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The ADEnet Project: Improving computer communications for distance education students

Roger Atkinson
External Studies Unit, Murdoch University

Angela Castro
Hong Kong Baptist College, Hong Kong

The objective for the ADEnet project is to provide very low cost computer communications channels for distance education students to any Distance Education Centre. It is a national project based upon installation of additional telephone lines, modems and terminal server ports at AARNet connected campuses in order to substitute AARNet for Austpac as the main carrier for long distance data calls by students. This paper explains the strategy adopted for the submission of the proposal, outlines the initial stages of implementing the project, and assesses some further developments which are an important part of an overall approach to improving computer communications for distance education. These include staff and student development issues, the scope for widening the geographic coverage of the ADEnet concept by TAFE college and AARNet interconnections, and a possible way for institutions to reduce expenditure on the fixed costs of Austpac by substituting a single Austpac to AARNet connection for their present connections.


The ADEnet Project originated from a few sentences in an briefing paper written by Angela Castro and Craig Warren in May 1990 for Professor Jocelyn Calvert, Director of the Institute of Distance Education who had been asked to review the aims, objectives and operation of the study centres of Deakin University. The key sentences had little direct relation to study centres
we have negotiated successfully with Melbourne University to allow us to place four modems for our Melbourne based student to access Deakinet at the cost of a local call rather than using STD or X25 (Austpac). Melbourne University will probably ask us to pay for the installation and rental of such a telephone line, which is not unreasonable. Users will be given a telephone number, which will be a 03 Melbourne number, and the terminal server will prompt the caller for direction. If our student/staff member types the AARNet address of Deakin (deakin.oz.au), he/she will get on Deakin and still pays just a local call. If we want our students in capital cities in Australia to be able to reach Deakinet, we might have to negotiate with at least one institution in each city to allow us to install modems on their telephone line (Castro and Warren, 1990).

Turning up at Murdoch University in late May (internal papers often turn up at other places, fortunately), these sentences linked with a brief conversation Roger Atkinson had with Geoff Huston, AARNet Technical Manager, during his visit to Murdoch on 8 May 1991 to install AARNet. Distance education had been identified as one of four main groups of objectives for AARNet (AVCC, 1989). How could we get computer communications for external students onto AARNet instead of Austpac?

It would be rather silly if each of Australia's eight Distance Education Centres initiated its own separate negotiations for AARNet access by its own external students, with "at least one institution in each capital city". Why not try a bulk negotiation on behalf of all DECs, and see whether the Reserve Fund will support it? We were beginning to get used to the idea that Reserve Fund was different from other sources of project funding (the main difference is that other sources of funding for innovative national developments in the delivery of learning are almost non existent).

Thus the project originated. The purpose of this paper is to explain the strategy adopted for the submission of the proposal, outline the way in which it is being implemented, and assess the kinds of further developments which are part of the overall approach in computer communications for distance education students.

Submitting the proposal

We floated up the concept to a teleconference of the NDEC (National Distance Education Conference) Working Party on Education and Technology on 14 June 1990, and NDEC itself discussed it at their meeting on 19 June 1990. The proposers were encouraged to proceed, through an institutional submission made on behalf of all members of the Working Party. With support from Dr Wally Howse, Director of WADEC (WA Distance Education Consortium) and the new Chair for the Working Party, the proposal was made through WADEC. It was prepared in consultation with the Network Technical Manager, Geoff Huston, to ensure consistency with AARNet objectives, technical feasibility, and liaison with sites which are not DECs. AARNet endorsement was outlined in a letter from Geoff Huston appended to the submission. We were very encouraged to find that support for the project was not confined to DECs that have computing, technologies and science as prominent aspects of their profiles. ADEnet ranked rather well and was awarded the full amount sought, $91,000.

The project submission (Atkinson and Castro, 1990) was designed for readers without any specialist knowledge of the technical details of computer communications. The title of the project, "An ADEnet on AARNet : a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students", was chosen carefully. AARNet is a national project with the prestige of the AVCC behind it, plus its phenomenal success with its users. The words "national project" and "low cost" have an obvious appeal, and the word "computing" is more understandable than reference to networks or specific services such as electronic mail. The format of the submission conformed exactly with the DEET specification, although we took the liberty of appending our names at the end of the document under the heading "Project authors".

The proposal explained carefully how "low cost access" was to be achieved by students making a local telephone call to a campus connected to AARNet, which carried the traffic to the desired host elsewhere in Australia, at no cost to the student and no extra cost to the institutions. Except, of course, for the need for someone to pay for additional modems, terminal server ports and telephone lines at each campus being used for an AARNet connection point. Typical costs payable by students were quoted for the present method for long distance data calls, Telecom's Austpac service.

The objective and purposes were succinct, and the estimates of numbers of student users were modest.

The objective for this project is to provide very low cost computer communications channels for distance education students anywhere in Australia to any Distance Education Centre. It is estimated that higher education institutions and their branch campuses, where connected to AARNet, cover about 23 local telephone districts. On the scale proposed, initially about 1500 students per year would benefit from this project. Some students in the more remote telephone districts will not be able to use local telephone calls to get to AARNet, but these students can continue to use Austpac access. If a DEC is able to move a major part of its data traffic onto AARNet, it will be able to reduce expenses by downgrading to a smaller capacity, lower rental Austpac access.

The purposes of adopting this opportunity for very low cost long distance computer communications are

The application of these functions is not confined to computer specialists but is growing rapidly for other fields of study, including humanities, social sciences, education and commerce. We believe that the use of institutional computing facilities for external teaching is lagging behind usage for internal teaching, owing to the inhibition imposed by the cost of long distance data communications. The start of AARNet provides an opportune time to redress this imbalance, and to introduce greater use of computer conferencing, which can be a low cost complement for video conferencing and teleconferencing.

. . . this proposal seeks to develop a coordinated national approach to AARNet access for all distance education students. The name ADEnet (Australian Distance Education network) is proposed for this subset of AARNet. A national approach will avoid the need for the individual DECs to negotiate with a large number of other institutions, DEC and non-DEC, for installation of modems and terminal server ports for AARNet connections (Atkinson and Castro, 1990).

The second last of the paragraphs quoted above made a very brief comparison between computing services for on campus students and distance education students, and between computer mediated communications and some other technologies which were likely to gain Reserve Fund support. However, apart from making these legitimate points, the proposal did not review many of the questions which may arise, for example the costs to students for purchasing their own computers and modems, or the readiness of staff engaged in distance education to promote the use of this medium, or the various difficulties involved in learning how to use computers. Proposals had to be succinct (in this case 4 pages in 10 point Palatino, plus one page from AARNet), with omission of matters which may be left for discussion in the literature (for example, Castro, 1989, 1990; Mason and Kaye, 1988; McConnell, 1990; Mays and Lumsden, 1990).

The proposal provided for a Project Executive Group, convened by the Chair of the NDEC Working Party on Education and Technology (Wally Howse) and including nominees from each DEC (see Acknowledgements below). The proposal described the role of the Group in negotiating

with each DEC and with other institutions to secure the installation of a suitable number of additional modems and terminal server ports at as many as possible of the estimated 23 telephone districts which will have AARNet connection. Each campus will be invited to install "AARNet modems"
The proposal mapped out some general principles for the negotiations to install AARNet modems, including a procedure for determining a priority order related to the numbers of students in the telephone districts for which a local AARNet connection is available. The project budget was very difficult to estimate, there being uncertainties over the outcome costs for terminal servers and telephone lines, for example. Similarly, the proposed schedule for the work was at best an informed estimate.

Thus there were a number of uncertainties, even deficiencies, with the proposal as submitted to the Reserve Fund. Whilst it may seem unusual to be critical of one's own proposal, some uncertainties cannot be avoided in any innovative project, and there is a very important point to be made. This is that we must accord to Reserve Fund the great compliment that it is a "risk taker", supporting national priority projects which would have little chance of funding if left to the processes of DECs allocating their own recurrent funding. Having said that, we need to point out that the ADEnet Project is "low risk", at least from the point of view of the student users, the proposers, and the assessors of the submissions, and that there are other examples of good risk taking, most notably the AVCC with AARNet.

Implementing the project

The work in progress on implementing the project is conducted almost exclusively by electronic mail. It is not a question of having to practise what we preach, it is literally the only way to have a participatory, team style approach to the project, whilst being economical with staff time and extraordinarily economical on the budget. After some time spent on obtaining nominees from each DEC, and on overcoming some initial difficulties with techniques and access, the group now has an established process. Each member mails his or her statements, comments and information to all other members, using an "alias" or similar facility to represent all the individual email addresses (see Acknowledgements). This procedure has created a computer conference, or perhaps a continuous, computerised committee meeting or working party, which has an ongoing vigorous discussion on a wide range of topics pertaining to the project.

The project work commenced with a survey of current use of computer communications by each DEC. This has provided a basis for the "Guidelines for AARNet Administration", which specify the priority order for obtaining sites and the number of modems and terminal server ports required each site. The project requires advice and approval from AARNet for a number of technical matters, including selection of terminal servers, design of the screen interface presented to users, how to obtain statistical information, and network security.

A number of issues have arisen. Initial analysis has indicated a requirement for a larger number of modems at the major sites, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, than was forecast in the original submission. Although estimation of numbers and locations is subject to uncertainties, up to 40% of the users reside in telephone districts in which an AARNet connected campus is not available. Telecom announced restructured pricing for Austpac on 7 May 1991, giving a small decrease for users in metropolitan telephone districts, but an increase of about 50% for users in country telephone districts, which in most cases do not have an AARNet connected campus. The amount of support and advice available from AARNet Administration is limited, because it consists of just two staff. A number of different approaches are possible for network security, terminal servers and other technical matters. Proceeding by means of small test sites at some DECs appears to be appropriate, prior to approaches to the major city sites.

Additional inputs into the project discussion are welcome (but by email please, using the addresses given in the acknowledgements below). Contributions to an AARNet newsgroup (Howse, 1991) would be particularly helpful.

One major issue, the recent increases in Austpac charges for country telephone districts, cannot be addressed by the present project. Two measures, access via TAFE colleges in the smaller centres, and AARNet to Austpac connection, are discussed below as potential future developments to assist students not provided for by the 1991 project and disadvantaged by the Austpac increases.

Further developments

The purpose of this section is to discuss some further developments in the overall approach to computer mediated communications in distance education, in order to place some perspective on the role of the 1991 ADEnet Project. One criticism which could be made is that ADEnet makes no direct contribution to staff development for computer mediated communications, or to development of user friendly interfaces for non specialist users of the medium, or to the needs of students who do not reside in a telephone district which has an AARNet connected campus. However, we see these matters as good topics for projects in future years, logical progressions in a sequence of developments which are shared with many other domains besides distance education.

Staff development and student development

There are two factors often named in relation to staff development for computer mediated communications. Firstly, staff need easy access to the medium, by means of personal desktop or readily accessible shared workstations, plus familiarity with daily routine use of typical productivity software such as word processing. The workstations need to be connected to a campus network, either directly by the ethernet standards now being widely adopted, or via a terminal server or gateway, in order to access an AARNet connected host for electronic mail, news and other network services. Secondly, we need improved interfaces. An "interface" is styled mainly by software. It determines the screen images a user sees and reads, and the number and the nature of the commands the user has to know in order to do the job he or she wishes to do. Interfaces which are too difficult, or too much different from familiar interfaces are likely to remain unused.

A third factor should be added. Staff are very much more likely to use computer communications if there is some important work to do, work which can be done in a more productive and more effective way with this medium compared with others. The best general stimulus for acceptance of the medium is the frequent arrival of exciting mail. The computer conferencing activity of the project group is an illustrative example. Use of computer communications has to be purposeful, relating to a student group for teaching purposes, or to a research group, a project development group, or related tasks in gathering, analysing and disseminating information within a group.

In broad outline, student development for computer mediated communications is similar to staff development. The ADEnet Project relates directly to the access factor and making a contribution to improved interfaces for users, at least up to the point of login to the desired DEC's computer. However, ADEnet by itself can have little direct input into the development of purposeful applications. That is a matter for course writers and tutors, instructional designers, distance education delivery staff and students themselves. There is very wide scope for new applications of computer communications to benefit distance education students, including computer managed learning (Hawley and Spice, 1990), email and computer conferencing (Dekkers and Cuskelly, 1989; Frost and Roberts, 1990), library and information services (Howse, 1991), career counselling (Inglis, 1989), professional continuing education (Guiton and Atkinson, 1991), and many others.

It is important to note that further developments of computer communications for distance education can rest upon a broad foundation in international standards for networks (Black, 1987; Comer, 1988). On top of this foundation we can expect continuing rapid improvements in user interfaces for computer communications, similar to the improvements in recent years with user interfaces for word processing, authoring tools for computer assisted learning and much other software. This is reassuring, because it means that staff and student development can concentrate upon the persons and the purposes, without worrying too much about re-inventing or redesigning the hardware and software tools.


The geographic distribution of TAFE colleges and centres is much wider than that of university campuses. This raises the possibility that access to AARNet by local telephone calls could be widened considerably by connections between AARNet and the TAFEnets, which exist in many of the non metropolitan regions. Some of these regions have well established contracting arrangements for TAFE college delivery services for university courses (Atkinson and McBeath, 1989), and there are other reasons also, for promoting closer relationships between TAFE and the DECs, for example staff development (McBeath and Atkinson, 1990). Delivery of open learning through a technological network has been analysed in relation to the number of centres required for full national coverage (Jones, 1990). However, a considerable effort would be required to design, fund and implement improved access to AARNet based upon using regional colleges of TAFE or open learning centres as ADEnet sites.

Austpac and AARNet

Whilst it is not possible to reduce the connect time and traffic volume charges for Austpac users, the costs of institutional connections as Austpac receive sites could be reduced considerably. There are no major technical or legal obstacles to prevent the use of a single Austpac connection to AARNet, to replace all the individual campus connections to Austpac. Savings could be passed on in the form of a cross subsidy for students who have no alternative but to use Austpac. However, a project of this magnitude could be undertaken only by AARNet on behalf of all Austpac users, including university libraries, administration and other staff. There are difficulties in organising accounting and security systems.

The success of the project is not dependent upon these types of further developments, but all three, particularly staff and student development and its related issues, can have a substantial role in contributing to further improvements in one of our least utilised media for communications in distance education.


To colleagues in the Project Executive Group:
Dr Wally Howse (Convenor), Director, WADEC (howse@cleo.murdoch.edu.au)
Craig Warren, Computing Services Unit, Deakin University (C.Warren@deakin.edu.au)
Eve Cuskelly, DEC, University College of Central Qld (cuskellye@topaz.ucq.edu.au)
Douglas Thomson, Sch of Appl Sci, Monash Gippsland Uni Coll (doug@giaeb.cc.monash.edu.au)
John Lockwood, Coordinator Administrative Computing, University of South Australia (lockwoodj@schulz.UniSA.edu.au)
Mary Jane Mahoney, Campus Telecommunications Coordinator, UNE Orange AgriculturalCollege (now mjmahony@oac.usyd.edu.au)
Sylvia Latham, Manager, Computer Centre, Charles Sturt University Mitchell (slatham@csu.edu.au)
Judy Timmins, Coordinator of Student Support System, DEC, University College of Southern Qld (timmins@zeus.usq.edu.au)

and to Geoff Huston and Peter Elford of AARNet Administration.


Atkinson, Roger and Castro, Angela. (1990). An ADEnet on AARNet: a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students. Project proposal submitted to DEET National Priority (Reserve) Fund, August 1990.

Atkinson, Roger and McBeath, Clare. (1989). Distance education and the TAFE-higher education interface in Western Australia. In Distance education for training in business and industry. Forum Papers, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, 9th Biennial Forum, July 1989. Churchill, Vic: Centre for Distance Learning, Gippsland Institute. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/aspesa89.html

AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee). (1989). Australian Academic and Research Network - Progress Report. Report presented to AVCC Executive meeting, 16 May 1989.

Black, Uyless. (1987). Computer networks: Protocols, standards and interfaces. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Castro, Angela. (1990). AARNet and Australian tertiary distance education. Distance Education, 11(2), 213-230.

Castro, Angela and Warren, Craig. (1989). Deakinet, AARNet and study centres for Australian distance education. (Unpublished internal briefing paper. Refer Castro (1990) for the published version). Geelong: Institute of Distance Education, and Computing Services, Deakin University.

Castro, Angela. (1989). Options, interconnection and decision. In Distance education for training in business and industry. Forum Papers, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, 9th Biennial Forum, July 1989, p.11-19. Churchill, Vic: Centre for Distance Learning, Gippsland Institute.

Comer, Douglas. (1988). Internetworking with TCP/IP: Principles, protocols and architecture. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey : Prentice Hall.

Dekkers, John and Cuskelly, Eve. (1989). The use of electronic mail for distance education students - a case study. In Distance education for training in business and industry. Forum Papers, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, 9th Biennial Forum, July 1989, p.96-105. Churchill, Vic: Centre for Distance Learning, Gippsland Institute.

Frost, Tim and Roberts, David. (1990). Electronic mail evaluated - a case study revisited. ASPESA Papers No. 9, November 1990.

Guiton, Patrick and Atkinson, Roger. (1991). Delivery and communications technologies in the provision of professional continuing education for engineers. Consultant's Report to Engineering Education Australia Pty Ltd.

Hawley, Georgina and Spice, Chris. (1990). "From the mountains to the sea". In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (eds), Open learning and new technology: Conference proceedings, p.179-186. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/olnt90/hawley.html

Howse, Walter. (1991). AARNet - the discoveries of a beginner. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath and D. Meacham (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p.216-221. Bathurst, NSW: ASPESA and Charles Sturt University.

Inglis, Alistair. (1989). Designing a national system for disseminating careers and course information. In Distance education for training in business and industry. Forum Papers, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, 9th Biennial Forum, July 1989, p.243-254. Churchill, Vic: Centre for Distance Learning, Gippsland Institute.

Jones, Geoffrey. (1990). Developing open learning through a technological network. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 6(1), 56-65. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet6/jones.html

Mason, Robin and Kaye, Anthony. (1989). Mindweave: Communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Mays, M. E. and Lumsden, D. B. (1990). Computers and telecommunications at National Technological University. University Computing, 12, 68-72.

McBeath, Clare and Atkinson, Roger. (1990). Higher education and TAFE professional development: A distance education perspective. Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, 5(2), 66-74. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/ajtaferd1990-mcb-atk.html

McConnell, David. (1990). Case study: the educational use of computer conferencing. Educational and Training Technology International, 27(2), 190-208.

Roger Atkinson is Senior Lecturer in Distance Education, External Studies Unit, Murdoch University. Ms Angela Castro, previously at the Institute for Distance Education, Deakin University, is now Assistant to the Director, Division of Continuing Education, Hong Kong Baptist College, Hong Kong.

Address: Roger Atkinson
Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150
Voice +61 9 360 6840 fax +61 9 310 4929
Email: atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

Angela S. Castro
Social Sciences Research Centre, The University of Hong Kong.
Internet: acastro@hkucc.hku.hk; gunagela@uxmail.ust.hk
HKU Off tel (852) 2559 9045; Off fax: (852) 2858 4327

Cite as: 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, 11-19. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association (now Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/aspesa91_adenet.html

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