Recent investigations by the Australian Education Council's Working Party on a National Educational Communications Framework included specific reference to the question of "common and agreed national technical specifications for telecommunications and computing equipment to be used in the delivery of open learning". This paper analyses two case studies, video conferencing and computer mediated communications, which give an illustrative perspective on the role of technical specifications.
Video conferencing in Australia lacks a "common technical specification", and as a result proprietary protocols are dominant and sites are not able to communicate to all other sites in Australia. By contrast, in computer communications via AARNet, the Australian Academic and Research Network, key functions are independent of proprietary protocols and universal interconnectivity is feasible. Both cases suggest that the impact of the presence or absence of "common technical specifications" is relatively minor, compared with larger impacts arising from other issues. The role of both media in open learning and distance education is likely to be developed best if we place importance upon personalised support and interactions with students, and on regionalised delivery models, in contrast to models which are based on autonomous, tutorless study. If the National Educational Communications Framework directs its attention towards the latter model, and its associated emphasis on national television broadcasting, it is unlikely to achieve any significant promotion of video conferencing and AARNet computer communications.
Over the last few months my unit [National Open Learning Policy Unit] and consultants employed by the AEC have been racing around the States and Territories to investigate the scope of developments in distance education and open learning and to determine the need for coordination of aspects of open learning delivery across educational sectors and regions (Bolton, 1992).What are the outcomes from these activities? Reports, though submitted at the end of February 1992, have not been published. Some indications about the desired outcomes have been given by the Chair of the AEC Working Party (Spring, 1992), but there seems to be little publicly available evidence concerning the achievements of the consultancies. One tangible outcome appears to be the generation of good number of additional, related consultancies, projects, committees of review and requests for proposals. These include a consultancy to "investigate the establishment of a national clearing house/database on open learning and distance education" (DEET, 1992a), the Adult Literacy National Projects 1991/92 (DEET, 1992b), the NBEET review of alternative modes of delivery in higher education (NBEET, 1992a), the Open Learning Initiative (DEET, 1992c), submissions to a House of Representatives Standing Committee inquiry on the Sixth High Power TV Channel, and the NBEET project on the "effectiveness and potential of state of the art technologies in the delivery of higher education" (NBEET, 1992b).
So there has been considerable further activity, but it gives little direct evidence with which we might attempt to evaluate the outcomes of the initial round of consultancies. Yet the outcomes could be important for practitioners engaged in the day to day jobs of designing and delivering distance education and open learning. In the absence of published information, we have to do our own estimates, our own "what if" calculations, to guess what we are being led into with various aspects of the "National Educational Communications Framework". This paper attempts to do this in relation to Consultancy Number 3, "common and agreed national technical specifications for telecommunications and computing equipment to be used in the delivery of open learning", with particular reference to illustrative case studies from video conferencing and computer mediated communications.
What is meant by "common technical specifications"? How is the education sector to define and implement such specifications? What is the impact of the presence or absence of "common technical specifications" upon the work of educational technologists, instructional designers and curriculum developers in open learning and distance education?
Thus we have the problem that at present the three types of video conferencing codecs installed at education sites in Australia, PictureTel, Rembrandt and GPT, are unable to communicate with other types of codecs. We cannot have connectivity between all ISDN video conferencing sites in the education sector except by all installing the same brand of codec. No doubt this is the main problem of specification contemplated by the AEC Working Party, in relation to this technology.
Firstly, the present CCITT H261 set of standards for video conferencing (Richter, 1990; Fist, 1991) is incomplete. In particular, it lacks a standard for low bit rate audio. It uses 64 kb/s for audio, which leaves only 64 kb/s for video in the case of sites which use a "Microlink" or 2 x 64 kb/s for ISDN access. This is important because 2 x 64 kb/s is the most widely used basis for video conferencing (Atkinson, Latchem and Davy, 1991). The H261 set of protocols has not yet been used in Australia except at several industry sector sites with GPT's H261 codec. In the absence of demonstrations of H261 operating between different vendor's codecs over 2 x 64 kb/s, there are differing estimates about its useability at this level.
Secondly, the H261 set of standards does not provide for channel synchronisation in ISDN switched circuits ("B channel aggregation" or "n x 64 interface") (Quai, 1991). It is an essential function for applications which require more than one channel (more than 64 kb/s). In the absence of an international standard, two approaches are in use:
Clearly this situation is not in accord with the AEC Working Party's concept of "common technical specifications". The simplest and most desirable specification, conformance with a set of international standards promulgated by the most influential body in telecommunications, the CCITT (International Consultative Committee on Telegraphy and Telephony), will not be available for at least several years. Meanwhile, the education sector has equipped a substantial number of sites with codecs and gateways, as listed below. Nearly all of the sites in New South Wales are dual codec sites, listed twice.
In 1991 the NDEC (National Distance Education Conference) Working Party on Educational Technology endorsed the following guidelines to promote interconnectivity and the future adoption of CCITT's H261 and associated standards (Atkinson, 1991):
Firstly, for sites which have not finalised a purchase or lease, it is suggested that a set of requests be put to the tenderers to elicit a "connectivity scale", and that scores on this simple scale be a criterion for selection of codecs:
Secondly, it is suggested that sites which have finalised a purchase or lease be asked for a commitment to acquire H261 and associated standards as soon as these are available from the vendors, and a commitment to implementing connectivity to Microlink sites.
In this way the NDEC Working Party on Educational Technology recognised that a useable international standard would be unavailable for several years. NDEC could not endorse a particular one of the major proprietary protocols, and thus a common technical specification was unobtainable. Now, will it be possible for the AEC Working Party on the NECF to do any better than NDEC's Working Party? Probably not, although the AEC Working Party asked for consultant's advice on "equipment specifications which would be most suitable for becoming the national standard within each application" (AEC, 1991). A "national standard" brand of codec is neither definable nor amenable to implementation at present.
However, the importance of connectivity between all sites varies considerably from one organisation to another. For example, South Australian TAFE's video conferencing network has a capacity load from its communications for teaching and other internal work, and the importance of connectivity to others is relatively minor. By contrast, Murdoch University has only one campus, and therefore connectivity to other organisations' sites is a major concern, especially within Western Australia.
Whilst access to a larger number of sites does give more opportunities, it does not follow that access to every site in Australia is essential for effective use of this medium. In practice the limits to the number of sites accessed are more likely to be determined by the number of working relationships which can be established between institutions for teaching, research, administration or other purposes, compared with the limits due to incompatible equipment specifications. Since a codec can be used only for one session at any given time, sites which do have a large and diverse amount of work for video conferencing may overcome compatibility problems by installing a second type of codec.
Perspectives on the impact of the connectivity problem in relation to open learning and distance education depend also on perceptions about models for delivery. Video conferencing relates very well to regionalised approaches in which classes in study centres benefit from the strong element of real time, interactive tutorial support which this medium provides. Tutorials are important because many learners, especially the inexperienced, experience difficulty with the highly autonomous study required with open learning and distance education packages. Approaches centred on low cost national TV broadcasting, for example the Open Learning Initiative (DEET, 1992c), accord low importance to the tutorial function and thus are unlikely to generate significant use of video conferencing. The main uses for video conferencing in teaching and learning are likely to be in support of regionalised operations, for example within the boundaries of a State, and in that context, national connectivity is not essential.
Some commentators compare the problem in video conferencing with the problem of different railway gages in different states, which was held to be a serious barrier to transport of persons and freight between states. That would over emphasise the impact of the connectivity problem. The larger question which deserves the centre of attention is the extent to which we wish to "transport" education by a one way process from national centres, as in the Open Learning Initiative (DEET, 1992c), which eschews tutorial support. The alternative direction is regionalised "transport" of education by two way, interactive delivery which integrates tutorial support with open learning and distance education materials.
Rather surprisingly, the AEC Working Party's list of objectives and issues for its Consultancy Number 3 did not mention computer communications, other than the real time form as used in audiographic teleconferencing (AEC, 1991). That was unfortunate, because an explicit direction to study AARNet could have helped the AEC Working Party towards a clearer, more productive understanding, not only in the area of technical specifications, but also more widely in relation to brokerage services (Consultancy 2), learning centres (Consultancy 6), database and clearing house functions (DEET, 1992a), and the "National Collaborative Educational Communications Authority" (NCECA) (Spring, 1992) or "Open Learning Technology Corporation" (Consultancy 1) (Bolton, 1992).
How would a study of AARNet and its "parent", Internet, help the AEC Working Party? As a private network created by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee with strong support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), AARNet is unlikely to attract the attention of the AEC, a body dominated by State Ministers for Education and more closely linked to the school and TAFE sectors. Also, for the average person, computer communications are much more difficult to conceptualise and relate to open learning, compared with other media such as television broadcasting.
However, the AARNet phenomenon should have been a central topic for the AEC Working Party's consideration, for reasons which are broader than the direct use of computer communications as a support for open learning and distance education. Its importance is due also to some conceptual insights from computer communications protocols, architectures and organisation, which can help the AEC and other bodies towards a better understanding of the technologies and technologically mediated delivery of learning in general.
The key set of protocols for AARNet is TCP/IP, named after one of its components, Transmission Control Protocol, and its more general family name, Internet Protocol (Comer, 1988; AARNet, 1992a). TCP/IP specifications are in the public domain, and though not an official international standard in the domain of CCITT, it is very widely supported by all the major vendors in computing and networking, by a varied range of gateways into other systems, and by a wide array of software in the public domain, especially for Unix, Macintosh and Microsoft's DOS and Windows. The concepts of independence from proprietary protocols and network hardware, and availability from a number of competing vendors are very significant reasons for the popularity of TCP/IP as a specification.
The basis from which TCP/IP originated is "internetworking", the linking of separate networks to one another to create networks of networks. The typical connection to AARNet is between an organisation's own network, for example a campus local area network (LAN), and a state or regional node, which is linked further to other regional or national nodes. Internetworking with TCP/IP means that the vast majority of the network resources reside with the individual networks and computer hosts owned and controlled by the members of AARNet, which is an important and convenient feature in relation to concerns about the autonomy and independence of institutions. Also, addition of TCP/IP to one's network does not disrupt other protocols which may be in use. For example, many users of Appletalk or other protocols which may be the basis for their LAN communications to printers and file servers are also users of TCP/IP for wide area communications.
If the AEC Working Party did look at the matter, TCP/IP provides for its purposes a ready made "common and agreed national technical specification" with very few problems about acceptability, ease of implementation and functionality on and between a wide range of types of local network.
However, AARNet is not a relevant basis at present for building audiographic teleconferencing systems, such as those using Apple based "Electronic Classroom" or DOS based "Telewriter". Typically, audiographic applications use their own proprietary protocols over public switched telephone network connections made as required for each teleconference session, in contrast to the permanent private network connections between local networks and hosts which are the basis for the TCP/IP protocol set.
AARNet provides its members with national and international access to email, electronic publishing and news, file transfer, remote login or telnet capabilities, and some support services such as assignment of Internet addresses, a central domain name server and administration of the Affiliate member program. However, AARNet does not organise applications of these services or provide host computers. That is a matter for member institutions to undertake. In this respect commitment to AARNet has little impact on the individual autonomy and independence of organisations, which is fortunate when we consider how AARNet may relate to the education sectors which are the preserve of the State governments, the school and TAFE sectors.
As a network of networks, organisation of AARNet services such as electronic mail is quite different from older approaches which depended upon a single central host, for example Telecom's Keylink email service, with which users interact directly over long distance connections. With AARNet, members organise their own services, that is their own LANs and associated host computers, which can be integrated with intra organisation needs, and much of the long distance communication is an automated host to host set of processes governed by the rules of TCP/IP. There are obvious economies and it is not surprising that the network of networks model is displacing the single central host model.
Movement towards collaboration of TAFE with AARNet has commenced, using the organisational mechanism of Affiliate Membership. South Australian and Tasmanian TAFE have operational Affiliate Memberships. Western Australia will follow shortly, with their first year costs met by the DEET Communications Link Project, a Reserve Fund grant conducted by Murdoch University. The AARNet Advisory Board has considered the matter of TAFE connections and it
endorsed a general model of interconnection to the TAFEs via connection of TAFE networks to AARNet at nominated gateway(s), and noted that such a model would not preclude a university and the State TAFE network reaching an individual agreement to share communications facilities to particular locations where there are common requirements (AARNet, 1992b).In this way the AARNet Advisory Board has provided scope for smaller, remote locations to gain access to computer communications networks by sharing regional networking resources between sectors, as for example in the learning centre (McGregor and Latchem, 1991) or telecottage concepts (Horner and Reeve, 1991). Collaboration is important because the affordability of resources such as modems, leased data channels, quality printers and learning centres is improved by aggregating numbers of users across more than one sector in the smaller and remote locations. However, we do not know at this stage whether the AEC Working Party has recognised the opportunities for adoption of a simple, broad specification for organisation as well as for network protocols. This is that AARNet Affiliate Membership (AARNet, 1992a) be obtained for all TAFEs and eventually for all State Ministries of Education. Such a specification, which pertains more to organisational framework than to technical matters, would assist very considerably in the development of communications, in the broadest sense, for open learning and distance education.
Computer networking is not a delivery tool confined only to universities. Articles about Internet networking and its applications to K-12 education appear frequently on the networks. For example, Sears (1992) describes a TCP/IP network comprising 76 schools, 500 Macintoshes and PCs, a number of medium sized servers and a link to the University of California at Davis, serving nearly 50,000 staff and students with a variety of innovative applications.
AARNet provides open learning and distance education with an excellent infrastructure and the basic tools, which are email, electronic publishing and news, file transfer and remote login. However, developers of these services are needed for the vitally important role of implementing applications which are directly relevant to the needs of end users. For example, learning network centres (Consultancy No.6, AEC, 1991) should be using AARNet based computer communications extensively, but the potential will not be obtained without reasonable investments in staff development and user services. Another example is the proposed national clearing house and database (DEET, 1992a), for which AARNet is the obvious networking mechanism, but the scope for implementing this function will not be realised unless there is encouragement for developers of services to implement modern tools such as WAIS and gopher servers.
As a network of networks and a vehicle for regional, national and international communications, AARNet carries services which are available to every user anytime and anywhere on the networks, and can be originated anytime from anywhere on the networks. Developers of open learning and distance education applications carried by AARNet do not have to worry about scheduling in the way that is the case with audio, audiographic and video conferencing or television broadcasting. Another important concept exemplified by AARNet is the scope for decentralised approaches in which a number of providers support a particular application. For example, the conduct of clearing house and database functions can be decentralised over the network by use of the gopher server concept, whilst the user interacts with gopher client software and sees a single database.
From that perspective I suggest that the impact of the presence or absence of "common technical specifications" is relatively minor. Unfortunately, there can be a risk that the slightest faults, real or otherwise, in specifications and equipment performance with a particular technology may restrain the vision of our policy makers at the level of "what technology?". That would be disappointing. There are other and bigger questions, as in "what instructional design?", and "what curriculum development?" (McBeath and Atkinson, 1992), plus the "how" and "why" questions, and others.
It may be that in the AEC Working Party's agenda, "common technical specifications" is only a relatively minor side issue. If, for example, its real focus turns out to be upon organising national television broadcasting for a tutorless model of open learning and distance education, then technical specifications, development, research and other issues pertaining to interactive models for delivery will become marginalised. If "capacity to meet unmet demand" (Bolton, 1992) is the central or sole urgency for the AEC Working Party, then the two media discussed in this paper are unlikely to provide any short term help in the search for a panacea, although their medium and long term future is not in question. The AEC Working Party may envisage a role as a private networker leasing capacity from the carriers, AOTC and Optus, and reselling it in some way to individual organisations, which would require a large amount of work on technical specifications, plus many other aspects of private network systems. However, that is unlikely (one hopes so), because each State government is a player, or would be player, in private networking, and their attempts are in trouble (Clark, 1992).
Perhaps the AEC Working Party may have been better served by a clearer communication of its own goals and its view of the context for its work. Whilst it seems likely that the question of technical specifications was only a small part of its investigations, at least some observers have been given the impression that it represents a case of thinking that the right choice of technology with the right specifications will get it all right. The problem is that in most cases, selection of technology and technical specifications depends on a clear mandate to implement agreed goals in organisation, curriculum development and instructional design (McBeath and Atkinson, 1992). Technologies may stimulate thinking and planning for those prerequisites, but technologies by themselves cannot create and implement the preconditions for successful implementation.
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|Author: Dr Roger Atkinson is Acting Director of External Studies at Murdoch University, with 14 years' experience in distance education. Recent activities include directing the Reserve Fund Video Conferencing Project at Murdoch, convening the DEET Communications Link Project, coordinating the Reserve Fund ADEnet Project for improved computer communications in distance education, and directing the Murdoch project on computer tools in teaching and learning, one of the four modules in the University's 1992 Reserve Fund grant. His address is Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150. Voice +61 9 360 6840, fax +61 9 310 4929, email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1992). The National Educational Communications Framework: Analysing the question of common technical specifications. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 175-188. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech92/atkinson.html