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

Educational technology in a commercial context

Roy Farren


There is a growing demand for the non institutional delivery of education and training. The reasons for this are varied, but without making value judgements about them we can identify the following.

The demand for greater relevance

Industry and commerce are beginning to see specialisation as the key to economic viability. There are moves towards providing training which will help to achieve specific corporate objectives rather than generalised, educationally oriented programmes, which may have long term benefits for the individual, but which may also lead to increased staff mobility and the possible loss of key personnel. As a consequence, the demand for in house, customised training is growing. The advantages of institutional delivery are less appealing than they used to be, except where organisations have large numbers of staff dispersed over a wide geographical area and it is convenient to bring them to centralised locations for training.

Negative aspects in off site staff development

Off site staff development has some significant negative aspects in terms of scheduling difficulties, relatively high cost, and often inadequate feedback from those attending. In addition, there are often adverse reactions from those who do not attend and who feel that they have been somehow disadvantaged as a result.

New technologies and equipment

New technologies often require fast track development of training programmes and in some cases the firms requiring the training are the only ones which have the necessary equipment. In these cases, on site training is the only available option.

The need to manage precourse and post course training

In order to ensure that training session time is used effectively, it is necessary to undertake precourse evaluation and, for some of the participants, precourse training. Post course training is also needed to consolidate the skills developed during the intensive training period. Much of the precourse and post course training needs to be carried out on site and usually requires the participation of on site personnel. Under those circumstances on site delivery is often seen as the most appropriate way to deliver the entire programme.

The commercial context

In addition to developing an increased interest in the delivery of training on site, the commercial world has also developed, in recent years, a changing view of educational institutions. Once revered, and seen as the only source of education and training, often they are now viewed with mixed feelings. On the one hand they are seen as useful providers of accreditation and on the other hand they are seen as being difficult to deal with. Administratively, they appear bureaucratic and inflexible. Philosophically, they appear to favour conservatism rather than innovation and the staff talk a different language from that used in the world of commerce. As a result of these perceptions there is a significant body of opinion that professional educators do not understand the problems of the commercial world and probably lack the skills needed to address these problems effectively. It was this sort of viewpoint that lead the central government in the United Kingdom to direct the funding for Open Tech to the Manpower Services Commission, rather than to the Department of Education and Science, and to encourage the participation of a significant number of commercial organisations in the development of learning materials.

The Further Education colleges in the UK were quick to respond to the challenge, and they also received substantial amounts of funding. However, a significant number of the college projects failed to survive the withdrawal of the "pump priming" funds, while some of the more notable successes, such as Southtek, a consortium of Further Education Colleges in the south of England, were absorbed by private enterprise. Southtek became Intek and is now a major supplier of high quality training materials.

Unfortunately, although the private sector proved to be rather better at developing learning materials than did the educational sector, it lacked both an established delivery infrastructure and the level of educational technology expertise that the educational institutions possessed. As a result, the private developers incurred relatively high development costs and this lead to the production of a number of expensive open learning packages which could only be marketed among those firms large enough to be able to afford them, and experienced enough to be able to provide adequate learner support mechanisms. In the final analyses, Open Tech clearly demonstrated that product driven open learning has some significant weaknesses, not the least of which is a degree of confusion as to what the term open learning really means.

Open learning

Because of its association with the Open University and Open Tech, there are some serious misconceptions about the concept of open learning. Open learning is not a particular type of delivery system, nor is it packaged learning materials. Rather it is willingness on the part of educators to cater, as far as possible, for the intellectual, academic, experiential and social differences of individual learners. This being so, there is an urgent need to develop a range of marketable statements about what open learning can offer to the individual learner, and to those who provide education and training. The most appropriate way to do this is to give a clear indication of the learning options that are available, the ways in which they can be accessed and the relative merits of each.

Similarly there is a need to "market" the concept of educational technology in ways that the non educational community can understand readily.

Educational technology

Educational technology, like open learning, has suffered from a number of identity crises. In the 1960s educational technology was driven by over enthusiastic salesmen who were able to convince educationalists that equipment designed primarily for communication applications could be used to achieve spectacular results in education and training. The absence of appropriate software left much of that equipment gathering dust in cupboards.

By contrast, the 1970s was the period of do it yourself software production. Unfortunately, lack of expertise and insufficient funding ensured that the second developmental phase of educational technology was no more successful than the first. Fortunately, by the end of the 1970s, technology and educational methodology were beginning to converge and during the 1980s the concept of distance education methodology supported by telematics began to emerge as the basis for a greater flexibility in educational delivery.

However, educational technologists still have too many factional and fragmented perceptions of what educational technology is all about. Educational technology is not about audio production, or slow scan television, or any other form of media presentation. It is about a holistic approach to the design and management of learning environments. Once educational technologists can learn to capitalise on the competitive advantage they have over non educational technologists, they will be in a better position to start marketing themselves effectively in the commercial arena. However, to do that they will also need to be able to develop realistic perceptions about cost effectiveness and opportunity cost, and they will need to understand the basis upon which industry and commerce makes value judgements, because these are often quite different from the way in which educationalists make value judgements. Industry and commerce are in the business of making profits and any expenditure is expected to result in an increase in revenue at least equal to the amount expended. Educationalists, being altruistically inclined, tend to see an improvement in the quality of output as sufficient justification for any increase in expenditure. Because of these differences in viewpoint, educational technologists will have to engage in far more needs assessment, product evaluation and technical research than they do at present, if they are to operate effectively in a competitive environment.

Research and development

For research and development to take place, two conditions need to be fulfilled. Firstly, there has to be an expectation that funding will be forthcoming if realistic proposals are put forward, and secondly, there has to be agreement that there is some possibility that the expected outcomes may not be achieved, but that we learn as much, if not more, from our failures as we do from our successes.

Without these two conditions there is no incentive for people to explore new ideas and to put time into the preparation of research proposals. In addition, where funding is provided, there is a need to ensure that corporate recognition for research is forthcoming and that the findings are appropriately publicised and properly acknowledged. There is nothing more likely to discourage research than the belief that no one will care about the outcome, or act on the results. Clearly, this also raises the contentious issue of research paradigms, which are all too often non existent in the educational arena. However, if educational technologists can persuade the corporate decision makers to identify key issues and fund research, they will be well on the way to creating marketable products. Unfortunately, merely developing good ideas and turning them into marketable products is not enough. The world is full of marketable products which sit on shelves and gather dust. In order to succeed, educational technologists will need to get out there and actively market their products.


Marketing involves changing the way in which people see their world and creating for them a vision of splendour in which a particular product occupies a significant place. The skills of marketing are often shrouded in mystique by those engaged in the marketing industry, but these skills can be acquired by educational technologists. Once they overcome the self consciousness of self promotion they will find that it can be a most satisfying experience. However, there are pitfalls, and the most common of these is a lack of quality control.

Quality control

Quite often, the quality of prototypes and experimental products vary significantly from that of production run units. There are many reasons for this, but among the most significant is a failure to fully cost the product initially. This can result in a need to try to cut costs at the production stage in order to maintain viability. Another factor is poor design in which there is no provision for minor variations in production units which may, cumulatively, push the product outside its performance envelope.

Clearly, these problems need to be addressed before quality assurances can be given with any degree of confidence. However, another serious problem is that of production quality control. Here, a well designed product is so poorly reproduced that it fails to live up to the performance expectations of the examples used in the marketing exercise. Waiting until you have a large number of defective products on hand is not a sensible way to tackle quality control, and hoping that no one will notice is not a long term solution to the problem. It also needs to be remembered that fixing defects can often be more costly than producing an article properly in the first place.

In conclusion we can say that to succeed in a commercial context, educational technology needs to produce what industry and commerce really needs, and to do it at a predictable level of quality, as well as being on time and on budget.

Author: Roy Farren recently retired as Principal of TAFE External Studies College in Western Australia. His experience in the fields of distance education, educational technology and open learning extends back to the early 1960s, and he has had considerable experience in making educational films as well as in educational television and radio broadcasting. For almost 20 years, Roy managed the Technical Publications Trust, one of Australia's largest publishers of educational material.

Please cite as: Farren, R. (1990). Educational technology in a commercial context. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 133-137. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

[ OLNT'90 contents ] [ EdTech Confs ] [ ASET Home ]
This URL:
© 1990 The author and ASET WA Chapter.
Last revised: 28 Apr 2003. HTML editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 18 May 1998 to 30 Sep 2003: