How can AARNet support openness in open learning?

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University


Use of computer mediated communications to support distance education has been cited as one of AARNet's purposes since its inception (AVCC, 1992). The effort by distance educators, librarians and others to implement this purpose has generated a considerable number of projects and investigations, some on a national scale such as the ADEnet Project (Atkinson, 1993b, 1993c, 1992b, 1991), the "Crossroads" report (Mays et al, 1993) and the "OLESA" consultancy (Moran et al, 1993), and many on a regional scale, for example Thompson (1991), UCQ (1993) and Wood (1993).

The effort put into "using AARNet" for distance education and open learning is now likely to escalate, following the Federal Government's issue on 6 November 1993 of its request for proposals to tender for "OLESS", the Open Learning Electronic Support Services network (RFT93/10438, 1993). The proposed expenditure by the Government on OLESS is said to be $2 million during 1994-95. The amount is considerably larger than other grants which the Government has provided in the past for developing computer mediated communications in distance education through general programs such as the National Priority Reserve Fund and National Teaching Development("CAUT") Grants. The expenditure on the OLESS tender may become larger than the direct grants which the Government has made to AARNet during its existence.

The purpose of this paper is to analyse the OLESS initiative, and to contrast the Federal Government's recent approaches, broadly described as "consultancies and tenders", with the established mechanisms of "projects and grants". Key projects in this context include ADEnet, for which this paper provides an update, and the NPRF System Wide Library Infrastructure proposal, "Electronic access to library services for distance education and open learning" (Atkinson et al, 1993). Both indicate ways to attain "openness" in network access and services on a national basis for open learning and distance education.

Open learning and distance education

The professional society which includes most distance educators in Australia, ASPESA (Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association), recently changed its name to ODLAA (Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia). Distance education's senior national advisory committee to DEET (Department of Employment, Education and training) changed its acronym from NDEC (National Distance Education Conference) to NCODE (National Conference on Open and Distance Education). The name changes reflect the way in which "distance education" and "open learning" are linked inextricably by political and financial factors.

The Government needs the cooperation of the universities which have conducted distance education by means of DEET funded places for external or distance students, in order to promote the "open learning initiative", which is its main option for expanding university education without either itself or the student body paying more. Universities with significant resource allocations to distance education courses need to participate in this agenda, because alternative sources of income and additional enrolments are not readily available. The "open learning initiative" is now institutionalised through the OLAA (Open Learning Agency of Australia) (King, 1993), in which most of Australia's providers of university distance education are participants.

The OLAA has a monopoly on the right to earn student fees income from enrolling Australian citizens in undergraduate courses. It is a highly regulated monopoly, with the level of fees set by the Government at the same level as its own fees levied upon university students via the Higher Education Contribution Scheme ("HECS"). The monopoly is not enforced completely, for example the University of Southern Queensland is marketing distance education enrolments in undergraduate courses for $600 per unit ("The Australian", 6 Nov 1993), which is twice the fee for OLAA enrolments, and UNE Northern Rivers has marketed its courses for several years (Treyvaud and Davies, 1991). However, these are relatively small breaches in the Government's intention to regulate and promote the market by commissioning a single provider.

The "one organisation" approach used for the OLAA is intended as the model for the first major extension of OLAA services, the OLESS (Open Learning Electronic Support Services) network (RFT93/10438, 1993). The Government's intention is explicit in paragraph 1.1 2)(b), "The Commonwealth wishes to enter into an Agreement with one organisation . . . the Commonwealth will not consider proposals from organisations which are offering to meet some, but not all, of the identified requirements". These requirements, the "OLESS Core Services" section 5.4, are very broad, drawing upon AARNet, university libraries, and university administrations to provide services. The OLESS tender was based upon a consultancy (Moran et al, 1993) and is an illustration of DEET's move away from the "projects and grants" approach and into a "consultancies and tenders" model. The implications are examined below, after reviewing two examples of the "projects and grants" approach.

The ADEnet Project

The ADEnet Project (Australian Distance Education network) was awarded $91,000 from DEET's National Priority Reserve Fund 1991. As a national project, it aimed to provide external students with local telephone call access to AARNet, for computer mediated communications to their universities, at costs considerably lower than the alternative, Telecom's Austpac service (Atkinson and Castro, 1992). After overcoming a considerable number of technical difficulties, the ADEnet Project now provides university distance education students with local call dialup access for the following telephone districts or "sites" (Atkinson, 1992b, 1993c): The two small centres, Dubbo and Hedland, are pilots which are intended to promote models for intersector collaboration and community access in rural and remote regions, in addition to network access for university students. Unlike the main sites, which have free access for university students, the small sites will have community users also, who may be required to pay a subscription for access to AARNet services.

Tables 1 and 2 shows a selection of data obtained from the ADEnet Project's Annex 3 terminal server at the University Centre, Sydney. The data was collected by a program which queried the Annex at 15 minute intervals and recorded the number of modems in use and the destinations of all sessions open at each sampling time. The monthly aggregates obtained in this manner do not give any information on the duration of each call, or the distribution throughout each day and week, and calls shorter than 15 minutes may be missed. Destinations with little traffic have been omitted from Table 1. The data cannot be interpreted without some knowledge of the numbers of students in Sydney enrolled with each university, the dates of addition of each university's hosts to the Annex's menu, and other factors which influence communications, such as the scheduling of particular units or assignments which may lead to more intensive use of the facility.

Nevertheless, two important conclusions can be established with reasonable certainty. Firstly, data in Table 1 and for other months indicate that the present rack of sixteen modems is not under pressure in 1993, and several years may elapse before saturation occurs (the pool was expanded from eight Dataplex DPX 296 modems to sixteen DPX 225 modems in August 1993). The Project's estimates of the required capacity in Sydney were derived from estimates of the number of Austpac users enrolled with each participating university, and average call duration (Atkinson, 1992b). It is now evident that these estimates were higher than immediately necessary, or were a little overoptimistic.

Table 1: ADEnet modem utilisation data, University Centre, Sydney

Secondly, data in Table 2 and for other months show that although the University of Wollongong was added to the permitted destinations at a later date than the others, it soon dominated the traffic, and has two times more calls than all other universities combined. As this University has relatively few distance education students, the traffic is due to high rates of use by on campus students and staff who reside in Sydney and commute to Wollongong.

Table 2: ADEnet destination data, University Centre, Sydney

The observation of high use by University of Wollongong students and staff gives an important message to developers of computer communications for distance education. We need to promote close integration of infrastructures and services with those provided for on campus students within the university system generally. The risks due to uncertainties over rates of growth in demand for infrastructure capacity can be reduced by integration, compared with any attempt to treat provisions for distance education students in isolation.

The ADEnet may constitute AARNet's closest relationship to a specific service for open learning and distance education. The service is local concentration of traffic onto AARNet for long distance transport, instead of using Austpac or STD calls, and restriction of the callers to permitted destinations. At present nine universities are included in the Annex menus which regulate users at the large sites, and others may be added upon request. These universities provide the basic services, usually email, net news, ftp and telnet, for their own students, plus such other services layered on these as each university may choose to implement for its own users, for example gopher, netlib, Internet Relay Chat and others.

Other relationships between AARNet and open learning arise via the Affiliate Member program. Any extension of access to AARNet via employers, small businesses such as Pegasus and Dialix, and community organisations such as APANA (Australian Public Access Networks Association) (Saleeba, 1993), is also in part a service for open learning and distance education. This arises because a growing number of students can obtain network access at their workplaces. Another important kind of extension of access to AARNet is via the TAFE sector (Technical and Further Education), and potentially via the public library sector (Anderson, 1993; VALA, 1993). TAFEs in NSW, SA, WA (Atkinson, 1993d) and Tasmania have Affiliate Memberships of AARNet. This is important to distance education because the geographic distribution of TAFE campuses and public libraries is much wider than university campuses, extending into virtually all of Australia's telephone districts.

ADEnet is a provider of modems for low cost calls to any of the participating universities. It does not provide any other service, as the individual universities undertake that responsibility. The model is evidently very acceptable to the participating universities, as it gives them equal opportunities to integrate their own style of network service provision with their other activities in distance education delivery, or with their activities for on campus students. The project was very economical, as its grant was only $91,000 (about $10,000 less than the cost of the consultancy which has lead to the OLESS proposals). Recurrent costs for several years are covered by the sites' acceptance of project contributions to their own infrastructure development, and each site owns and controls the assets it has installed on behalf of ADEnet.

The prospects for expanding ADEnet provision of modems in the capital cities not already serviced, and extension into further examples of rural and remote centres, depend on the proposal outlined in the next section, or alternatively, the willingness of the distance education and open learning universities or AARNet itself to provide the funding.

The NPRF SWLI proposal

"Electronic access to library services for distance education and open learning" is a proposal to the Committee of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) for potential recommendation as a component in the grants to be made under the System Wide Library Infrastructure program, National Priority Reserve Fund 1994 (Atkinson, Kelly, Neuhaus and Lim, 1993). The proposal drew on the belief that electronic access to libraries is a key change agent in preparing us for new roles as "online universities". It addressed the problem of how to provide an essential nucleus of developments as a basis for long term sustainable change in this direction, in which openness of campus libraries to off campus clients facilitates openness of the entire university system.

The proposed project selected a core set of problems in the task of distance delivery of the new information technologies which are being implemented rapidly for on campus library users. The core problems from a user perspective, and the solutions offered in the proposal, were summarised as follows:

The four questions tabulated above defined the project objectives, in the column "Infrastructure strategy", and divided these into four subtasks or "modules":

The Project budget and Module coordination responsibilities were:

The project's fundamental theme is the same as Networkshop's theme, "Access for the 90s". It proposed to build information services for distance education and open learning "layered" on AARNet (which is perhaps our best ever illustration of the concept and benefits of a system wide infrastructure). Conformance with the specification of "system wide library infrastructure" was reinforced by drawing equally upon universities participating in the Open Learning Agency of Australia (OLAA), universities participating in the Professional and Graduate Education Consortium (PAGE, originally established as the Wollongong Graduate Consortium), and universities not in either consortium.

The proposal relied upon a long established tradition of library collaboration in a system wide sense. At the same time, it did not restrict the emergence of fair and open competition in the markets for the new kinds of open learning delivery. It intended to facilitate that option, whilst also providing improved services for students whose education is provided via the allocation of funded places. The project envisaged that its contribution to infrastructure developments would be readily applicable for networking the services of university libraries into the TAFE, schools, industry, business and government sectors via AARNet Affiliate Memberships, telecentres and other avenues, in support of their libraries, and their education, training and research activities.

However, the proposal encountered difficulties due to a perception that it conflicted with plans by DEET (Department of Employment, Education and Training) for electronic support services for open learning. In email Date: Tue, 05 Oct 93 12:32:00 PDT addressed to me, a senior official expressed their perception, in response to my email Date: Tue, 14 Sep 93 12:58:16 WST which had given DEET an outline of the proposal:

In the absence of any information about OLINET (now known as OLESS), our proposal was finalised and submitted to CAUL. We had attempted to target those aspects of the interface between system wide library infrastructure and distance education which were likely to be outside the scope of OLINET. That is, it was intended to be a complementary proposal, although its vision concerning the projection of the university library system's online resources to distance education and community users was "open access to all providers and all users".

With very deep regret, I report that notwithstanding the support of CAUL, our NPRF SWLI proposal has been rejected by DEET. The advice conveyed to us by the Chair of CAUL after talks with DEET officials on CAUL's suite of SWLI proposals was:

I feel that the rejection of our proposal confirms a trend away from DEET's support of the "grants and projects" approach to developing key aspects of Australia's university system. The new direction is "consultancies and tenders" (Bolton, 1992). The OLESA - OLINET - OLESS consultancy and tender and numerous others, for example the AEC series of consultancies (Atkinson, 1992c), illustrate this direction.


The concept of electronic support services for open learning students has evolved under the names OLESA (Open Learning Electronic Support Agency), as proposed by the consultants (Moran et al, 1993), OLINET (Open Learning Information Network), as used by DEET in a number of press releases, and finally OLESS (Open Learning Electronic Support Services). The Government's request for initial proposals to establish and operate OLESS was advertised on 6 November 1993 and tenders close on 16 December (RFT93/10438, 1993), which is about one year after the initiation of the consultancy process. The key dilemmas I perceive in this process include:

Dilemmas and uncertainties not resolved in the processes of the consultancy and the determination of the OLESS specifications are expected to be resolved by respondents or by a process of subsequent negotiation by the Minister (section, in which the preferred respondent will have access to the submissions by others (section 2.4.2). However, certain features are clearly fixed in advance. The Government will commission a monopoly provider, the "one organisation" (1.1 2)(b), page 1). That is, one organisation will receive all of the Government funding for OLESS. It seems to be uninterested in any discussions on regional or local approaches to network access, or in the ways by which the providers of OLAA courses may be also direct retailers of services via their own hosts, or in ways to expand AARNet's infrastructure to reach a broader community (CAUDIT, 1993). The scenario for one organisation to be the "retailer" of access to AARNet, university libraries, and university administrations is liable to exclude all of the universities and AARNet from significant access to the OLESS funding, whilst at the same time we face a drying up of the "grants and projects" channel.

Nevertheless, I feel that the network community should offer its collaboration with the Government's agenda. There is still scope for resolution of dilemmas in ways which will reflect a more mature approach to the new types of market which it is attempting to introduce into the Australian university system. It will take some time to attain the maturity and diversity which we know is possible in the market for network access, as illustrated in North America. A recent posting to newsgroup alt.internet.access.wanted (MacDonald, 1993) listed 105 USA public access providers in a "more-or-less complete list of Internet providers" (although it omitted universities and schools providers). We need to continue an education process upon our Government to show how diversity and "openness" to many providers has been a powerful stimulus in other countries.

Openness in networking

Most of Australia's universities, whether engaged in distance education or not, could provide the 5.4 OLESS Core Services, 5.5 OLESS Optional Services, 5.6 Essential OLESS Attributes, 6.l Email, 6.2 Bulletin Board Services, 6.3 Information Services, 6.4 OLESS external services links, 7. OLESS Administration and Control, 8. Security, and 9. Support Services. Nearly all universities are developing a suite of network services, though under conditions of tight budgets and uncertainties about the extent to which a "user pays" framework may be an option under the Higher Education Funding Act 1988. A number of universities will submit an OLESS tender, either alone or in a small consortium, if only to "wave the flag" of their current developments. University submissions do have the advantage that the relationship with AARNet is clearer than is the case with other respondents whose status would be Affiliate Members.

However, if we look at the broader context of the Government's actions in open learning, another kind of contender emerges. The Government has established the Open Learning Technology Corporation (OLTC) in Adelaide (Arthur, 1993), to be a broker and facilitator in technologies for open learning, and roles for it have not been developed. It cannot be a broker in relation to the role of television in Government's open learning plans, because the ABC deals directly with OLAA and does not require such services. However, it appears that the OLTC will receive the contract to be the provider of database and clearing house services for open learning (DEET, 1992). In a newly formed consortium with the OLAA, the OLTC is likely to be the strongest contender for the OLESS contract, although at present it does not have any resources in the form of staff with network expertise, equipment or access to AARNet. The OLAA/OLTC Consortium, if it becomes the preferred tenderer, should be supported by AARNet and AARNet Members, even though it will consume most of the funding in establishing its own infrastructure, thereby leaving little for grants and projects.

The reason for adopting that attitude is that the interests of AARNet, where AARNet is an icon for open access internetworking, probably are best served by pursuing openness of access, by all available means. An OLESS provider which is external to AARNet's members, as would be the case if OLAA/OLTC's tender succeeds, should have access to Affiliate Membership under the established procedures. Ultimately, OLESS will become just another provider and competitor in the market which "uses AARNet". However, we will need a continuing effort to hasten that maturation, by expanding AARNet's Affiliate Membership program, with particular reference to community access, public information and library requirements, in addition to the attention given to business and industry needs (Cranswick, 1993). AARNet and AARNet Members can best support open learning by adhering to the "openness" aspect, by continuing down the pathway of opening up access to the network.


Bruce Robertson, Senior Technical Officer, Information Technology Services, University of Wollongong, programmed the Annex 3 at the University Centre Sydney, and initiated the collection of monthly statistics for ADEnet. The contribution to the project by UoW ITS, Monash Computing Centre, Charles Sturt University, Hedland College, University of South Australia and many others is gratefully acknowledged. To UoW ITS, UNE Northern Rivers (Southern Cross University), Monash University Library and the many contributors to the NPRF SWLI proposal - thanks, a pleasure to work with you.


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

Arthur, P. (1993). The Open Learning Technology Corporation. In Nunan, T. (ed), Distance education futures. Selected papers from the 11th Biennial Forum of ASPESA, Adelaide 21-23 July, pp161-167. Adelaide: University of South Australia.

Atkinson, R., Kelly, G., Neuhaus, J. and Lim, E. (1993). Electronic access to library services for distance education and open learning. A proposal submitted to CAUL 12 Nov 1993 for the program System Wide Library Infrastructure, National Priority Reserve Fund 1994.

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). Keynote paper presented at the 3rd National Conference on Access Through Open Learning, at Ballina, NSW, 20-21 September 1993.

Atkinson, R. (1993). 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.

Atkinson, R. (1993d). 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). Some developments in computer mediated communications. In J. Herrington (ed), Distance education: Future visions, p51-74. Perth: WADEC. (Filename /pub/Res-and-Dev/DevCMC.MacWord.bin).

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

Atkinson, R. (1992c). The National Educational Communications Framework: Analysing the question of common technical specifications. In J. Hedberg and J. Steele (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. and Castro, A. (1991). The ADEnet Project: improving computer communications for distance education students. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath and D. Meacham (eds), Quality in distance education: ASPESA Forum 91, p11-19. Bathurst, NSW: Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee) (1992). AARNet Business Plan. Report presented to AVCC Executive Meeting 3/92.

Bolton, D. (1992). Towards a National Education Communications Framework. In A. Ellis & B. Hansen (eds), Access through open learning with a major focus on the role of communications technology. Access Through Open Learning Occasional Papers Vol.2, Nov 1992, pp10-18. Papers presented at the Byron Bay Conference, September 1992. Lismore, NSW: UNE Northern Rivers.

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.

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.

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

King, B. (1993). Open learning in Australia: Government intervention and institutional response. Open Learning, 8(3), 13-25.

MacDonald, M. (1993). USA Internet provider list. Posted to newsgroup alt.internet.access.wanted by 22 Nov 1993 00:48:21 -0500.

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. Canberra: AGPS.

RFT93/10438 (1993). Request for initial proposals to establish and operate an electronic support service for open learning and other clients for DEET. Canberra: Purchasing Australia, Department of the Arts and Administrative Services.

Saleeba, Z. (1993). Network access in Australia FAQ v1.6. Article posted to newsgroup by, 1 Nov 1993 01:43:29 GMT.

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: ASPESA.

Treyvaud, E. R. and Davies, A. T. (1991). Cooperative education for professional development in regional areas. Canberra: AGPS and Department of Employment, Education and Training (Evaluations and Investigations Program).

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.

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

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 ASPESA, Adelaide, 21-23 July. Materials distributed: First online working bee. Workbook and Reader. Churchill, Vic: Monash University Gippsland.


[ Publications Contents ] [ ASU Home ]
HTML author: Roger Atkinson []
This URL (last corrected 6 June 2009):
Previous URL 3 Sep 2002 to 6 June 2009:
Previous URL 1 Sep 1996 to 3 Sep 2002: