a case study, although its major emphasis is technical.

Theory, policy and planning

These are the more global papers, looking at the nature of open learning and the need for principles from other disciplines to be adhered to in the development and management of open learning projects and systems.

Foks' key note address on the politics of open learning and his session paper on the management of open learning technologies both fit into this category, as does Keegan's analysis of concepts, costs, successes and failures. Some further essentials of open learning are dealt with by Widdowson in his paper on developing and delivering learning in alternative situations.

Campion presents the only philosophical paper in the collection, in which he uses Illich's work on deschooling to support his thesis on the inconsistencies inherent in the concept of open learning. Atkinson makes a plea to educationalists in higher education to develop open learning services for commerce and industry rather than concentrating their efforts solely on the schools sector. Hosie's examination of the use of interactive videodisc for training purposes gives a scholarly and detailed overview and analysis of ten years of research in this field, and Goodlet's paper, although it could have been a case study, examines policy issues relevant to the management of the Traineeship programme in Western Australia. Skelton looks at the new Edtel cooperative and outlines the importance of communications technologies in assisting education and training in WA.

The bearing of various educational fields of thought on open learning planning, design and delivery is the final theme developed in this collection of papers. Radloff and Warren-Langford consider the importance of metacognitive processes in learning and argue that these learning principles must be built into adult education and training; Radloff and Samson remind us of the importance of considering the literacy level of users and students in setting up open learning projects; McBeath outlines forty years of curriculum research and practice and advocates that this knowledge be utilised in the development of open learning for industry and commerce; the principles of educational technology in open learning are dealt with in differing ways by Hudson, writing of her UK experiences, and Farren, looking at its place in a commercial context.

Open learning and theories of educational change

The open learning conference and the publication of this book represent steps in educational change. Much has been written about the change process, especially in regard to innovation in schools. (Fullan 1982, Crandall 1983, Miles et al, 1988), but the research has been concerned on the whole with planned, organisational change. The level of interest in open learning manifest at the conference has occurred spontaneously and in an unstructured way. Even in the TAFE sector where it is now a declared part of policy structure, it has been developing as isolated and non-coordinated examples for some years. Many open learning practitioners would share Sims' observation, made in the panel session in this book, that they didn't realise that they had been promulgating something called open learning; they had simply been looking for realistic and practical ways to deliver educational programmes in circumstances where traditional teaching was obviated.

However, some of the issues in the educational change literature are still valid in a discussion of a non-organisational change, such as has been witnessed in the area of open learning.

One of the fundamental problems is a lack of clarity about change itself (Fullan 1982). What is changing with open learning? Where is it going? If the direction of change were clear and it could be seen to be desirable, it could be introduced quickly and efficiently. But educational change is also a learning process for the people involved and nobody really knows where it is going. As indicated earlier, there is not even an adequate definition of open learning, because it can only be understood within the context in which it is being practised. Lewis (1988) claims that if open learning were defined from what we know about it already, we would never discover its full potential. Paine (1988) urges that in the field of open learning "we need ... an attitude and approach that is inventive, imaginative and productive" (p.366). If indeed these characteristics could produce a clear vision of the future, then we would be able to understand the change process in which we are involved. However, we are limited in our management of change to recognising and correcting the mistakes of the past.

A second important feature of the change process, according to Fullan (1982), is the subjective meaning of change. Individuals have to makes sense not only of what they are doing but of what others are doing.

Neglect of the phenomenology of change - that is how people actually experience change as distinct from how it might have been intended - is at the heart of the spectacular lack of success of most social reforms (Fullan, 1982, p.4).
Not only the instigators of change, the "change agents" to use Havelock's term (1973), but instructors, designers, technicians and, most importantly, students, need to find individual meaning in both what the change is and why they are involved in it. The closer these meanings can be shared the more likely the project is to be successful.

At present, in the non-institutional context of open learning, we are not referring to one project, but to many. The authors represented in this book certainly did not share the same understanding of open learning, or of a common change culture in which they are all involved. Herein lies a contradiction with the lack of clarity of the direction of change discussed above. While objective meanings can only come through invention, imagination and experimentation, subjective meaning requires that we share common insights. Both appear to be needed for open learning to attain the potential it promises.

Change can be threatening. Open learning is a threat first of all to traditional instructors and administrators, who do not or cannot change their patterns of behaviour or their career directions. More importantly, it could be threatening to the students it is meant to serve if they themselves misunderstand their responsibilities or roles in what they are doing. Meticulous attention to good quality instructional design and sensitivity to the special needs of autonomous learners are essential. It is important that the excitement of new communications technologies does not obscure this requirement.

There are other issues in the research into educational change that must be kept in mind. Fullan (1982) identifies some of them

These issues require further study in the context of open learning. We are part of a world community of scholars and practitioners looking for successful new directions in educational change and none of us can yet claim to have found the best recipe for the future.


Crandell, D.P. & Associates. (1983). People, policies and practices: Examining the chain of school improvement. Andova, Mass: Network.

Fullan, Michael. (1982). The meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Havelock, R.G. (1973). The change agents' guide to innovation in education. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Lewis, Roger. (1988). Open learning - the future. In Nigel Paine (Ed.), Open learning in transition: An agenda for action. 89-104. London: Kogan Page.

Miles, M.B., Saxl, E.R. & Lieberman, A. (1988). What skills do educational "change agents" need? An empirical view. Curriculum Inquiry, 18(2) 157-193.

Paine, Nigel. (1988). An agenda for action. In Nigel Paine (Ed.), Open learning in transition: An agenda for action. 89-104. London: Kogan Page.

Please cite as: C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (1990). Introduction: The conference programme. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 1-8. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

[ OLNT'90 contents ] [ EdTech Confs ] [ ASET Home ]
This URL:
© 1990 The authors and ASET WA Chapter.
Last revised: 27 Apr 2003. HTML editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 27 Apr 1998 to 30 Sep 2003: