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Relating computer communications technologies to educational and community purposes

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University
The dominance of the Internet Protocol suite in public networking gives a clear focus on how to utilise computer mediated communications for educational and community purposes. It is now obsolete to regard a network as a purely self contained technological entity within one's own organisation. The focus of attention is upon how to connect to the Internet or an Internet interconnected network such as AARNet, and how to present the basic services of the Internet Protocol suite in ways which are useable by educational developers, librarians, open learning coordinators and others whose knowledge relates closely to end user needs. This paper relates aspects of the Internet's technologies to some typical "how to" questions in networking for educational and community purposes, including:

User interfaces for Internet services have improved very rapidly with software developments based on client and server approaches. However, the availability of mature technologies and desirable, cost effective services are not sufficient by themselves to ensure ready adoption. There are barriers, related more to management than technological factors, and this paper discusses some strategies and case studies which may improve local, regional and national use of computer communications for educational and community purposes.


The main purpose for this paper is to illustrate a unique opportunity we have to bridge the gap between computer communications technologies and their applications for educational and community purposes. The technologies have become more readily available, costs have decreased, ease of use has improved, and a rich variety of examples has been generated by the Internet's rapidly growing user base. At the same time, societal factors such as high unemployment, needs for retraining and multiskilling, shortages of tertiary education places and funds, and demands for delivering information at lower costs, create opportunities for innovative applications directed towards educational and community purposes.

Nevertheless, there is a gap between the availability and readiness of the technologies, and the deployment of applications which meet end user needs. The concept of a "gap" is subjective and depends very much upon the perspectives of the perceiver. For example, a senior manager in a government department may understand computer communications as something to do with looking up financial records on a central mainframe, and thus will not perceive any "gap" at all between the technologies and other activities of the department, such as providing information to the public. A senior research worker in a university may perceive a "gap" between having only a 128 kilobits/second connection to AARNet and a research need for a 10 Megabits/second connection, and thus will not perceive any "gap" at all between the technologies and other activities, such as teaching, or disseminating research results to the public.

The "gap" which is the subject of concern in this paper is that perceived by educational technologists, curriculum developers, librarians, open learning coordinators, teachers and others who have some experience with the Internet, whilst having also close contacts with educational and community purposes which could be served by expanding the public networking aspect of the "Internet revolution". As the Internet continues to expand, having perhaps 20 million users worldwide and doubling every year, it has drawn in many new types of non-technical users who want to apply these technologies to benefit their educational or community clients. One aspect of the "gap" is often a lack of the knowledge and experience which is required in order to promote concepts about public networking persuasively to conservative management hierarchies. If your organisation's computer and network experts say "no, not possible", "won't work", "nothing in it for us", etc, the only counter argument is to be ready with the demonstrations showing that "it is possible", "does work", and "this example relates directly to improving our services", etc.

Thus there can be a high value associated with using network access to gain sufficient knowledge and experience to provide demonstrations of capabilities and services, relating to an organisation's context or client needs. Public networking, connecting to the network, and services from the network are important areas in which questions arise when seeking to relate computer communications to educational and community purposes.

Public networking

The Internet is an international network of computer networks, based upon a set of communications protocols known generally as "TCP/IP" (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Since the initial research in the late 1960s and the emergence of TCP/IP into general public use from the mid 1980s, the Internet has grown beyond its initial user base of researchers in networking and computing. Access to the Internet via Australia's interconnecting agent AARNet (Australian Academic and Research Network) is now available to almost all university staff, and is continuing to widen. For example in a recent study ASTEC (1994) observed that
There are significant benefits for Australia in making access to Internet services as widely available as possible. Government, industry, business, schools and individuals can all benefit by having access to the Internet's low-cost, global information resources and communication facilities. Internet access should not be limited to the research and higher education community, and 'compatible use' policies should be discontinued.
As ASTEC and other observers have indicated, the Internet has taken up the role of the public network. It is like a public highway on which a wide variety of users and service providers place their data traffic. As with the public highway system, it is evolving into a natural monopoly, although there is vigorous competition layered upon the Internet, just as there is vigorous competition in the markets for motor vehicles, road construction contracts, fuels, driver training, etc, "layered" upon the public highway system. The Internet's expansion into public networking has been accompanied by an analogous diversification and specialisation of the roles "layered" upon it, as one would expect for a public network. In Australia, this now includes a number of small businesses which provide users with fee paying access to the Internet and basic host services, but do not themselves provide any other value added services, and organisations which provide networked information whilst relying upon others to provide access services for obtaining that information.

Diversification of the Internet is of great importance to educational technologists, curriculum developers, librarians, open learning coordinators and teachers. It means that entry into electronic publishing, the online library, computer conferencing and other aspects of public networking is considerably easier, because it is no longer necessary to "do everything yourself". Consider this example. The Western Australian State Government markets a service named "LAWNET", which gives an electronic publication of the state's laws and statutes. The host computer is not Internet capable and may be accessed only via a small pool of 2400 b/s modems connected to it. A substantial annual subscription fee is charged, plus connect time charges, and users must sign a lengthy legal agreement which prohibits them from copying any item to their own disks. It does not permit public reading in the style we are accustomed to with the traditional public library system, and it does not give users the standard Internet services "anonymous ftp", "gopher" and "World Wide Web" which underpin Internet style electronic publishing. "LAWNET" is an example of the "do everything yourself" approach - incoming phone lines, modem pool, user interface software, administration of user charges, advertising and marketing, etc.

Now contrast "LAWNET" with an Internet, public networking style approach to electronic publication of WA's laws and statutes. An Internet style solution would view it as a standard specialisation within an online library. The basic requirements are an Internet capable host computer with an Internet connection and running the standard servers, ftp, gopher and WWW (software is available from the public domain for Unix). Designers and installers need to cater for only one communications interface, the Internet protocol suite (software from the public domain for Unix) because users look elsewhere in the market place to obtain their own Internet access. Designers and installers need not "do their own" in user interfaces as the standard servers are available. Advertising and marketing are matters which "the network" and the users do for you (if your service is attractive to "the network"). The major part of the overall requirement is probably organising the "electronic shelving" of "electronic books", which is a standard job for a librarian specialising in legal information.

If Government decrees that users should pay for online access to WA's laws and statutes, instead of the "free reading" traditionally associated with the public library system, this would need additional software to record a user's credit card number, issue debit statements electronically to the user's email address, etc (many take the view that it's easier and cheaper to give away the information, and in any event we taxpayers paid - some say very handsomely in the case of WA - for those laws and statutes to be created, so we the public own the intellectual property rights).

The example given above is outlined very briefly, and a considerable amount of detail needs to be understood by developers, designers and installers. However, the task is easier, and the opportunities much more readily accessible, because public networking has arrived on a large scale. We can say confidently that it is now obsolete for information providers to regard a "network" as a purely self contained technological entity within one's own organisation, in isolation from public access networking. Although the Internet's protocols and charges are debated within the data communications industry (for example, Lloyd, 1994; Hackett, 1994, Joseph, 1994; Cranswick, 1993; ASTEC, 1994), its role in public networking is assured by the remarkable growth it has achieved.

Connecting to the network

Persons concerned with computer communications for educational and community purposes need to know some answers to questions such as "How may users connect? What technology? How do users access the services we want to provide?". Firstly, for persons who do not have ready access to an Internet connection as is usually available to university staff, their own personal, initial experiences with the network are likely to be via a modem connection to a university host or to a private provider's host. Secondly, many clients for educational and community information are likely to be using modem connections, and a knowledge of their computer communications environment is important for designing and promoting services.

Types of connections to AARNet and the Internet may be classified in a number of ways, for example according to the user's context, which may be:

Home users generally are confined to telephone line and modem connections to a local or regional host. It is desirable but not essential that the host be in the same telephone district, because local calls at present are not subject to connect time charges. The network connected host computer may be a university host, or a host run by a private provider of network access, such as Dialix,, Oz-E-Mail, Pegasus, Australian Public Access Networks Association (APANA), or others. The host need not be local, if the provider installs facilities to place the user's traffic on AARNet for transport to a remote host. For example, in some centres the ADEnet Project provides local call access to an AARNet connected terminal server for distance education students, and substitutes AARNet for Telecom's Austpac or STD as the long distance carrier of traffic to a remote host (Atkinson & Castro, 1991; Atkinson, 1992b; Atkinson, 1993c).

Large centre connections to the network and network trunk routes are matters tended by specialists in network installation and management at universities and network affiliate members of AARNet. Typically these are based upon local area networks ("LANs") with Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols extended to individual desktops (Atkinson, 1992a). If these staff are doing their jobs well (as is almost always the case with AARNet members), developers for educational and community purposes can get on with the opportunity without having to create the infrastructure for network connections. If anything, the present day pressures are more typically in the form, "We (the 'network professionals') have given you this new medium, get on with your part of the job, delivering new and improved services to your students and clients", or "Gap between the technologies and end users? Your problem, ... mate".

Solutions for network access from small and medium centres, or small offices, local libraries, telecentres and school classrooms occupy a wide spectrum between the home user's telephone line and modem connection, and large centre connections (for example, Le Roux, 1994; Le Roux, 1993; Salamone, 1994). Although technical solutions are available, or may be provided by a number of small businesses which offer Internet networking consultancies, extension into these areas will require a greater input from universities and governments to achieve a reasonable parity of access. Anderson (1993) in Victoria has proposed that Australian public libraries adopt an Internet access role, following examples from the US public library system, but the support of state and local governments as owners of public libraries would be required.

Whilst developers of services need not have "network access" as a central concern, in some circumstances greater attention may be warranted. For example, developers in local telecentres or regional colleges of TAFE may have to extend their efforts into providing network access if there is no other local provider. This applies particularly to the many small centres of population outside Australia's capitals and major regional cities (Atkinson, 1993b). Another area of difficulty, referred to above, is obtaining one's own access to the network in order to develop and conduct the kinds of demonstrations which usually are required to convince a conservative management that a high priority should be accorded to network access for the organisation.

One aspect of activities with, the network host I manage at Murdoch University, is providing access to the network to persons who otherwise would have to wait some time for their own organisations to provide access. In addition to over 350 student and ADEnet users, cleo carries nearly 100 "community users", drawn mainly from WA State Government agencies, State and private schools in Murdoch's "south of the river" region of Perth, and from some professional and industry link areas that the University wishes to encourage as key specialisations. Community users have free access via modem and receive the same services and user supports as are extended to students and staff, for the period of time expected to be needed for them to "migrate" to their own organisational connection to AARNet and the Internet. For example, one "community" group hosted by cleo is "law librarians", representing most of the large law firms and court libraries in Perth.

With modern software for communications and further investment in the infrastructure for Internet communications, the gap between on campus users and off campus dialup users is narrowing, in access to connections (Atkinson et al, 1993) and in ease of use factors (Atkinson, 1993b; Rehn, 1994; Rehn & Atkinson, 1994).

Network services

The topic of network services is of greatest importance to educational technologists, curriculum developers, librarians, open learning coordinators, teachers and others concerned with applying networking technologies for educational and community purposes. The basic services of the Internet, email, network news, file transfer, and remote login acquire their fullest significance for the average user when structured in ways which meet real needs rather than being just an exercise in learning "how to use the technology". The concept of "structuring of services" encompasses a number of important aspects, including structuring

An important kind of structuring is represented by network information retrieval tools, which have evolved very rapidly on the Internet in the last few years as libraries have seized the opportunities afforded by the capacity to transport whole books across the Internet (Wainwright, 1993). The most prominent retrieval tools, gopher and World Wide Web, employ client - server designs, and are "layered" upon Internet basic services. For example, gopher client software running on the user's Macintosh or Windows PC or Unix host interacts with a host running gopher server software, by requesting the server to obtain and deliver a file by anonymous ftp (Internet file transfer protocol). The file may come from the server's disk or from any anonymous ftp host anywhere on the Internet.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Using Turbogopher, a Macintosh client for gopher servers, to access an instruction file from E Law, Murdoch University's first electronic journal. This screen picture illustrates the "Save as text" command which enables users to write copies to their own disks via TCP/IP protocols.

The user finds the desired information by means of a structured search path (Figure 1), relating to the user's understanding of the subject area and not requiring a knowledge of ftp commands or the physical locations and directory paths involved. Users may issue instructions (Figure 1) such as "Save as text file". For users who do not have an Internet Protocol capable desktop computer, the gopher client for a Unix host provides a reasonably "user friendly" and similarly structured search path in a VT100 emulation. Recent versions of the gopher client for Unix include commands such as "Choose a download method" to accommodate users of modem connections to the host (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Using a gopher client for Unix to access the article shown in Figure 1. This screen picture illustrates the command to download a file to the user's disk, via any one of the popular protocols for modem users. The terminal emulation is VT100.

Induction of new users requires a structured approach to overcome the common limitation of shortage of staff for user support and for promotion of network services. With the host we are introducing a number of measures adapted for the context of distance education and open learning, connections almost entirely by modem calls, and cleo's role as a general purpose host for student access to network services:

  1. Most new users receive only a brief induction by telephone, sufficient to enable them to attain their first login and read their first email message. This is a "form email", giving a very brief guide to the online help facilities and instructions on how to run the gopher client and World Wide Web client ("Lynx") available on cleo. The email reader is "Pine", which has a relatively easy to use VT100 screen with menus.

  2. Further help by telephone calls is made available as required until users achieve first login and email reading (printed documentation is not generally available unless users print their own). By directing new users into immediate and relatively easy practice with information retrieval using gopher or lynx, we hope to build their confidence for undertaking more complex activities in which some knowledge of the Unix environment is necessary.

  3. Follow up help is by email wherever possible. An email address userhelp@cleo is given, and many of the replies required can be constructed from files containing answers to frequently asked questions.

  4. Relevant "worked examples" are emailed at irregular intervals to groups of users, to provide advice on the use of online documentation, and to promote interest in Internet activities. For example, teachers who use cleo are emailed a "worked example" which illustrates the procedure for subscribing to the list (Information Technology and Teacher Education), conducted by Chris Bigum of Deakin University.

  5. Tutors are encouraged to use email communications with students, although at this stage in the evolution of activities, the main emphasis has been upon creating a substantial user base, as a prerequisite for advancing into specific courses using electronic presentation and interaction for all students in the class.

  6. We have installed the listserver majordomo@cleo to provide a service for electronic publishing, user support, and discussions in a number of disciplinary areas at present without access to an Australian list, for example Veterinary Studies ("alive-l@cleo"). The word "help" emailed to will return an email message containing majordomo's command set. One important advantage for a listserver compared with newsgroups is that email is much easier medium for modem users.
A recent new list is "eff_one@cleo", designed as a list local to Murdoch University, for experienced student users to offer technical help to new users, particularly in the context of dialup access and a number of Murdoch University courses which assume a reasonable proficiency in computer communications.

Asking experienced users to help new users is a trial which constitutes one component of our work on a 1994 CAUT grant for the project "Collaborative learning through computer conferencing". Preliminary results will be available later this year. We expect that "eff_one@cleo" answered by students will take over gradually from "userhelp@cleo", which is answered by staff. If we do not achieve this transition, expansion of the user base, now nearly 450, will be severely restricted by excessive workloads in providing user support. Cleo is the first Murdoch University host to offer accounts which are for students enrolled in any course, are not deleted at the end of each semester, and give surnames or close approximations to surnames for login names instead of student ID numbers. This liberal approach has attracted many enthusiastic and capable undergraduate users who are prepared to do some "community service" in return for their first full access to network services. Their collective experience covers solutions to a much wider range of user software and hardware problems than is attainable by the staff who operate cleo.

The approach to structuring network services for cleo users is essentially a facilitation of standard Internet services and interfaces. Except for some aspects of the list eff_one@cleo which are for localised user support, the role for cleo is to be a general gateway into Internet style services. We have not adopted a "bulletin board" interface to structure services and potentially limit Internet access, as has been done elsewhere, for example in Edith Cowan University's "Virtual Campus" interface and others such as Deakin University and Monash Gippsland Campus. Apart from the high costs involved in such work, we took the view that broader educational and community purposes would be served better by designing for an "Internet interface", using email, gopher, WWW, listserver and other widely used standard tools.

Federal and state government initiatives in networking

One of the "worked examples" in the collection for cleo users explains a useful address to remember for email demonstrations. It is "". The usefulness is that a very courteous service named "responder" returns a form email within about 30 seconds, thanking you handsomely, and assuring you that staff read all messages and show a sample to the President "each day". It's a good fun point in demonstrations because you can create audience interaction in composing the message, and you do not have to schedule a colleague to be on standby somewhere else to give a near instant reply to "demo" email.

It is also a good point for initiating discussion on why Australia's federal and state governments are so slow over adopting the Internet into their thinking about national and regional infrastructures. The address "" symbolises the way the US federal and state governments have adopted the Internet as the public and educational networking component of the "information superhighway". Why doesn't Australia have a counterpart email address "" and comparable initiatives for a "National Information Infrastructure"? There is no clear answer to that question, although quite a number of committees and consultants have made recommendations to governments (for example, ASTEC, 1994, and the lists cited by Atkinson, 1993a; 1993b).

One major gap among the many gaps in Australian federal and state government approaches to networking could be filled quite readily. This is in the area of funding for projects which establish new infrastructure, new providers or new services on the Internet. There is no shortage of good proposals serving educational and community purposes (I've tried hard, to no avail: Atkinson, 1993d; Atkinson et al, 1993). However, the principal agent in this area, the Federal Department of Employment, Education and Training, appears to have lost interest in the "grants and projects" approach to developing key aspects of national infrastructure and has adopted "consultancies and tenders" as its strategy (Atkinson, 1993a).

Under these conditions, the work of relating computer communications technologies to educational and community purposes will have to proceed patiently along the course of small scale case studies, scraping along with "no additional resources" (my co-workers on project cleo are employed on "soft money" which runs out at the end of 1994). Supporters from the community users of cleo are contributing some funds to expand the University's modem pool, and this is likely to become a mandatory trend, not just in the specific area of cleo's activities but very generally in educational and community services from universities and colleges. Conflicts over whether "we taxpayers have paid in advance for these services" will escalate. At least a good row over who pays is an excellent stimulant for user participation in network communications. Fortunately, the host I manage has acquired a second disk rated at 1.4 GB formatted capacity (for less than $2 per megabyte, cheaper than floppies!), and cleo's /usr/spool/mail, /pub, /Lists and other directories will be able to accommodate for another year or two the most attractive aspect of the Internet, which is that every user has a say about anything and everything, anytime, everywhere.


Anderson, C. (1993). Public library use of the Internet. Paper presented to the 7th Biennial Conference, Victorian Association for Library Automation, Melbourne, 9 to 11 Nov 1993. (See VALA, 1993, for gopher availability).

ASTEC (Australian Science and Technology Council) (1994). The global connection: Future needs for research data networks in Australia. Draft findings, April 1994. Canberra: ASTEC (Anon ftp:, filename /pub/rdnet/astecrep.txt).

Atkinson, R. (1993a). How can AARNet support openness in open learning? Paper presented at AARNet's Networkshop93, Melbourne, 30 Nov - 3 Dec.

Atkinson, R. (1993b). Managing network access for open learning. Keynote paper presented at the 3rd National Conference on Access Through Open Learning, conducted by UNE Northern Rivers (Southern Cross University) at Ballina, NSW, 20-21 September 1993.

Atkinson, R. (1993c). ADEnet: a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students. Supplementary Report June 1993 by the WADEC to DEET on a National Priority (Reserve) Fund Project. (Anon ftp:, filenames /pub/Res-and-Dev/ADEnet_1supp.MacWord.bin or ADEnet_1supp.txt).

Atkinson, R. (1993d). ADEnet Project Phase 2: A proposal. Submission to DEET and NCODE, 6 November 1993. (Anon ftp:, filenames /pub/ADEnet/Ph2prop.txt or Phase2proposal.MacWd.bin).

Atkinson, R., Kelly, G., Neuhaus, J. and Lim, E. (1993). Electronic access to library services for distance education and open learning: A proposal submitted to CAUL 12 Nov 1993 for the program System Wide Library Infrastructure, National Priority Reserve Fund 1994. (Anon ftp:, filenames /pub/NPRF-SWLI-OL/Proposal.txt, Proposal.MacWd.bin, Proposal.WinWd. Date 11nov93).

Atkinson, R. (1992a). Some developments in computer mediated communications. In J. Herrington (ed), Distance education: Future visions, p51-74. Perth: WADEC.

Atkinson, R. (1992b). ADEnet: a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students. Report to the DEET on a 1991 National Priority (Reserve) Fund Project by the Western Australian Distance Education Consortium. Perth: WADEC and Murdoch University External Studies Unit. (Anon ftp:, filenames /pub/Res-and-Dev/ADEnet_Rept.MacWord.bin or ADEnet_Rept.txt).

Atkinson, R. and Castro, A. (1991). The ADEnet Project: improving computer communications for distance education students. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath and D. Meacham (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p11-19. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

Cranswick, K. (1993). Australia and the Internet: Time to cash in on the Internet? Australian Communications, Sept 1993, 77-82.

Hackett, S. (1994). TCP/IP criticism unjustified. Australian Communications, Apr 1994, 10-12.

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Le Roux, G. (1994). Counting the cost of data communications. Australian Communications, May 1994, 105-114.

Le Roux, G. (1993). Desktop TCP/IP - a flexible alternative. Australian Communications, Apr 1993, 95-102.

Lloyd, A. (1994). Naming and addressing - TCP/IP's Achilles heel. Australian Communications, Feb 1994, 41-42. Qualifying TCP/IP criticisms. Australian Communications, May 1994, 51-54.

Rehn, G. (1994). Software tools for dialup Internet access. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 259-269. Canberra: AJET Publications.

Rehn, G. & Atkinson, R. (1994). Final Report for Module B: Computer tools in teaching and learning. Report to DEET on a NPRF Project. Perth: Murdoch University. (Anon ftp:, filenames /pub/Res-and-Dev/Rehn-Atkinson-ModBRept.MacWd.bin, ModBRept.docWinWd).

Salamone, S. (1994). Remote connectivity: Branch office routers. Australian Communications, Mar 1994, 67-74.

VALA (Victorian Association for Library Automation) (1993). Papers presented at the 7th Biennial VALA Conference, Melbourne, 9 to 11 Nov 1993. (Name=VALA Conference Papers, Type=1, Port=70, Path=1/Library Services,

Wainwright, E. (1993). Towards a national networking strategy. Paper presented to the 7th Biennial Conference, Victorian Association for Library Automation, Melbourne, 9 to 11 Nov 1993. (See VALA, 1993, for gopher availability).

Author: Dr Roger Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology
Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA 6150, Australia.
Phone 08 9360 6840 Fax 08 9310 4929 Email:

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1994). Relating computer communications technologies to educational and community purposes. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 1-8. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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