Managing network access for open learning

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University

How is network access obtained? What is required? What should we do to improve network access for open learning, distance education, and community based users? This paper discusses network access issues influencing computer mediated communications for educational and community based purposes. The Internet protocol suite as used by AARNet provides a technology foundation upon which we can build network access and network services in ways which are more user friendly, less costly, and able to carry greater quantities of data compared with protocols used in the past. Users do not need to know about the technology as it can now accommodate their preferences for operating communications activities within a more familiar environment such as DOS, Windows and Macintosh. However, to obtain the greatest benefits from the new technologies for computer communications, we must extend the reach of AARNet into regional and local centres, encourage a wide range of service providers, develop a larger and more diverse user base, and improve support for local centre provision of basic computer literacy training.


In systems for providing computer mediated communications to distance education and open learning students, network access is a key component and major obstacle to improved utilisation. This paper discusses two perspectives on solutions to the network access problem. Firstly, aspiring users of computer mediated communications (CMC) for study or other purposes want answers to questions like "How do I get it?", "How do I use it?", "What will it give me?", and the most basic question, "What is it?". This perspective represents "managing" in the sense of being able to achieve something, as in "Hoooorrray!! I have managed to post my first email message!".

Secondly, among the wide range of tasks faced by a manager, facilitator or developer in open learning and distance education, network access for computer mediated communications poses questions like "What services can we provide?", "How do we provide access to these services?", "Will these services be useable by the average student or community user?", or even the very basic question, "What?". This perspective represents "managing" in the more usual meaning of the word, associated with teams which design, install and operate network access to services, though associated also with the notion of achievement, as in "The ADEnet project is pleased to announce that its Melbourne site at Monash University has been commissioned . . . dial (03) 262 2996 . . .".

Many other perspectives on network access impinge upon users and managers in open learning and distance education. The network is AARNet (Australian Academic and Research Network), the private "network of networks "conducted by the universities through the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) to link a wide range of local networks at campuses, research institutions and many government and industry organisations. The great diversity of AARNet's client base is an important factor in its spectacular success, but for that reason it contains a variety of perspectives on how it should relate to open learning and distance education. The perspectives of librarians (Mays et al., 1993), university managers in networking (CAUDIT, 1993), and AARNet's professionals (AVCC, 1992) are all important influences on the two main perspectives for this paper.

The perspective of the Federal Government is also important, given the large investment it has made in the AEC series of consultancies concerned with infrastructures for open learning (Atkinson, 1992a), in the Open Learning Technology Corporation (OLTC), the Open Learning Agency of Australia (OLAA), conducting further, related consultancies (Moran et al, 1993; DEET, 1992), and establishing telecentres (DPIE, 1992). No doubt the Departments concerned wish to obtain solutions which reflect a return on the funds invested. The Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) has made other, much smaller grants related to these topics, through its National Priority Reserve Fund, including the ADEnet Project (Atkinson, 1992b, 1993a), and grants for some National Teaching Development Fund Projects which are relevant for open learning and distance education.

One further key perspective should be noted. This is the "inside" perspective, the knowledge, skills, contacts and resources one obtains as a network user with an appetite for purposeful learning. Being "network wise", being "hooked on the net", is critically important in order to perceive and understand the rich variety of models and solutions generated by the revolutionary changes now occurring in information technology. A revolution is occurring, and it is our task to link an "inside" view of that revolution to the perspectives and needs of users and facilitators in open learning and distance education.

What's needed for network access?

Network access is how a user connects to AARNet, as distinct from the services which then become available to the user, such as electronic mail, online library resources, support for open learning and distance education, and many others. People engaged in designing network access are not concerned directly with the provision of services, because these are matters between users and service providers, although as discussed below there is considerable interaction between the nature of access and the nature of services, and an access provider is often also a service provider. Consider the two main avenues for a user's connection to AARNet:
  1. telephone dialup - using an ordinary telephone line to access a remote modem or host connected to AARNet, for example to modems at a university or an Affiliate Member of AARNet, or to Austpac modems

  2. LAN connected to AARNet - access to a local area network which is connected to AARNet, for example on a university campus or the premises of an Affiliate Member of AARNet.

However, network access is a complex problem in both avenues. Looking first at the user perspective, relatively few students or community users will be able to attend a campus on a convenient basis, that is relatively few will have access via avenue 2. Most will want to obtain network access from home, the workplace, or a small local centre not connected to AARNet. For such users, the basic requirements for avenue 1. are:

  1. personal computer, modem and telephone line - we can expect students to provide their own, or use facilities at their workplaces or in learning centres, telecentres and similar points of access

  2. user training and support - the significance of this as a limitation depends upon the extent to which a user friendly environment is implementable

  3. communications software - although good public domain software is available for a range of terminal emulations, there are significant obstacles to the provision of user friendly environments, which are needed to facilitate high utilisation, minimise the needs for user support and training, and minimise connect times

  4. modems for the user to call - the preferred choice is an AARNet connected modem in the user's local telephone district, because local calls are much less expensive than calls via Telecom's Austpac service or via STD

The complexity of network access issues quickly becomes apparent as we look deeper into how we can supply these four basic requirements. The four are listed in a very approximate order of increasing complexity and distance from the ability of users and their front line facilitators to solve the problems which arise. The term "front line facilitators" refers to open learning tutors and learner support staff who may be coordinators in a local or regional centre, or in an institution's open learning centre.

It's an order chosen to reflect my belief that these persons, and learners too, are entitled to expect that their work or their learning will be facilitated by network access specialists and the institutions which provide network services. We need to create infrastructures which give users and facilitators easy, economical and effective access to services. Of course, if users really want to tackle the difficult ways to participate in CMC, it's very easy to put a few Mt Everests in their way. Some users like the challenges posed by a computer system which almost everyone else regards as virtually unusable.

How can open learning centres facilitate access?

The list above ranks personal computer, modem and telephone line, and user training and support as two of the less complex, less difficult issues in network access. That ranking is chosen because I think we should view these issues as opportunities instead of problems. This is especially the case when we consider the roles which open learning centres or telecentres may fulfil, and hence the use of the heading above. Both issues provide opportunities for such centres, particularly in user training and support.

Surveys of open learning and distance education students have shown high levels of access to a personal computer (Moran et al., 1993; Bowser and Shepherd, 1991), though the proportion with access to a modem is much lower. However, modems are relatively low cost peripherals, which users purchase only if they have modem numbers to call and can obtain thereby some meaningful service. Progress on those requirements will raise the proportion of personal computer owners who purchase a modem also. There is a problem area with prospective users of CMC who do not have their own personal computer and modem, but that creates an opportunity for open learning centres to provide these facilities on a fee paying basis. This may raise questions about equity of access, but I feel such questions should be addressed by government and institutional providers of open learning in ways which do not require centres to provide a subsidy from their own local budgets.

User training and support in CMC constitutes an important opportunity for open learning centres and telecentres to provide short training courses on a fee paying basis. The viability and feasibility of such courses interacts with the nature of the communications software to be used, and the availability of "modems to call". This interaction can be illustrated by the following anecdote from our recent experiences with induction of telecentre users into dialup use of Eudora on Macintosh for email handling (Figure 1).

We think that the dialup version of Eudora provides an exceptionally high standard of user friendly Internet email handling. And it certainly does, but the first help call was "Help! I double clicked the Eudora Settings icon as instructed and NOTHING HAPPENED!". Strange, the call came via email to Cleo, the External Studies host for student and community users. Typed in under PINE, an email utility on Unix systems popular with users of VT100 terminal emulation software, all of which jargon was well known to this caller, indicating not a novice user, but one who could handle some of the heavy stuff. What was wrong? It turned out that this user did not know a rather basic aspect of the Macintosh interface. Eudora did behave properly, but being public domain it did not display the typical "Copyright" notice during loading. You had to know how to use the pull down menu bar at the top of the screen, and that the apparently blank screen did not mean that "NOTHING HAPPENED!". After a little bit of "Macintosh Basics" advice, email was dead easy. Worked first POP - that's a punny joke, Eudora is a client to the POP server running on Cleo ;-)
This is a highly significant point. The training problem is very much easier for users, facilitators and providers if we can arrange network access in ways which do not require specialist training courses in how to use CMC. If the major part of the training requirement for CMC users is a "Macintosh Basics" (or "Windows for Beginners" or "DOS for Novices") course, we then have a much more viable scenario for CMC and network access. Short courses of this type are easier for local and regional centres to provide compared with specialist training courses in CMC. Open learning materials are readily available, for independent study or for facilitator supported classes. Income from popular short courses in basic computer literacy is likely to be a core part of budgets for local and regional access centres. Courses of this type will have higher enrolments than more specialised courses, and persons who complete this learning can proceed to apply it as they wish, for example in desktop publishing, small business accounting, use of computer communications to support distance learning, secretarial work for community organisations, and so on.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Testing dialup Eudora, user friendly emailer for Macintosh. It is functionally equivalent to Eudora on Ethernet connected Macs, and can be tailored for any terminal server. It requires a mail server running POP and some additional software.
The success which local and regional open learning centres or telecentres attain in the roles of providing computing facilities and user training depends very much upon efforts made elsewhere in the topics of communications software and the availability of "modems to call". Local and regional centres can do little in these topics unless the institutions conducting open learning and distance education programs are prepared to develop the communications software, open up student and community access to AARNet, and provide attractive and economical services. As discussed below, there is a further potential role for local and regional centres in extending AARNet itself beyond the confines of the university campuses.

How can institutions facilitate access?

The list above ranks communications software and modems for the user to call as two of the more complex, more difficult issues in network access. Again, I believe there is a good reason for choosing that ranking. It is a responsibility for universities and TAFE to tackle and solve the more difficult problems, in ways which create opportunities rather than problems for users, facilitators and local and regional centres. The universities, and the TAFE sector too, as it takes up AARNet Memberships (Atkinson, 1992d), are well equipped to do that, and hence the use of the word "institutions" in the heading above for this group of issues. However, I recognise that many staff in the universities will not accept such a user and community oriented approach. There is some legitimacy behind statements such as "We are not funded to provide open learning and community access to the net", or "AARNet is for academic and research users and does not have the capacity for other categories of users", or "It's the government's problem, not ours, we have enough problems of our own". So we have to take that perspective into account as well.

Consider firstly the problem of communications software, which is a topic at the core of a number of broader problems. It is no longer a defensible professional practice to continue handing out terminal emulation software. We can provide a much better screen interface or environment for the user. Quoting from some recent exchanges of views on this matter:

Within the target population, the best known user interfaces are DOS, Windows and Macintosh. We must ask how we can best adapt computer mediated communications to blend in with those interfaces, and with users' preferences for operating their computing activities as much as possible within a familiar environment. We must ask how we can obtain maximum advantage from the foundation provided by the Internet protocol suite.

The foundation provided by the Internet Protocol suite ("IP" or "TCP/IP") has generated a remarkable range of new tools for CMC which blend in with the user's preferred interface. IP has a fundamental advantage over older styles of mainframe to dumb terminal communications in relation to user friendliness. IP transfers files between network peers. Without having to know anything at all about IP, the user benefits because all operations which may be required with those files are conducted within the user's own environment. For example, under the email tool which I use, Eudora for Macintosh, I have control of the files. I can scroll backwards and forwards, cut, copy, paste, do "save as", resize windows, access multiple windows, do file management in the usual Macintosh ways, and so on. By contrast, under communications with terminal emulation software, the host controls the files. I see just a VT100 screen which affords me only a tiny fraction of the functionality and control over display, composing, editing and file management which I enjoy when handling my email under Eudora.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Main menu screen (a VT100 display) for the Virtual Campus at Edith Cowan University (
There is universal agreement on the need for easy to use interfaces for CMC, but in pursuit of that objective two main strategies have been explored. Firstly, we can retain terminal emulation software as the basis, and present the user with menu screens which simplify the actions required to read, compose, post, and so on. This approach retains the character (8 bit word) as the basic unit for data transmission. Examples of such developments include Deakin University's Computer Based Tutorial System (Thompson, 1991), Edith Cowan University's Virtual Campus (Figure 2), and Monash University Gippsland's Netface (Wood, 1993). These systems are typically Unix programs or "servers" which interface between the user and the basic services carried on the Internet, email, news, ftp (file transfer) and telnet. Typically, the user is in a closed or partially closed environment on a single server which has a relatively distant relationship to the IP network and its protocols and services. For example, at present the Virtual Campus does not offer anonymous ftp or email to and from AARNet/Internet.

Secondly, we can look at the Internet protocol suite as the basis, and find ways to give communications tools to users, at a standard comparable to that available to staff on university campus networks (Atkinson, 1992c). This approach adopts the TCP/IP packet as the basic unit for data transmission (although to the user it appears that files are transferred automatically without any errors). To add to the example of Eudora cited above, I use the public domain Macintosh programs NewsWatcher for network news, Fetch for anonymous and personal file transfer, NCSA Telnet for telnet, and TurboGopher for network information retrieval (there are comparable tools available, or becoming available, for DOS and Windows users). These tools are models for user friendliness and blending in with the user's preferred desktop environment. Their success is due to the way they are built on "TCP/IP all the way to the desktop", and on client and server relationships between network hosts and the user's desktop computer. These tools allow us to work in a very open network environment, literally worldwide, interacting with many different servers according to the nature of the task of the moment.

In my experience, desktop computers which "talk TCP/IP packets to the network" are vastly superior for CMC compared with desktops which "talk 8 bit words to a single host". Unfortunately, we cannot make an immediate transition from the latter to the former. Our use of Eudora and similar tools is dependent upon a permanent Ethernet connection to the Murdoch University network and complex equipment which interconnects it via ISDN, E1, T1 and other types of channels to the rest of the world. A certain amount of work is needed from experts in network communications software and hardware, and a considerably larger amount of work is needed to extend AARNet and the Internet to the desktops of open learning and community based users. The second and and more difficult of these two issues is discussed in the next section.

The work needed from experts in network communications software and hardware is to provide the remote user's software, and implement an underlying infrastructure which will give that user the same functionality as Eudora and its counterparts for other network services are giving to on campus staff with their ethernetted workstations. Three main types of approach are under development in various parts of the world:

  1. Adapt client - server software used on campus Ethernets, such as Eudora, to operate via other protocols for the host or terminal server to user part of the transmission path.

  2. Provide servers which can automatically allocate the caller's personal computer a temporary IP number for the duration of the call, giving dialup users the full functionality of a peer on AARNet (albeit at slower speeds).

  3. Local area network connected to AARNet - provide local and regional centres with small LANs connected to AARNet, in the same way as university campuses and the premises of Affiliate Members of AARNet (this is discussed in the next section).

The three strategies are not mutually exclusive, and, fortunately, users and centre facilitators do not need to know anything about the considerable amount of technical detail. For example, External Studies at Murdoch is testing a dialup version of Eudora. If users ignore the progress reports which flash past on the screen, and the modem's speaker, what they have is a service identical to the Eudora running on my own desktop. We are testing a dialup news reader also. MacNews requires manual navigation through to Cleo, but thereafter is similar to NewsWatcher, the news reader I use on my own desktop (Figure 3). We have some very promising leads into similar dialup adaptations for CMC tools under DOS and Windows. This strategy simulates "TCP/IP all the way to the desktop" and most users would neither know nor care whether it is simulated or real TCP/IP, because it's the functionality that counts, "What I can do" rather than "What the chips and circuits are doing".

Figure 3
Figure 3: Testing MacNews, a news reading tool suitable for dialup access.
The second strategy is more complex, more sophisticated, and possibly more difficult to implement. As described by CAUDIT (1993),
The continued growth of the IP (Internet Protocol) based Internet has driven a third model, where user requirements are more interactive or data intense, but where data volumes, distance, mobility, or cost precludes a permanent network connection. This is the dialup IP service or peer to peer remote connection. The process involves a normal modem style link being made over the public network, authentication being accomplished in one of several different fashions, and subsequent conversion of the session to the use of one of the several serial line IP based link protocols such as serial line IP (SLIP), compressed SLIP, or Point to Point protocol (PPP). This enables the caller to become a full IP based peer on the Internet for the duration of the call, and thus able to use the rich set of both interactive and client/server applications and services such as WAIS and Gopher which have been discussed earlier.
Cornell University USA provides an example of an experimental implementation of MacSLIP to give home based telephone dialup users access to the same CMC tools they have on campus (CIT, 1993). One factor in justification for providing MacSLIP is that Cornell staff and students are sometimes confined at home by blizzard conditions. Unfortunately I can't imagine a similar catalytic factor in the Australian context.

Turning now to the problem of modems for the user to call, which is also at the core of a number of broader and related issues. The most immediate part of this problem is how to minimise the costs of telephone calls. Users would like dialup access to the network to be obtainable by means of a local call, which is only 25 cents (1993 rate) and does not impose connect time or traffic volume charges. Until recently, the alternatives for those who did not live in the same telephone district as their institution were long distance telephone calls ("STD") or Austpac, Telecom Australia's public X25 data transmission network. However, the ADEnet Project now provides university distance education students with local call dialup access for the following telephone districts or "sites":

Figure 4
Figure 4: ADEnet Project main menu on an Annex 3 terminal server, which restricts callers to a limited number of specific destinations (the Melbourne site is similar).
The ADEnet project substitutes local telephone circuits and AARNet for Austpac carriage of data traffic, except in the case of the Dubbo TAFE site. The juxtaposition of the capital cities and Dubbo, a small town in central western NSW, may seem unusual. The Project put a particular effort into this as a pilot for network access at a rural and remote site, lacking an existing connection to AARNet and dependent upon collaboration between the university and technical and further education sectors. For the Dubbo site, data carriage involves also an ISDN semi permanent connection ("leased line") between Dubbo and the Bathurst campus of Charles Sturt University, which provides the nearest interconnection point to AARNet (Atkinson, 1993a).

The ADEnet Project is concerned with network access by local telephone call (Atkinson and Castro, 1991; Atkinson, 1992b). It just provides modems for the user to call, and places the user's traffic on AARNet via menu driven terminal servers. All forms or levels of network services are provided by universities through their hosts connected to AARNet, with one important exception concerning compliance with network security expectations. The ADEnet Project fulfils its role, network access, in a way which users like. It is a lower cost approach compared with Austpac, and it does not impose telecommunications charges on students, except for one local call fee per login to the network:

. . . a crude estimate may be made by comparing the cost per installed modem with the cost of an equivalent service from Austpac. Assuming a writing off after four years, an average cost of $2,400 per modem, and an average load of 600 hours per year for each, the cost per user hour is about $1. After the restructuring of Austpac tariffs in May 1991, a typical cost per hour for a metropolitan user is about $2, comprising the 6 pm to 8 am connect time charge of $1.20 per hour and $0.80 for traffic volume ($0.80 traffic volume at $0.60 per kilosegment provides 25 to 35 screens of text). Whilst there are many other details, for and against, to be taken into account in any comparison of costs, the ratio of Austpac costs to ADEnet costs is probably about two to one, which appears to be an adequate outcome on this criterion (Atkinson, 1992c).
Although details in the estimating procedure have been criticised (Moran et al, 1993), no significantly different estimates have been proposed. The cost per ADEnet port (where "port" comprises a modem with telephone line, and terminal server port with AARNet connection) was summarised recently as follows, for three types of site (Atkinson, 1993a):

Capital costs per port are in the range $1,800 - $2,100 for a large site with dedicated modems and terminal servers but sharing PABX lines and AARNet connection, about $3,900 for a small site with shared facilities, and about $6,000 for a small site in which an existing AARNet access is not available. Recurrent costs per port are minor for large sites and for small sites with shared facilities, although this characterisation depends on the extent to which an institution will accept extra capital for dialup facilities to offset some acceptance of recurrent costs. For a small site with no existing AARNet access, recurrent costs are high owing to the need for an expensive leased line to an AARNet connected campus, although there are good prospects for the introduction of community and small business users whose subscriptions would help defray that cost. For this reason rural and remote districts should encourage network traffic aggregation and the emergence of a single local provider, in order to have the best chances for achieving viable access.

Although the implementation of the ADEnet Project proceeded at only about one third of the pace scheduled for it at the time of its grant from the National Priority (Reserve) Fund for 1991, and its geographic reach is limited, it provides a sound model for future expansion and evolution. ADEnet shows how it is possible to separate or integrate the provision of access and the provision of services in flexible ways which can adapt to local opportunities. In circumstances such as the Project's Sydney and Melbourne sites, network access is all that is provided, mainly by dedicated equipment. In other circumstances, such as the Perth site at Murdoch University, the network access is wholly via shared resources and is mediated by a network peer,, which can provide both services and access.

The ADEnet approach offers openness in network access matters. As a service layered upon AARNet, which is owned and paid for by all universities, it can be expanded to be equally open to all providers, including Affiliate Members of AARNet (Atkinson, 1993b). It is a mechanism which minimises network access costs chargeable to students, giving them a more open choice of providers, each equally accessible on the network. ADEnet can be open to both publicly funded and fee paying students. It can co-exist with other avenues for network access which students may use, including Austpac connections to institutions, large businesses such as, small businesses such as Pegasus and Dialix, and community based providers such as APANA (Australian Public Access Network Association) (Saleeba, 1993) (Figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5: Using NewsWatcher on an Ethernet connected Macintosh to read a news posting on a hot topic (Saleeba, 1993). MacNews for dialup users is functionally similar.

The ADEnet concept can encompass a potentially important role for local and regional centres, as discussed in the next section. Although much further work is needed at the local community level, the Dubbo TAFE site provides a foundation for exploring a new dimension in community and small business access to the network. ADEnet is about shared resources, for example universities from both of the new consortia in open learning, the Open Learning Agency and the Wollongong Graduate Consortium, are sharing network access at ADEnet sites. The notion of network access at local and regional centres being shared between universities, TAFE, small business and community users in order to achieve a viable traffic volume for the leased line between Dubbo and Bathurst fits in quite naturally.

It is possible that some disadvantages are inherent in the openness of the ADEnet concept. Moran et al (1993) have proposed that an access network should route all users to a single central server ("OLSUN"), one reason being to present a "common interface" to all users. ADEnet allows users to route themselves to their provider institution, and is transparent to the interface designs implemented by that provider. As discussed above, and pointed out by Moran et al. (1993) and others, there is considerable scope for improvement in the generally prevailing quality of interface design. However, the way is open, within the ADEnet concept, for institutions to implement improved strategies, as exemplified by dialup Eudora and MacNews.

We need a full range of user friendly CMC tools for DOS, Windows and Macintosh, designed for dialup users. We have a partial coverage for Macintosh users but big gaps remain. Covering these gaps in the availability of new generation software surely must be one of the highest priorities for any Federal government investment in improving CMC support for open learning, distance education, and community and adult education. If funded by government, improved software for dialup CMC should be public domain, not the property of a commercial agency as seems to be implied in the plans recommended by Moran et al. (1993). Ultimately, the goal is "TCP/IP all the way to the user's desktop" (CAUDIT, 1993), although for practical and financial reasons "simulated TCP/IP" may be an appropriate intermediate phase.

I feel that there are many sound reasons for seeking to expand the ADEnet concept and its contribution to solving the problem of "modems to call". Some may say that there is an ideological bias behind that conclusion, and yes, there is. Here is a passage from one of many email debates on the nature and sprit of network access:

In relation to the "Access Network", to what extent will the benefits of that funding be made available to all students and to the wider community, in contrast to OLAA students only? If, as I suspect, it is true that a good part of the OLAA capital for computer communications will be a grant from the Federal Government, this is an important question to ask. Government grants for open learning networking should be spent in the spirit of "public highways with access and navigation tools", and not upon "toll highways with private service stations".

The idea, or ideal, of "public highways with access and navigation tools", is not unrealistic, given the advances in the technologies for CMC which have reduced costs and opened scope for much improved services. Whilst many of the potential new channels for television will be "toll highways", I hope that the relatively low cost, interactive medium of CMC will retain its "public highway" character. However, in seeking to promote that direction, we must be mindful that the basis for it in Australia is AARNet and that is not a "public highway". It is a private network owned and operated by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. Use of CMC to support open learning, distance education, and community based purposes depends very heavily on the directions of AARNet's evolution, which is discussed below.

There is another aspect to the question of how institutions can facilitate network access. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, the extent to which institutions offer attractive services interacts powerfully with network access. For example, a high level of supportive discussion with a lively peer group and tutor in computer conferencing may overcome the disincentive of a poor level of network access. Conversely, high quality network access may be unused if the services are poor, for example lack of email to tutors or absence of information services.

How can AARNet facilitate access?

This paper commenced with a focus upon the perspectives of users and potential users of computer mediated communications in distance education and open learning. A look at what's needed in network access from the user's perspective leads us to inquire more broadly into the roles of local and regional centres, and the roles of institutional providers of open learning and distance education. In probing deeper into those roles, we arrive at questions about a national perspective. The heading "How can AARNet facilitate access?" expresses that question.

In strictly technical terms, AARNet is a provider of internetworking, the linking of local area networks into an open access internet. However, it's now very common in our jargon to refer to "AARNet" as a symbol for the national impact of an information technology revolution (AVCC, 1992; CAUDIT, 1993; Cranswick, 1993; Mays et al., 1993). "AARNet" is more than a superb technical creation, it is a national perspective and an icon for the broadening purposes of a network. The basic answer to the "Why?" and "What for?" questions about network access lies in the broadening of the purposes and functions of network supported services. The more that a user can obtain, the greater the attractiveness of network access. The most recent escalation in the growth of AARNet is due to its carriage of communications between persons and information resources, occurring as providers develop online or electronic library resources (Mays et al., 1993; UCQ, 1993). This new set of functions is growing even faster than the growth of AARNet for carriage of communications between individuals and between individuals and groups. For example, the following recent extract from my email concerning attempts to follow up on the ADEnet project shows the strong emergence of the link to networked information resources:

I'm participating in the development of an inter-institutional proposal to the National Priority (Reserve Fund) under the section System-Wide Library Infrastructure. It has arisen from librarian contacts in the ADEnet project, the Wollongong Graduate Consortium and OLLIS (Open Learning Library and Information Services, associated with the OLAA). The proposal will centre upon improving electronic access to library services for distance education and open learning students with work in four main areas (these are like "layers" in a layering of services model where "access" is the lowest layer):
  1. Network access - expand the ADEnet project.

  2. Client software for the new types of servers - Gopher, WAIS, CD-ROM and other servers to be accessible by clients operable over dialup connections.

  3. User training packages for network information retrieval purposes - both student and staff (curriculum developers, etc) packages needed.

  4. Network access to CD ROMs - pilot projects in which several libraries make some of their CD ROMs accessible to **all** students via AARNet (an excellent pilot is available already at Monash-Gippsland).

The proposal will be in four "modules", with a small group of two or three institutions taking responsibility for each module (8 to 12 institutions needed to sponsor and participate). I think it's very logical to look at linking ADEnet with the library section of the Reserve Fund, because I see networked information services promulgated from libraries as a major contributor to the demand for network access. Library services over AARNet will require longer connect times and greater traffic volumes compared with email. The growing availability of networked information resources will offer little direct benefit to distance education and open learning students and community based users unless we can continue to improve network access by ADEnet, and improve other aspects in the ways exemplified by the proposed modules 2, 3 and 4.

AARNet can facilitate access by continuing to grow, adding more users, more access points, more services, more providers. Its geographic reach has to be extended very much more widely beyond campuses, into the government, business and industry sectors (Cranswick, 1993). Of particular significance is its extension into local and regional centres, the "Dubbo equivalents" in every telephone district in Australia. There are very many innovative ways available now to provide local and regional centres with small scale LANs and network hosts employing low cost intermittent connections to AARNet. For example, in recent email from Craig Warren, Deakin University:
Another potential development could be considered for not only using the Annex terminal servers as points for text-terminal/virtual terminal attachment, but also points of local network attachment. This is possible with the Annexs providing support for protocols such as Slip/PPP, etc.
From this kind of daily technical chatter arise the ideas which are putting in place the infrastructures to fulfil end user needs on the kinds of broad fronts which are our concerns in open learning and distance education. Just a few weeks after Hedland College's AARNet Mail Affiliate Membership was commissioned (Atkinson, 1993b), email from their network manager Bob Hart gives a good example of "AARNet perspective":
>Our major problem is the connection itself. At present we are using a 9600
>baud slip line. Before we go to a full network service (rather than the
>affiliate we currently have) we need to upgrade the line to ISDN. This is
>a fairly major cost! Is there any funding to help cover the cost of such a
>link (installation and running costs) that you know of that we might be
>able to access? Without a high speed line a full service is just about
>impossible. A single line to us could service not only Port/South Hedland
>but also Newman (via our network link - admittedly only 9600 baud at present
>but ISDN is not available in Newman). This would mean access to the
>Internet could be provided to High Schools in Hedland and Newman, Pundulmurra
>College as well as external students and the community in general.

You hit the nail on the head there. The core of the problem is how to
assemble a sufficient number of fee paying users to share the cost of a
permanent connection to UWA. I must get an up to date price list from
Telecom, and I wonder if Optus is selling low speed satellite channels.

We do face special difficulties with extreme geographic dispersion. Hedland College is 1,400 km from the nearest AARNet connection point at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and an ISDN semi-permanent costs about $18,000 per year. But if Bob Hart can aggregate enough users via local dialup to share the network access resource, the fee per user will be affordable. This kind of aggregation is very well refined by the market for network access in the US and some other countries, as illustrated by the large number of articles in the network newsgroups alt.internet.access.wanted and But aggregation of traffic, US Internet style, does require that network access be opened up to community and business users to a greater extent, and it is important that AARNet continues to evolve in that direction. Otherwise, the Hedlands and the Dubbos of Australia and very many similar small centres will miss out.

"Full network service" in Bob's email means access to email, netnews, ftp (file transfer protocol) and telnet (remote login to a network peer). Hedland College is one of the growing number of network access providers offering email and netnews only. Typically, these providers are small businesses such as the Perth based Dialix, or members of APANA (Australian Public Access Network Association) which have purchased Mail Affiliate Memberships of AARNet (Saleeba, 1993). In nearly all cases their network services are confined to email and news only, because obtaining ftp and telnet capabilities would require a much more expensive membership payment to AARNet (minimum $5,000 pa compared with $1,000 pa). Lack of ftp and telnet undercuts very severely their users' access to network information services. Whilst there are sound reasons for AARNet's policy, based on network traffic loads, it does inhibit the scope for small businesses, community organisations and small centres such as Hedland College to be Affiliate Members of AARNet and function as providers of network access. AARNet should review its charges to give greater encouragement to the small providers of network access and their communities.

We also need improved technical design and system support services for local and regional centres, which often do not have sufficient technical expertise available locally. Often we need to select from a wide range of technical options to customise for different needs and contexts at different centres. AARNet's responsibility in the hierarchy of traffic volumes is for national and international trunk routes, whilst regional and local routes are serviced by the institutions in their own regions and localities, which is consistent with network economics and engineering principles. The nature of a network imposes its own sensible balance between centralised, regionalised and localised elements, and it is important that attempts to define a national network for open learning should understand that point.

Access is a recurring theme in Australian open learning and distance education. Access to courses of study, to teachers, to peer groups, to library resources. Network access and computer mediated communication is a very new contributor to the access picture. A new form of access to courses of study, to teachers, to peer groups, to library resources. If we consider a hierarchy of access themes, I would like to think of network access as scoring the lowest position, like the foundations of a building. What's happening in the rooms above wouldn't happen without a good infrastructure to support it.


Reprints where available are obtainable by anonymous ftp to the directory /pub/Res-and-Dev/ on

Atkinson, R. (1993a). ADEnet : a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students. Supplementary Report June 1993 by the Western Australian Distance Education Consortium to DEET on a National Priority (Reserve) Fund Project. (Filenames ADEnet_1supp.MacWord.bin or ADEnet_1supp.txt).

Atkinson, R. (1993b). The Communications Link Project. Supplementary Report August 1993 to the Department of Employment, Education and Training on a National Priority (Reserve) Fund grant. Perth: Murdoch University External Studies Unit. (Filenames SuppRepCommLnk.txt or SuppRepCommsLnk.MacWd.bin).

Atkinson, R. (1992a). The National Educational Communications Framework: Analysing the question of common technical specifications. In Hedberg, J. and Steele, J. (eds), Educational technology for the clever country, 175-188. Selected papers from EdTech 92, 1992 Conference of the Australian Society for Educational Technology. Canberra: AJET Publications.

Atkinson, R. (1992b). ADEnet: a national project to achieve low cost access to computing resources for distance students. Report to the Department of Employment, Education and Training on a 1991 National Priority (Reserve) Fund Project by the Western Australian Distance Education Consortium. Perth: WADEC and Murdoch University External Studies Unit. (Filenames ADEnet_Rept.MacWord.bin or ADEnet_Rept.txt).

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

Atkinson, R. (1992d). Applications of AARNet computer networking in vocational education and training. In What future for technical and vocational education. Proceedings, Conference of the NVCER, Melbourne, 14-18 December, Vol 2, p.1-14.

Atkinson, R. and Castro, A. (1991). The ADEnet Project: improving computer communications for distance education students. In Atkinson, R., McBeath, C. and Meacham, D. (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p11-19. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association. AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee) (1992). AARNet Business Plan. Report presented to AVCC Executive Meeting 3/92.

Bowser, D. and Shepherd, D. (1991). Student perceptions of the role of technology in enhancing the quality of management education at a distance. In Atkinson, R., McBeath, C. and Meacham, D. (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p80-89. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

CAUDIT (Committee of Australian University Directors of Information Technology) (1993). Draft comments on the report "Electronic facilities network to enhance tertiary open learning services". Unpublished document.

CIT (Cornell Information Technologies) (1993).EZ-REMOTE lets you take the Cornell network home. CIT News, 6(1), 26-28.

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

DEET (Department of Employment, Education and Training) (1992). A consultancy to investigate the establishment of a national clearing house/database on open learning and distance education: Terms of reference. Unpublished documents. Canberra: DEET.

DPIE (Department of Primary Industries and Energy) (1992). Telecentres in rural communities: Call for expressions of interest. Unpublished documents. Canberra: DPIE.

Farrands, P. and Cranston, M. (1993). Computing facilities of distance students. Paper presented at the 11th Biennial Forum of the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, Adelaide, 21-23 July.

Mays, T., O'Brien, L., Stanton, D. and Webb, K. (1993). Libraries at the AARNet crossroads. A report on issues affecting the use of AARNet by Australian libraries. Canberra: Council of Australian University Librarians.

Moran, L., Hont, J., Calvert, J. and Bottomley, J. (1993). Electronic facilities network to enhance tertiary open learning services. Report of a project conducted for the Australian Department of Employment, Education and Training by Deakin University in collaboration with Strategic Technology Management Pty Ltd. Preprint copy, May 1993. Geelong: Deakin University.

Saleeba, Z. (1993). Australian Public Network Access FAQ v1.4. Article posted to newsgroup aus.aarnet by, 2 Sep 1993 21:51:12 +1000.

Thompson, L. (1991). Designing and implementing an effective computer based tutorial system as a means of improving the quality of distance education programs. In In Atkinson, R., McBeath, C. and Meacham, D. (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p473-481. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

UCQ (University of Central Queensland) (1993). Library services for remote postgraduate distance education students. A report to the Department of Education, Employment and Training on a National Priority (Reserve) Fund project. Rockhampton: Library, UCQ.

Wood, J. (1993). The professional development of distance teachers as facilitators of computer mediated collaborative learning. Paper presented at the 11th Biennial Forum of the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, Adelaide, 21-23 July. Materials distributed: First online working bee. Workbook and Reader. Churchill, Vic: Monash University Gippsland.

Dr Roger Atkinson is Acting Director of External Studies, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150. Telephone +61 9 360 6840 fax +61 9 310 4929. The best method of communication with him is email:

This paper was prepared for a keynote address to the 3rd National Conference on Access Through Open Learning, conducted by the University of New England Northern Rivers at Ballina, NSW, 20-21 September 1993.

Cite as: Atkinson, R. (1993). Managing network access for open learning. In A. Ellis and B. Hansen (Eds), Access Through Open Learning Occasional Papers, Volume 3, 1-14. Lismore, NSW: UNE-NR (Southern Cross University).

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