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Technology and open learning

Jack Foks
Victorian TAFE Off-Campus Network

Technologies - general

What are we talking about?

Technology is the application of science through the use of tools. The tools may be low-tech, eg, hammers, pencils; hi-tech, eg, satellites, computers; old, eg, print, photography; or new, eg, electronically based information systems.

Telecommunications systems

Telecommunications systems transmit signals via cables, through the atmosphere, or through space. In so doing they support communication across distances. The communication may be The distance over which telecommunications take place may be as small as the space between two workstations in the same room, or as large as the space between Voyager II and Florida.

The signal

The signal being transmitted may be

The medium

The signal may be received on screen, through an audio device, on paper, or in combinations of two or all three of these.

Significant positive trends

I have written elsewhere about significant trends in the new technologies (Foks, 1984). I identified decreasing cost, increasing versatility, increasing user friendliness, standardisation of formats and protocols, and the capacity for technologies to interact.

The last of these is increasing in a dramatic fashion. New generation communications workstations, particularly those hanging off the ends of ISDN telecommunications, now combine previously separate technologies in ways which are transparent to the user. Two examples available in Australia are

Technology and open learning

Despite impressions some may give, open Iearning and technology are not synonymous. As I have indicated elsewhere, open Iearning is an approach to education and training which combines traditional and non traditional strategies and resources as appropriate to the needs of individual and corporate clients. This means that various options need to be considered and available.

Technology provides some of those options. As it becomes more readily available and user friendly, it offers more options. But rest assured that you are not transgressing the holy scriptures of open Iearning if, after due consideration, you choose Iearning strategies which are technology free.

Technologies - advantages

Supporting education at a distance

Large numbers of actual or potential students choose or are obliged to study at a distance. Under the right circumstances, technology can be used to support them.

As indicated above, technologies can support communication across distances. This in turn means that they can be used to provide one or two way interaction between learners and teachers who are separated by space or time.

Overcoming literacy problems

New technologies can help overcome certain disadvantages. It is now possible to provide learning resources to students for whom printed study materials and assignments based on the written word are not appropriate or necessary. Depending upon the nature of the educational programme which is being provided, it may well be more meaningful to use alternative technologies. Young people who shy away from printed materials, for example, may be far more at ease with learning experiences based on video games.

Increased interaction

The new technologies also provide the capacity for far greater interaction. There is the immediate interaction of computer aided instruction and the delayed interaction of recorded audio tapes sent between student and tutor.

Practical requirements

In the past many practical learning activities have not been possible, due to the inaccessibility of appropriate equipment or due to the expense and danger associated with the equipment or processes. The new technologies offer the possibility of increasingly realistic simulated experiences in a whole host of new areas. such as flying aeroplanes, conducting chemical experiments and handling explosives.


Many students have to overcome various levels of apathy and hostility to the Iearning process in general and to traditional methods and media in particular. Using media which create interest, which provide novelty and which are, in fact, the media with which students are comfortable due to their using them at home, at work or at play, can provide a degree of motivation that students do not always associate with education and training.

Cost effectiveness

There is increasing pressure on educational organisations to be more cost effective. The new technologies add to the means by which distance education programmes provide economies of scale and Iessen the need for capital intensive and quickly out dated buildings and equipment.

But the new technologies also provide increased economies when they are used to prepare and produce print based materials. The introduction of computerised word processing and type setting provides the opportunity for more efficient editing and exchange of materials; computer aided graphics reduce the need for repetitive artwork; desktop publishing programs introduce greater efficiencies still; and new high speed printers offer cheaper materials more quickly.

Support for learning management

There is growing recognition that, for many students and for many educational programmes, educators need to go beyond their traditional roles as lecturers and markers of assignments and examinations. They need to manage diverse and complicated individual learning programmes. They will become facilitators and mentors rather than the focus of all attention and the source of all knowledge and wisdom.

But this requires careful record keeping for some very involved processes, record keeping which is not only accurate, but is also capable of providing information which will enable educators to assist students to make their individual progress through, amend, or even abandon, their courses of study. This information has always been vital for the distance educator, but now other educators also need to use sophisticated assignment tracking, stock control and tutor payment systems. There are many computer based programs which provide such learning management at high levels of complexity.

Barriers to effective use of technology

Whilst there are many effective educational applications of technology which can take place locally, there is unfortunately much wasteful duplication of effort, poor quality education and courseware, or no courseware at all1. This is because, once certain levels of sophistication and cost are required, individual educators, departments, institutions or systems will not have the necessary resources, time or expertise.

There is a need for communication, cooperation and collaboration. Why does it not occur?

Educational imperialism

Educational empires may be as small as the classroom and as large as national education systems. Regardless of their size, they are not conducive to cooperation.

The "not developed here syndrome"

This follows from educational imperialism and manifests itself in a reluctance to use any ideas or courseware developed outside of one's empire.

Enthusiastic amateurs

Enthusiastic amateurs are great if used properly. However, there is often unfair and excessive reliance on them. In 1984 I wrote that
All too often I have come across dedicated teachers who are prepared to engage in research and development of telematics[2] over and above their normal workloads and well beyond any token gestures of time allowance made by their employers. Unfortunately most of their time is spent reinventing wheels of various shapes and of varying degrees of effectiveness. Usually they waste their time learning to become technicians or programmers, rather than learning how to use technicians and programmers. And they do it in ignorance of all the other enthusiastic amateurs who are similarly engaged, and they do not have the means - or if they are empire conscious, the inclination - to communicate their ideas to, or receive ideas from, the others.


Along with all of humanity, educationalists are conservative by nature. Technology is a concept which suggests change. Indeed, if it is to be applied effectively, it requires quite fundamental change. This is not a pleasant thought for those who prefer the comfort of doing things the way they have always done them, and the way their parents and grandparents before them did them.

Educational conservatives are a species which can be recognised in a number of ways. Let me mention one. When traditional learning methods fail, they blame the teacher or the student. When technology enhanced learning fails, they blame the technology.

Technology fanatics

Sometimes the conservatives are right, however; some technology is inappropriate. Often this is the result of another species, the fanatics, who believe that technology (and in particular their favourite technology) will solve every educational problem.

This species is just as dangerous as the educator who believes that on campus face to face teaching is the only real way to learn.

The cargo cult of technology

The cargo cult of technology assumes that, if the equipment is obtained, the courseware will appear by magic. The most recent example of this is the satellite, but it is equally true of computers, broadcast television, recorded video and recorded audio.

The cargo cult mentality manifests itself in a number of ways, such as capital investment which is not backed up by recurrent funding; installation of complicated equipment without a corresponding provision of technical staff; reliance on one enthusiast who may move on leaving behind equipment that no one else understands or cares about; the acquisition of equipment which is not appropriate to the educational tasks and the situations of students, and the development of courseware which assumes student support systems which are just not there.

Lack of infrastructures

Expensive and sophisticated technologies invariably rely upon All too often these are ignored, especially when decisions are taken by cargo cultists, technology fanatics or short term political opportunists3. Lack of workstations

Educators and learners will not make effective use of technology enhanced programmes unless workstations are accessible and usable.

Lack of student resources

Even when institutions have the necessary resources, students may not have access to them. In particular, distance education students, who are unable to get to the campuses where the resources are located, may be required to obtain their own equipment or to make arrangements to gain access to local equipment. This raises considerable problems for students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Lack of recurrent support

It is not enough for educational institutions simply to receive donations or grants which enable them to acquire equipment and systems. They must also have the recurrent funding necessary to develop software and courseware, to maintain the equipment, or to replace it.

Cooperation, collaboration and sharing resources


There are two main reasons given for sharing educational resources. They are The new technologies offer considerable scope for sharing. Indeed the very high level of sophistication and resources required to develop technology based resources makes it essential if programmes of any usefulness are to be developed.

Not only is it possible, with the correct planning, to share audio and video tapes, audio and video discs, radio and television broadcasts, and computer based software and courseware. As more and more printed materials are based on computerised word processing, type setting and graphics, the potential increases for the cost effective sharing of copy in digital form.


Planning is about taking informed decisions. It is about establishing educational priorities within a social, economic and political context, and translating these priorities into investment in capital, in recurrent activities and in programme development. At a more specific level, it is about designing learning programmes which will use appropriate combinations of learning strategies and learning resources to achieve identified educational objectives. And it is about planning appropriate student support systems. It is not much use designing interactive computerised learning programs if students do not have access to the equipment or if they are reluctant to use it.

A team of experts

If they are to be effective, the design, development and delivery of learning programmes often require a team approach. If the learning is based on, or enhanced by, technology at any level of sophistication, a team is almost certain to be necessary. Even if one person possesses all the necessary knowledge, skills and expertise, she or he is unlikely to have the required time or resources. The team will bring together various experts.

It is useful to consider the categories of expertise which are involved, not least of all so that we and the authorities and clients with whom we deal, recognise the complexities of designing, developing and implementing useful learning strategies and learning resources. They include expertise in

Staff development

None of the approaches I have suggested will be possible without adequate staff development, both in basic training and in continuing programmes which provide inservice training, industrial release and study tours. And it is needed by all categories of persons at all levels. It should be provided to educational, administrative and technical staff, and it should be provided to managers and operatives.

Staff development should not be wasted

Table 1: Categories of technology

Major categories
and related areas of expertise
Sub categories
Design or select
Develop or acquire

Design or select
Develop or acquire

Design or select
Develop or acquire

Design or select
Develop or acquire

Finally, I will just touch on the question of basic teacher training. In Australia at least, this does not prepare teachers who are able to develop and provide flexible strategies. I suspect that this is a result of both the content and the methodologies of their training programmes. On another occasion I would like to argue for a system of teacher training based on team teaching, with experienced and innovative educators, in the educational workplace.


  1. As evidenced by the many TV studios, computers, and hi fi systems which lie idle for so much of the time in educational institutions.

  2. Telematics is a term to encompass electronically based information technology. It includes systems, equipment and programmes to produce, change, store, retrieve, transmit and receive electronic signals in the form of text, graphics, audio (still and moving), or combinations of two or more of these.

  3. Infrastructures are about long term and behind the scenes planning. Politics is about short term and visible achievements. Need I say more?


Foks, J. (1984). Big brother, education and telematics. ICDE Bulletin, May, 1984.

Foks, Jack. (1988). Open learning in the Victorian State Training System. A report prepared for the General Managers of the State Training Board and Portfolio Resources Coordination Division. Melbourne: Ministry of Education.

Author: Mr Jack Guido Hermann Foks, BA (Melb.) TSTC (Hawthorn), is the Head of the Victorian TAFE Off-Campus Network (VTOCN), 143 Franklin Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000, Australia. The VTOCN is responsible for the development and delivery of TAFE (technical and further education) distance education in the state of Victoria.

Please cite as: Foks, J. (1990). Technology and open learning. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 138-146. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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