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Live-Net and beyond: A universities and TAFE video conferencing consortium in WA

Roger Atkinson
External Studies Unit, Murdoch University

Colin Latchem
Educational Media Centre, Curtin University of Technology

Graeme Davy
Central Metropolitan College of TAFE, Perth

Regional colleges of TAFE in Western Australia are a key example of TAFE and university collaboration to help meet the tertiary education needs of the State's remote communities. The Live-Net satellite video conferencing trials and other collaborations in planning for telecommunications supported delivery through regional colleges and campuses have provided a basis for the most recent development, a consortium approach to ISDN video conferencing. The consortium of university and TAFE developers for video conferencing intends to establish a WA standard choice for codecs, which will enable use of the low end option when connecting University and TAFE sites. This is video conferencing using one Microlink with two ISDN channels for each site, and proprietary protocols for codec functions. Some sites will be equipped also for high end ISDN video conferencing with 6 channels and H261 protocols. The purpose of the consortium approach is to provide users with greater opportunities, arising from lower costs and availability of more sites, to develop a wider range of applications including regional college roles in delivering university courses, and applications involving interstate connectivity.


Introduction

With a little luck, 1991 will be a special year for collaboration between the university and TAFE sectors in Western Australia. The special point about 1991 is the emergence of a consortium approach to video conferencing installations, which aims to ensure optimum interconnectivity between TAFE and university sites. The purpose of this paper is to trace the link between the technical details of the video conferencing developments and TAFE and university collaboration, and show how important that collaboration is for improving the quality of tertiary education delivery to the small communities scattered over this vast and thinly populated state.

A video conferencing presentation from WA (McBeath and Atkinson, 1991) will enable us to illustrate this link with examples which emphasise quality of applications of the technology, in contrast to the quality of technologies perspective (for example, Harris and Hague, 1991).

Regional colleges and campuses

The regional colleges in Western Australia are a key example of the benefits of TAFE and university collaboration. The State's four universities are located in the capital city, Perth, which with the nearby coastal strips to Mandurah and Yanchep contains about three quarters of the State's 1.5 million people. The rest of the population is widely dispersed, with only about six regional centres in the range 12,000 to 30,000 persons. These centres are Bunbury, Albany, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Karratha and Port Hedland. The first three of these have regional colleges of Western Australian TAFE, while the latter three have autonomous regional colleges which differ only in the details of their governance. In addition, Bunbury has a branch campus of Edith Cowan University, and Kalgoorlie has the WA School of Mines, a branch campus of Curtin University of Technology. Curtin University has another branch campus, the Muresk Institute of Agriculture near the town of Northam.

Being located in relatively small centres, with sparsely populated hinterlands, the regional colleges of TAFE face many problems with classes which have insufficient enrolments for viability. This factor restricts their ability to offer a range of TAFE courses wide enough to meet the demands from their communities (Davy, 1988). Transferring to Perth, doing without, or enrolling in a course which is not related to a desired career path, do not constitute a quality set of options for prospective students. Thus there is pressure upon the colleges to explore alternative forms of delivery, including telecommunications based delivery from Perth, fleximode, which is distance education supported with local tutorials (Toussaint, 1990), open learning integrated with industry training (Gunningham and Fletcher, 1990), and other models.

As one supplement to their TAFE teaching, and a response to community demand, the regional colleges in all centres except Bunbury have developed roles as regional agents for the universities in Perth (Standish, 1989; Atkinson, 1987; Walsh, 1986). The main role is teaching selected first year courses under contract, using either conventional classroom teaching or distance education delivery supported by local tutorials. The colleges also act as study centres for external students, including access to library, counselling and computing services, and provide preparatory study for mature age students seeking university entrance (Atkinson, 1989; Atkinson and McBeath, 1989). Payments by the universities to the regional colleges for their services are only a small part of the colleges' budgets. However, it is a form of inter sector collaboration which is highly regarded by the regional communities, given that it is impossible for each of these centres to have its own branch campus of a university.

Regional higher education campuses in WA also face problems with small classes, in a period of tight constraints upon funding from the Federal Government. Classes in the regional campuses are at risk of being eliminated, or remaining confined to a narrow range of subjects, if ways cannot be found to deliver regional based courses at cost levels per equivalent full time student (EFTSU) comparable to the cost levels attained with larger classes at the Perth campuses. Although "cost levels per EFTSU" should not dictate the quality of education, in some contexts it must be pointed out that if costs are not reduced, the alternative may be a greater setback to quality due to loss of local classes, or insufficient availability of local classes.

Thus regional college TAFE courses, regional college contracting of university courses, and regional campuses of the universities have common interests in deploying communications technologies and other measures to maintain and improve quality of tertiary education services to the smaller communities. Furthermore, these interests extend well beyond the formal award courses. There are similar problems occurring in adult education, professional continuing education and industry training. But the solutions should not lead to an increased centralisation of tertiary education staff in the capital city. The regional communities also want more jobs and staff in their towns.

Collaboration in telecommunications

For many years it has been abundantly clear to WA's educational technologists that in our context collaboration between the prospective users of educational telecommunications is essential. Expensive facilities such as satellite transceivers and video conferencing are not affordable unless we share the services across all sectors of education, and link in with State and industry training requirements also (Skelton, 1990; Grant and Garrett, 1991). Notable examples of initiatives which have promoted consortium approaches include WASEAG (the WA Satellite Education Advisory Group) formed in 1982; the WESNET proposal for an educational broadcasting agency (Office of Communications, 1986); and Ed TV, an informal group organising educational TV for broadcast via free air time during off peak mornings since 1985 through GWN, the WA licensee for the Remote Commercial Television Service (Grant and Garrett, 1991). An application of Ed TV for nurse education is described by Fox and Edwards (1990). Western Australia's distance education centre is a consortium, the WA Distance Education Consortium (WADEC), comprising Curtin, Edith Cowan and Murdoch Universities, with TAFE as an Associate Member.

During 1989, activities by the State's Task Force on Telecommunications in Education and Training (TET Task Force) provided a major stimulus to collaboration between educational providers (Office of Communications, 1989; Skelton, 1990). At the same time, Karratha College, its branches at Tom Price and Paraburdoo, and the Central Metropolitan College of TAFE initiated Live-Net, a major trial of two way communication by 384 kb/s compressed video using Telecom's Iterra satellite service and Rembrandt II codecs at the four sites (Davy, 1990). Live-Net's development included an excellent series of user training seminars (Lundin and Lange, 1990a, 1990b), which brought together a wide variety of staff from all sectors of education and training, including most of the State Government departments. Live-Net delivery has been warmly received by students, for example the rural area nurses participating in the continuing education course evaluated by Latchem and Rapley (1991).

Live-Net was followed by a range of developments. Edith Cowan University received a major allocation from Reserve Fund 1990 to lease a fibre optic network which provides two way analog TV connections between its three campuses and Telecom's Perth TOC (Television Operating Centre) (Grant, 1990). Curtin and Murdoch universities succeeded with Reserve Fund 1991 applications to provide a total of four ISDN video conferencing sites, two being at Curtin's regional campuses. Live-Net trials continued into 1991, together with an innovative new development in TES-Sat, a mobile transceiver for Telecom's Iterra service. TES-Sat is carrying programming for short courses from a range of providers, organised by TAFE External Studies College and uplinked from Central Metropolitan College to a series of locations for the mobile. At the time of ASPESA Forum 91, TES-Sat will be located at Kalgoorlie.

The advent of ISDN video conferencing provides a great opportunity to build upon previous collaboration between institutions for Live-Net and other telecommunications projects, and upon TAFE and university links at regional colleges. The shift of focus towards ISDN confers carrier flexibility, arising from a larger number of sites, the prospect of ISDN interconnection to satellite carriers, and because ISDN permits all sites to be potential originators as well as receivers. ISDN also provides a connection between the Edith Cowan fibre optic network and other institutions, via casual hire of a Rembrandt II codec at the Perth TOC.

However, video conferencing is a matter in which continued collaboration faces greater difficulties. This is because in practical terms the optimum foundation for collaboration requires that WA's university and TAFE sites purchase their codecs from the same manufacturer. The codec is the key item of major equipment required for each video conferencing site. Institutions like to make their own decisions about which brand of major equipment to buy, usually on the basis of quality of technologies rather than quality of applications or uses made possible by the technologies.

Although this paper is concerned with inter sector collaboration in WA for video conferencing, particularly in relation to regional college needs, the educational technologists and distance educators involved in these activities should remain fully aware of opportunities with other technologies and other locations. Beyond the regional centres there are some hundreds of district centres with small and medium sized schools, some with a TAFE centre attached. These need their share of attention, and exploration of new types of learning centres with modest communications services, as in the Queensland Open Learning Centre Project, or in the Victorian schools telematics approach (McGregor and Latchem, 1991). The technologies for computer mediated communications are another obvious target for inter sector collaboration, particularly the potential benefits from links between TAFE colleges and centres, and the university sector's national AARNet (Atkinson and Castro, 1991).

Video conferencing

Video conferencing provides simultaneous two way video and audio transmission, more closely equivalent to face to face communications than any other communications service. Some writers (Duning, 1990; McCrackan, 1990; Smith and Scorgie, 1991) include one way video, two way audio (talk back television) communications as a form of video conferencing but this paper is concerned only with two way live video and audio. It is an expensive medium. In the context of small classes or groups, mostly located in the more expensive distance zones for telecommunications charges, it is essential for the prudent planner to examine ways to reduce the costs of installation and use. There are at least five major strategies. In the discussion which follows, note that strategies for reducing costs and strategies for optimising the effectiveness of the medium are inextricably linked. That is also a feature of prudent planning, which recognises that high costs for installing and maintaining the medium need to be amortised over a larger number of users. Also, distance educators need to guard against the risk that the medium may benefit only a small number of persons who are reached by it, whilst incurring setbacks for many others who are not able to use it, for example by causing cutbacks in budgets for the print medium, or ordinary telephony, or any other component in a system which seeks an equitable quality of provision for all students. In the regional colleges it is likely that the introduction of video conferencing will be strongly resisted if it is perceived as a cause of cuts in their budgets for other activities.

Furthermore, note that most of these strategies are not technological in the sense that a detailed knowledge is required about ISDN channels, image compression algorithms, quarter common intermediate format, kilobits per second (to name only a few of the esoterics). It is not necessary to have a detailed knowledge of technologies for video conferencing in order to assess ways to plan for improved cost effectiveness. Indeed, it could be argued that an excessive focus on technological details places at risk the planner's clarity of perception of the client oriented aspects of a total plan.

Reducing ISDN charges

As defined for this paper, video conferencing is viable only by use of the set of technologies provided by Telecom Australia's Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), and by image digitalisation and compression equipment or "codecs" (coder-decoder). Satellite transmission alternatives to ISDN are available, but at higher cost. Consideration of ISDN charges (Telecom, 1990), price quotations from manufacturers of ISDN customer premises equipment and video conferencing equipment, and the available technical options, indicate two main types of site. For simplicity, these may be described as "128 kb/s" and "384 kb/s" sites, or "low end" and "high end" ISDN video conferencing respectively. The results of these types of analysis are summarised very briefly in Table 1 (details will appear in another publication).

The main point illustrated by Table 1 is simple. A 128 kb/s site using a single Microlink for ISDN access is significantly less expensive and less complex than a 384 kb/s site. Microlink rent is relatively economical, not much more expensive than two ordinary telephone lines, thus offering the possibility that district sites may be equipped with a Microlink and rostered for use of a portable codec, similar to the TES-Sat mobile transceiver schedule. Furthermore, video conferencing using only two channels incurs only one third of the cost per call, compared with using six channels. However, the questions arising from Table 1 (or from more detailed versions of it) are rather more complicated.

Table 1: Summary of ISDN access for the two main types of sites

Site type128 kb/s ("low end")384 kb/s ("high end")

ISDN access type1 Microlink3 Microlinks or 1 Macrolink
Number of 64 kb/s channels26 or 20
ISDN installation (Telecom)$360$1080 or $3000
ISDN annual rent (Telecom)$864$2592 or $8424
ISDN terminationTerminal adaptorTAs, ISDN mux or ISDN PABX
Equip cost, ISDN termination~$2200~$6600 to ~$15000
Channel aggregation functionProprietary card in codecSummit S2000 n x 64 interface
Cost of channel aggregation(card is part of codec)S2000 is ~$16000 to $25000
Connectivity to other sitesProprietary protocols only
(to same type of codec only)
112 kb/s only.
Proprietary 112 kb/s or prop.
112 - 336 kb/s if other site has
S2000 or H261 384 kb/s with
S2000 and a different codec.
Use CCITT H261 protocols setNo (H261 unusable at 128)Yes (S2000 nx64 interface)
Multipoint originate capabilityNoYes (proprietary protocols)

Notes to Table 1

  1. The cost of ISDN access may be further reduced if the capacity is shared with telephone traffic, for example through an ISDN PABX (if proven for ISDN data traffic), or by analog cards in an ISDN multiplexer ("mux") carrying telephone traffic to an analog PABX, or by using some channels for computer data traffic.

  2. Aggregation of two channels is relatively low cost function, usually done by a card in the codec, but aggregation of 6 channels is very much more complex and at present is possible only by the S2000 (some other manufacturers may have competitors to the S2000 n x 64 ready in 1991). There is no CCITT standard for this function. Cost of the S2000 depends on its configuration and whether that includes the ISDN multiplexing function.

  3. Both of the two main contenders for the codec contract, CLI Rembrandt and PictureTel, are able to provide for both types of site. There are some technical and operational limits on the geographic availability of ISDN. In particular, Microlink was released only in November 1990. Its availability is restricted in some regions and is dependent upon Telecom's schedules for upgrades to exchanges.

  4. Multipoint video conferencing is possible only if all sites have the same codec (at present proprietary protocols must be used for multipoint switching functions). The central or originating site must have the necessary additional ISDN channels, eg, 6 channels for 3 remote 128 kb/s sites (Richter, 1990).

  5. Table 1 does not list video and audio equipment for the studios, because the basic set of cameras, microphones, monitors and speakers is essentially the same for each site.
Firstly, does the higher quality of video and audio transmission with 384 kb/s sites offset the higher costs? Secondly, can we place any reliance upon the CCITT's H261 set of standard protocols for connectivity between different codecs, given that the present H261 set is incomplete (Richter, 1990), not providing a usable performance with a single Microlink, graphics transmission, multipoint conferencing or camera control, and that there is no economical, internationally accepted standard for channel aggregation? Thirdly, what is the impact of the limitation that 128 kb/s sites can communicate only by proprietary protocols, that is, connect only to sites which have codecs produced by the same manufacturer? Fourthly, if the WA consortium adopts a proprietary protocol as a defacto standard for 128 kb/s operations (the codecs from CLI Rembrandt and PictureTel are the major contenders), which one is the "best"? The answers to these questions cannot be obtained by examination of the technology itself (some details will appear in a separate publication). As discussed below, it is important or even essential to turn to the user context for answers.

Obtaining the most competitive prices

There are good financial reasons for enabling the option to use the lower cost 128 kb/s proprietary mode ISDN video conferencing over a single Microlink. Considering this factor, and the question of how to obtain the most competitive prices, a consortium comprising all TAFE and higher education "system developers" working on the introduction of video conferencing has emerged. This informal consortium has agreed upon a joint "request for proposal" (RFP) as the initial basis for its actions.

An RFP is a standard way to obtain firm proposals from potential suppliers of items, giving each a fair chance to quote for the contracts. An RFP may lead to requisitions from the chosen supplier, or it may lead to a call for tenders. The Request for Proposal Phase 1 we have issued to suppliers of video conferencing equipment and services is a brief, 3 page technical document directed to persons familiar with the technical aspects of video conferencing (copies available from the authors).

Request for Proposal Phase 1 indicates the consortium's intention to work towards choosing a "standard" codec for the WA, to permit options for "low end" connectivity between all sites and multipoint conferencing. It announces the intention to make a "bulk requisition", to obtain the most competitive quotations and supplier support. At the present date it does seem likely that prices for equipment will be up to 30% lower than 1990 prices, and under $75,000 for a 128 kb/s site. If our intentions hold firmly through RFP Phase 1, a possible Phase 2 or tender process, and the selection process, the successful retailer of a “standard” codec for WA tertiary education institutions could expect to dominate the WA market in codecs for some time, possibly until a usable international standard protocol for 128 kb/s sites is developed.

Connectivity and cooperation between sites

The terms "system developers" and "consortium" used above need to be explained in the context of ensuring maximum scope for cooperation between university and TAFE sites. The developers have adopted a consortium approach in order to offer the best possible opportunities and flexibilities for the users. The users are lecturers, curriculum developers and instructional designers. In turn, the users are to offer the best opportunities and greatest flexibility to the clients, who are individual students or corporate trainees. The consortium seeks to do its part by establishing the largest possible number of sites which can be connected in the low end 128 kb/s mode to destinations not just in WA but in other states also, and if affordable, high end 384 kb/s also, to offer a choice for users with larger budgets . It is up to the users to control and promote cooperation between sites. The technology by itself cannot promote cooperation but it should not impose controls upon the users in the form of limitations in the number of WA and interstate sites connectable by the low end, lowest cost option.

The developers need not make any final decision on whether the video and audio quality at 128 kb/s sites is good enough, compared with 384 kb/s sites. Provided that there is a clear path for modular upgrades, decisions on whether that upgrade should be done, and if it is done, whether to use 2 channels or 6 channels, can await input from the users. The expectation is that if there is a choice, most users will opt for the lower cost connection, in accordance with their view of their own budgets, sizes of their groups, needs for representing rapid motion, and similar factors. Recent advances in codec design, for example CLI's new Rembrandt II/06 and PictureTel's new System 4000, have improved considerably the performance of 128 kb/s sites relative to 384 kb/s sites. However, it may be necessary that at least some sites be 384 kb/s sites, to ensure that the present H261 protocol is available, notwithstanding its limitations and the high expense of the channel aggregation function needed to support it.

The purpose of cooperation between sites is to provide for more clients, thus reducing the fixed costs per user or client. For example, use of a regional college video conferencing site to deliver practical work tutorials for a university external course will generate income for that site (and save on the travel costs otherwise payable by the students). There is every indication from the previous history of regional college contracting that this type of cooperation between university and TAFE sites will expand, enabling all sites to provide for a larger number of clients.

Low cost connectivity as a fundamental requirement for cooperation between sites is not just an internal matter for Western Australians. Some of the prospective users will require interstate conferences, and others will wish to have this option available for future use. The educational sector video conferencing sites in Australia are predominantly CLI Rembrandt sites (UNE, CSU, UNSW, Wollongong; Deakin has PictureTel), whilst in TAFE the foremost developer, South Australia's DETAFE, has 8 Rembrandt codecs. Telecom has Rembrandt codecs at its sites, but elsewhere in industry the market shares are more evenly divided, for example BHP has Rembrandt, Woodside Offshore Petroleum has PictureTel, and BP has GPT Plessey codecs.

It is impossible to predict the future directions of the market and its links with proprietary protocols, as the major manufacturers improve technologies, add more options and cut their prices. However, improved international standards will not be available until late 1992 (Richter, 1990) and will not affect markets until a year or more after ratification. ISDN video conferencing confers another kind of flexibility which is important to regional colleges and campuses. In contrast to previous proposals for satellite broadcasting from Perth, ISDN technology does not confine the originator role in learning delivery to a single central site. All sites can be originators, thus giving greater opportunities for the staff in the regions to expand their teaching to include classes at other campuses and colleges (Mitchell, 1991; Atkinson, 1990).

Integration with other media

The key point about integration of video conferencing with other media is reduction in the number of connect time hours required for a particular application. For example, in a teaching application we may use the traditional distance education media, print, audiotape and videotape, to deliver the lectures for a subject or unit, whilst small group video conferences provide the tutorials, which may be repeated for different sites. In variations from this basic model, distance education materials or open learning packages may be supported by a combination of services from a local tutor, or a fleximode facilitator, or an open learning centre manager, with less frequent use of video conference tutorials. Or the lecture function may be shared between video conferencing and printed materials. The details of instructional or presentational design are matters to be determined by the users, and will be different for different applications. However, in most cases replication of the traditional classroom lecture hours per subject or unit would be an inappropriate use of a medium which is ideal for small group interactivity.

From the developers' point of view, it may seem counter productive to provide advice on how to use video conferencing more sparingly, reducing rather than increasing the number of hours used for each application. However, it is more important to widen the range of applications which can afford to use the medium, giving users the scope to choose a small or a large number of hours as appropriate for their clients. For example, many distance education students may benefit from video conferencing used for as little as one hour per semester for each unit or subject, focusing on morale, motivation and peer group contact instead of the content of the subject or unit.

Opportunities for staff

Opportunities for staff to use video conferencing facilities should not be confined to teaching functions in formal award courses. Administration, research group activities, counselling, staff development, professional continuing education, professional society activities, industry based training, hiring to industry and government users, all have legitimate reasons for using video conferencing as a communications productivity tool. Wider uses should be encouraged, in order to share the cost of installing and maintaining facilities, thus reducing the cost charged to the teaching function.

Provision of opportunities to use the medium for other functions may be a very useful strategy for promoting a creative acceptance of its use for teaching functions. Participation appears to be the key point in acceptance of a new medium, more important than the quality of the technology or the application the user intends for it. Some readers may have noticed that salespersons for video conferencing equipment know about participation. There is a tendency to place the prospective purchaser in a prominent participatory role, being given deferential questions, alone or in a very small group so there is no competition for attention, in the centre of the camera field as viewed on the biggest monitor and with the best of lighting effects. Persons concerned with staff development techniques for video conferencing should note for future reference.

Admission of a wider range of functions and different types of staff activities into video conferencing has implications for the connectivity question, because Australia wide applications are likely to warrant more attention. In addition to considering low cost connectivity within a state, nation wide connectivity has a major claim for both TAFE and university sectors. Though TAFE is state directed and funded, there is a growing tendency to adopt elements of a national approach under the impetus of national core curriculum projects, multiskilling, award restructuring and other change agents. Professional development for TAFE staff in particular is an area which would benefit from a national approach, including TAFE and university collaboration in video conferencing (McBeath and Atkinson, 1990). Delivery of training to industry is another area in which nation wide TAFE activity is emerging, for example in the South Australian TAFE's recently concluded contract to deliver specialised training to Qantas staff in Sydney. Some of WA's regional colleges and campuses can expect to provide sites for specialised continuing professional education activities, for example in mining engineering.

Futures for the consortium

The participants in the WA consortium reserve the right to make their own decisions during the processes of requesting proposals, tendering and selecting a supplier. It will be a difficult task. As far as we can ascertain, no other state has developed a joint TAFE and universities approach to video conferencing. However, there are powerful pressures from our clientele and from governments for the consortium to pursue the quest for a defacto standard for optimum connectivity between sites, both in WA and interstate.

If the intentions hold firm, the consortium approach may continue into the next phase, which is the development of users and applications. Sharing of experiences in operational techniques, instructional and presentational design, and media integration, and coordination of services to corporate and government clients will be valuable for all parties.

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Dr Roger Atkinson is Senior Lecturer in Distance Education, External Studies Unit, Murdoch University. Associate Professor Colin Latchem is Head, Educational Media Centre, Curtin University of Technology. Mr Graeme Davy is Director, Central Metropolitan College of TAFE, Perth.

Address for correspondence:
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150
Tel (09) 360 6040. Fax (09) 310 4929
Email: atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

Cite as: Atkinson, R., Latchem, C. and Davy, G. (1991). Live-Net and beyond: a universities and TAFE video conferencing consortium in WA. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath and D. Meacham (Eds), Quality in Distance Education: ASPESA Forum 91, 20-31. 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_video_conf.html

The presentation of this paper to the Forum was illustrated with video conference connections to three WA sites, Edith Cowan University in Perth, Karratha College and Kalgoorlie College (McBeath and Atkinson, 1991). Assistance from Telecom Australia and the institutions is gratefully acknowledged.


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