Development priorities for computer
communications in distance education

Roger Atkinson
External Studies Unit
Murdoch University


Abstract

Important factors influencing the future development of computer communications for distance education students include the costs of microcomputer installations, Telecom's pricing policies, the institutional investment in interfaces to the Telecom network, and institutional policies for developing the computer services sought by students. This paper argues that the last of these factors is the most important, and discusses the importance of the lower cost services, such as Bulletin Boards and on-line Library catalogue access. By placing the development priority on services which are relatively low cost, we can promote the growth of the student "user base" required for more expensive services such as computer managed learning.

Introduction

Distance education has not become a participant in the remarkable growth and diversification of computer communications, which has occurred in commercial and government applications. In distance education we have very few answers or examples for the most basic questions: What functions would benefit from computer mediated communication? What factors inhibit or control the development of effective applications? How do we get started?

This paper advocates some answers which I believe to represent a feasible pathway for "getting started" in computer communications. The planning of a "feasible pathway" is a vitally important step; without a workable strategy, we will never get started.

Computer communications: Development stages

We can distinguish two broad objectives or stages in developing computer communications for distance education. Firstly, provide external students with remote access to the computer functions which are available for on campus students. Secondly, extend the range of remotely accessed services to include more complex functions, such as electronic mail and computer assisted learning.

"Remote access" is important. There is little point in prescribing a compulsory attendance session if the sole purpose is to enable external students to use computers on campus. Remote networking is relatively easy to achieve, because we have a public network already in place, the telephone system (PSTN), with the desired capabilities:

  1. unrestricted access - installed in virtually every home, office and educational institution;

  2. user controlled local, regional, national and international switching;

  3. a reliable carrier of computer data, although only at relatively low numbers of characters per second;

  4. favourable costing, in particular, long distance traffic may be switched onto AUSTPAC, the public packet switched network, to take advantage of much lower costs.
Thus the first stage is essentially to take advantage of what we have already, starting with the relatively easy tasks. We extend existing on campus computer facilities to external students by:
  1. ensuring that students have home or local access to microcomputer, communications software, a modem and telephone line, and that they develop proficiency in using "dialup";

  2. providing on-campus interfaces to the Telecom network: modem ports on the host computers, or on the campus local area network (LAN); and for students outside the local telephone district, AUSTPAC connection; some hosts may require additional software (described below) to enable operation through a modem or LAN port.
The desired outcome from this stage is that remote students be able to use campus computers in the same way as on-campus students do so. This is more appropriate for institutions which use an integrated mode approach, with the same or closely similar course/unit design for both internal and external students. There is an important economy available if the course/unit designer can rely upon a "system designer" to arrange remote access such that there is little or no difference between modes of study. Furthermore, external students tend to use computers at night times, when the campus computers are not busy with internal students' work.

However, the relevance of the first stage outlined above is limited. This is because campus computers are not used extensively in on-campus teaching, except in Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, Commerce, and curriculum courses in teacher education. The task for the second stage is to promote new applications of computer services in a wider range of disciplines, with distance education taking a leading role instead of the simpler role of extending existing services.

Computer communications: Development factors

Whilst there are many ways to analyse the development of computer communications, for the purpose of assessing priorities the following categorisation into four main areas may be pertinent. These are the costs of microcomputers for students; Telecom's pricing policies; institutional investment in the interfaces to the Telecom network; and institutional policies on developing the services sought by students.

This outline is unconventional - you could argue that computer communications should not be developed unless we have clear ideas on the reasons why this medium is required. However, we have to be opportunistic, recognising that computer services in distance education will not be implemented unless our institutions are pressured by the existence of a viable "student user-base", well equipped to demand and adopt technological innovations.

Thus I argue that the most productive approach to computer communications will concentrate on the factors which control or inhibit the creation of an infrastructure, the networking and the "user base". These are essential catalysts for promoting the future deployment of capital intensive services in computer aided instruction and computer managed learning.

The concept of a "user base" is important. This is the numbers of students who are able to use computer communications, and who have the equipment or access to it through workplaces or Regional Colleges. If we do not have viable numbers of students ready to use an expensive new investment in database services, electronic mail, computer aided instruction, etc., there is little prospect of persuading institutions to undertake such investment.

Microcomputers for students

Unfortunately, there is little prospect of persuading significant numbers of students to purchase computers and modems, unless we can guarantee the delivery of desirable services. For most of our students, word processing and children's requirements are the major incentives to purchase a computer. Those enrolled in Computer Science, and disciplines which require study of computing courses, may gain additional advantages from personal ownership: freedom from campus attendance, the avoidance of crowded conditions in campus laboratories, flexibility in choice of study time. greater independence in learning, etc.

However, are these incentives sufficient? Computers are not cheap, when placed in the context of the average household or student budget. We need to provide every additional incentive which we can, whilst maintaining a reasonable division of costs between institution and student. Computer communications facilitate this objective, because a relatively low cost home computer or PC clone may be used to operate expensive software on a remote host computer. The alleviation of uncertainties about the expenses of a comprehensive software library and machine upgrades to run new software would improve student perceptions of the incentives to buy a computer.

For example, a course in commercial computing may prescribe practical work with a range of PC hosted accounting software packages, totalling several thousand dollars in cost. It's quite impossible for students to purchase their own copies, or for the institution to lend copies to each student in the class. However, there is a solution available, using "off the shelf" communications software, eg. "Procomm 2.3" or "SupercommII", to connect a remote user. The remote user does not infringe copyright or the usual licenses, although the copyright owners may dislike an arrangement which enables each item to be used by a substantially larger number of students, compared with the usual classroom based PC use.

Telecom policies

Telecom's policies on using the network for data traffic, and the charges for this service, have a significant influence on the strategies we can adopt to promote computer communications in distance education.

For example, computer bulletin boards are an attractive and relatively easy entry into computer communications. The aspiring "sysop" does not require any permissions or licences from Telecom, though in formal terms a bulletin board contravenes regulations relating to "third party message switching". There are now over 180 computer bulletin boards operating in Australia (Withers, 1987), providing a vigorous, informal, low cost computer networking associated with the hobbyist world. The users of bulletin boards pay one local fee for each call, if calling locally, or the appropriate STD rate if calling from another telephone district.

Telecom's attitude towards bulletin board operators and users is most highly commendable, providing a favourable opportunity for distance educators who are struggling to develop computer communications. As advocated in more detail below, we need more bulletin boards, and the time to develop other low cost areas, such as the PC host running standard commercial applications programs for remote users.

The cheapest technique for creating additional dialup lines is to connect a modem into an ordinary telephone extension from your institution's PABX and cable the modem to a host computer or LAN port. This method does not require additional outside lines, because the demand for dialup access is concentrated in after hours periods. However, continuing use of this method is dependent upon a lenient interpretation of Telecom regulations. Whilst there are potential problems with commercial users "hogging" an exchange line for 24 hours per day, the typical educational user will work in relatively short 1-2 hour sessions, concentrated in off-peak periods.

Low cost services accessed by low cost computer communications are vital elements in a plan to develop the "user base". However, there is a risk that this strategy could be undermined by insensitive changes to Telecom's policies. Some statements from Telecom show sensitive understanding (eg. Coster, 1987), but low cost computer communicators are apprehensive.

In long distance data communications, Telecom offers distance education a very favourable opportunity with distance independent pricing and substantial off-peak discounts for AUSTPAC. A typical student user may incur costs in the range $1.60 - $2.00 per hour, after hours rate. The catch is that the institutional costs for AUSTPAC subscription are considerably higher than the costs incurred for modem connections through a PABX.

From the distance education perspective, AUSTPAC is characterised by high fixed costs per year, and low costs per student user. For example, as a very approximate guide to experience at Murdoch University, the Telecom rental expenses for computer programming practical work are of the order: local dialup, marginal rent near zero; AUSTPAC low speed computer port, about $1400 per equivalent full time student (EFTS) at full capacity 2 EFTS; AUSTPAC 4800 bits per second access, about $500 per EFTS at full capacity 12 EFTS. The cost estimates will vary widely depending upon the number of users, proportion of cost ascribed to research and non-teaching functions, reverse charges policy, etc.; however it is clear that AUSTPAC communications require much larger class sizes for viability compared with telephone and modem connection.

Interfaces to the Telecom network

Two kinds of interfaces to the Telecom network have been cited in the preceding sections. The simplest and cheapest interface is a modem terminating an ordinary extension line from the institution's PABX, and connected to a host computer, or a port on the campus LAN. In addition, some hosts will require software to manage the modem traffic, eg. "Procomm" or "Supercomm" for PC hosts, or for typical bulletin boards, the software functions incorporate modem management. This kind of interface is generally referred to as "local dialup" because it is appropriate for callers in the local telephone district. Others have to pay STD rates.

The second kind of interface is to AUSTPAC, the public packet switched network. This is appropriate for long distance callers. although it requires a larger number of users in order to offset the higher costs for installation and annual rental.

Obviously we require both kinds of interfaces. The inexpensive use of local dialup is a way to teach your institution about the functions and capabilities of computer communications. Then AUSTPAC is required, because we cannot accept the exclusion of remote students from the benefits enjoyed by those residing in the institution's local telephone district.

At the student end of a computer communications link, there is very little difference. The student dials the appropriate number, local or AUSTPAC, and for AUSTPAC only, has to key in some commands to the network before logging on. The host computer does not have to handle any differences between local dialup and AUSTPAC interfaces.

Institutional policies and attitudes towards computer communications interfaces to the Telecom network are important; without the interfaces you cannot obtain the desired positive interaction between student users of computers, and the computer communicated services which respond to and stimulate the student demand.

Institutional policies on computer services

I feel that we have an unfortunate tendency to "put the cart before the horse" with computer services in distance education. If we think only in terms of very complex and high level services such as computer aided instruction, we will have little chance of getting it moving. For computer aided instruction we have to achieve very large investments in high quality educational software. These investments will require a well developed infrastructure - viable numbers of well equipped students with networked remote access to the host computers; a "horse" for the "cart" of high level services.

For the present, we can stimulate the delivery of computer services by concentrating on the easier tasks. These relate to services in which the operation of some computer function is a course or unit objective. For example, skills in using compilers for various programming languages; operating systems; skills in using accounting packages, database packages; etc. In courses or units which include these kinds of objectives we do not have to do software development (although we still require instructional design skills). Indeed we could argue that in some respects we cannot deviate from international and industry standards, for example, with programming languages. For courses or units in certain disciplines, we use "off the shelf" software; we cannot and should not write our own, and it's very much less expensive than software which attempts to do the teaching.

The development of information services is just as important as the course or unit related services. Many institutions have computerised services within their libraries, and should be actively planning for remote users to access the on-line catalogue and be able to place an electronic requisition. Most of the distance education providers have pages on Viatel, through the Mentor "Coursefinder" service developed by Alistair Inglis, or as service providers or sub-providers.

Institutional decisions about the services to be provided by computer communications are perhaps the most important factor in a development strategy. We have to select the lower cost, higher demand services which will stimulate student purchases of computers and modems; attain the usage levels which will recoup the cost of interfaces and give educational data communications a higher priority with Telecom; and prepare an infrastructure ready for institutional investment in computer aided instruction and computer managed learning.

Whilst much of this work requires large scale teamwork within an institution, Bulletin Board services deserve special attention because these are suitable for small scale, even one-person, implementation.

Bulletin Boards

Bulletin Boards are a very low cost way into electronic mail for your local and nearby telephone districts. The recently installed "Murdoch University External Studies BBS1" cost only $1500 for equipment, using public domain software and a "free" telephone line from the University PABX (Atkinson, 1986). Its facilities are comparable to those offered by commercial systems such as Telecom's Telememo and Overseas Telecommunications Commission's Minerva. This BBS, and most others, includes posting of messages to "ALL"; individual private mail boxes; upload and download of computer program files - with no charge to users except the local or STD call fee.

The external documentation required for this Bulletin Board is very succinct - just the telephone number, 09 332 2604, and the modem standard, V21 (300 bits per second). The on-line help facility, system files and on-line registration facility do the work. Anyone may log on, there being no requirement for "training" or prior registration.

The main purpose of this BBS is to provide external students with an electronic equivalent for the on campus "student grapevine". It focuses on student to student communication, although there are no technical reasons for excluding "official" communications between student and institution. Incidental functions include its use as a learning facility for beginners in computer communications; for testing equipment; for publicising External Studies; and as another good reason for buying your own modem.

The Bulletin Board is an important lesson about the character and purpose of computer communications: it is open; easy to use; for communication between persons, in which respect it fulfils an unmet need in a system which has a widely dispersed student body; and it is relatively cheap. The Bulletin Board is a model for access, equity and participation in the medium of computer communications.

References

Atkinson, Roger (1986). Computer Bulletin Boards for distance education students. Paper presented at Ed Tech 86, International Educational Technology Conference and Exhibition, Perth, Western Australia, December 1986. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/edtech86atk.html

Coster, R. (1987). Letter to the Editor. Australian Personal Computer 8(5), 178.

Withers, Steve (1987). Communications. Australian Personal Computer 8(7), 235-239.

Notes

Remote host mode for PC/MS-DOS systems is offered by a number of software publishers and distributors, including:
  1. "Procomm V2.3", PIL Software Systems, PO Box 1471, Columbia, Mo 65205, USA (shareware/public domain: sources include Select Software, Box C343, Clarence Street Post Office, Sydney, NSW 2000).

  2. "SuperCom", Operating Systems Research Pty Ltd, 561 Blaxland Road, Eastwood, NSW 2122 (reviewed in Your Computer, 1987, p29; What's New in Computing, April 1987, p39).

  3. "PC Anywhere" and DMA "Chairman", Ikon Distribution, PO Box 57, Glebe, NSW 2037 (What's New in Computing, April 1987, pp 5, 13).
The TurboPascal BBS source code is available from the author, for CP/M3; PC/MS-DOS versions available later this year; installation support services available also.

Support received from CTEC Standing Committee on External Studies, Evaluations and Investigations Programme, for the project on low cost electronic mail in distance education is gratefully acknowledged.

Please cite this paper as: Atkinson, R. (1987). Development priorities for computer communications in distance education. Paper presented at ASPESA 8th Biennial Forum, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, 27-31 July 1987. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/aspesa87.html

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