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Education enters the age of telecommunications

Mike Grant
Head of Media Services
Western Australian College of Advanced Education

Economic rationalists have adopted the old adage "small is beautiful but big is best" to advocate policies of merger and amalgamation, wherein institutional growth rather than health becomes the priority. Amongst the consequential ailments that arise is one that can be described as arteriosclerosis of the communication system. In education the arrival of the multi campus giants has promulgated the disease. Symptoms including massive time wasting because of travel to and from meetings, lecturers delivering the same lecture on more than one campus, duplication of staff and resources and a disturbing impersonalisation of administration are much in evidence.

In an effort to combat the disease, education, like its counterparts in industry and commerce, has turned to electronic aids and in particular to communications technology to provide an answer. The 1989 pilots' strike may also have been a catalyst in that people discovered that video conferencing was both an efficient and effective means of communication.

In December 1989, Curtin University of Technology and the Western Australian College of Advanced Education were jointly awarded a sum of $800,000 from the National Priority (Reserve) Fund for Higher Education, to establish a video network serving their individual needs, with connectivity to a national network being developed. Each institution has a similar need to access remote campuses, but because of geographical location, they will use different though compatible technologies in the configuration of their networks. Simplistically, the WA College is able to utilise optical fibre links in its network, whereas because of the remoteness of some of Curtin's campuses, the use of optical fibre whilst attractive is not economically feasible. Telecom's ISDN and 384 kb/sec technology provides the alternative for long distance video communications.

This article deals with the WA College network. WACAE first investigated the possibility of setting up an inter campus narrowcast video network four years ago, and in 1987 transmitted three lectures, by one way video, two way audio, live from its Churchlands campus to students at the Bunbury Institute. This was achieved by a microwave link to Channel Nine and thence by a leased Telecom bearer to the Golden West Network (GWN).

Telecom was approached in 1987 to advise on the feasibility of a network. Further possibilities were explored in 1988 on the use of a microwave network and a feasibility study was completed by Pacific Communications. Whilst the study proved it was feasible, factors were pointed out which made the system less attractive to the College. In late 1989 Telecom suggested the use of fibre optics, which had been originally ruled out because of the unavailability of the technology. The network, devised by Telecom engineers, is shown schematically in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: WACAE fibre optic network

The network will provide a both way full bandwidth video network linking the three major metropolitan campuses of Churchlands, Mount Lawley and Joondalup by fibre optic tails drawn to the nearest telephone exchanges, and thence to Telecom's Television Operating Centre (TOC). The Bunbury Institute will be similarly linked to the Bunbury Telecom exchange with the use of itinerant leased bearers to TOC. Through a switching system (CCIT) in TOC and possibly operated at Churchlands, full bandwidth interactive video can be transmitted between campuses, to provide live lectures, or the down loading of already recorded material. Video conferencing can also become a day to day event. The system will provide both way signals, although initially the preferred mode may be one way video and two way audio, on the grounds of the increased costs related to both way transmission.

By routing the network through the Perth TOC, the network can access external sources, using the public gateways to interconnect with 384 kb/sec and 2 Mb/sec video services and Iterra based video services, such as TAFE's LIVE-NET (refer to Davy in this volume). It would also be possible to connect to the Overseas Telecommunications Corporation (OTC) and the Aussat earth station at Lockridge, thus giving a full bandwidth capability to international networks should such an occasion present itself.

The decision to provide full bandwidth rather than compressed video has been taken on the grounds that for the purposes of teleteaching, when live lectures may be transmitted, quality of signal is paramount, and it is felt that the lower quality of reduced bandwidth will be unacceptable to students who could expect to get access to the lecturer in person. This does not apply outside the metropolitan area where it may be impossible to send lecturers and where the substitution of the immediate presence of the lecturer by a televised picture of him or her is more than acceptable even though it be in the reduced bandwidth, 384 kb/sec format. The conversion of the full bandwidth signal will be provided by hiring a coder-decoder (codec) in TOC as required.

The WACAE network has been designed to provide the greatest level of flexibility for the foreseeable future. Whilst the system currently offers the transmission capability of only one channel, nevertheless as multiplexing becomes financially feasible, the presence of the fibre optic tails enables such an enhancement to be possible.

All sites are extensively reticulated for closed circuit television and new lecture theatres have been designed to accept both way interactive modes. It is proposed to make at least three areas on each campus "live", a major lecture theatre, a smaller lecturette, and a conference room, thus catering for mass lectures, small group lectures and tutorials, administrative and single mode operations. Added to this, certain specialist areas will also be made "live", such as the three television studios and the main performance areas in the Academy of Performing Arts, thus enabling lunch time concerts to be narrowcast to other campuses. It will be possible for these to be fed directly into a broadcasting mode should the broadcast stations in the state wish to take the programmes.

The network provides exciting possibilities for the future and should take its place alongside Uninet in Sydney and London University's Live Net as prime examples of education's willingness to accept innovation and change in the 21st century.

Author: Mike Grant has made major contributions to educational technology in WA through his work on educational television, video communications, and as Coordinator for the Japanese language interactive videodisc project recently funded by the Federal Government.

Please cite as: Grant, M. (1990). Education enters the age of telecommunications. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 162-164. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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