Information technology and small branch campuses:
A case study in Mandurah, WA

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University
Abstract: Western Australia's Peel region, centred upon the town of Mandurah 70 km south of Perth, is gaining a branch campus based upon Peel Regional Campus of TAFE in collaboration with Murdoch University. This paper illustrates a holistic, modular approach to an open and flexible delivery system under circumstances conducive to strong links with the regional community. Funded by NPRF 96, the project [1] spans all aspects of infrastructure and services, including private microwave, Internet access, video conferencing, library infrastructure and open learning centre, design and support services for "online courses", and pilot units. Our case study suggests that in addition to functions in open and flexible delivery, information technology can be made to play a major role in catalysing the regional collaboration and participation which are essential for venturing into small scale branch campuses.


During 1995 Murdoch University's negotiations with the Western Australian State Government for a branch campus site in the Rockingham-Kwinana area led to a commitment to a second branch campus development. The additional site is to serve the Peel Region, centred on the town of Mandurah, 70 km south of Perth. The Rockingham and Mandurah developments for Murdoch University are co-located with sites for our TAFE sector (Technical and Further Education) partner, South West Metropolitan College of TAFE [2].

The population of the Peel Region is about 50,000, not large enough to justify a conventional university campus development. Furthermore, Murdoch University had planned a full commitment of our allocation of the Federal Government's branch campus funding, to the Rockingham [3] site, and therefore funds were not available for the inclusion of a Mandurah development. In these circumstances the University submitted the proposal "Innovative delivery methods for Murdoch University's South West Campuses" for consideration under the Federal Government's National Priority Reserve Fund 1996. The proposal (Atkinson and Sleep, 1996 [4]), prepared under the direction of Deputy Vice-Chancellor Jeff Gawthorne, gave a plan consistent with some important features of the context:

After some negotiations, the University was awarded a grant of $1,140,000 for the project. Staff in DEET (now DEETYA, Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs) sought additional details for the module budgets, and assurances about the Internet access area of our proposals for community services:
... the element of support for community access to the Internet would not be funded as this falls within the role of Open Net and other Internet access providers rather than the University.
The question of "community access", that is Internet access and services provided to persons other than University staff and students, was and still is a point of contention. One area of concern is no longer relevant, because Open Net [8] has withdrawn from its role as an access provider. However, Internet access and services is a core aspect of plans for community services, described below.

A modular approach

The project is divided into a set of modules [1], summarised by the project's allocation table:

Module name and Manager$%

A.Network infrastructure - Computing and Network Services277,00024.3%
B.Internet access - Academic Services Unit and partners29,0002.5%
C.Video conferencing - ASU69,0006.1%
D.Network information services - Library209,00018.3%
E.Open Learning Centre, Mandurah Campus - Library167,00014.6%
F.Skills for innovative delivery - ASU49,0004.3%
G.Production facilities, innovative delivery materials - ASU49,0004.3%
H.Online units - pilots by several Schools, Library and ASU257,00022.6%
I.Project administration and external evaluation34,0003.0%

Total all modules$1,140,000100.0%

The reasons for adopting a modular design, and the anticipated advantages, are:

  1. To maintain a balanced coverage for all of the "system components" comprising a modern capacity for alternative delivery and open learning. For example, a private network to the Mandurah Campus will not be used productively unless Library services and student support are provided. Academic staff in Schools will not commit time to the preparation of teaching materials and provision of tutorial services, unless assured that a functional and effective infrastructure is in place, and given some staffing relief and equipment funds.

  2. To secure widespread commitment to the project by giving ownership and participatory responsibility to each of the University's providers of academic infrastructure services, Computing and Network Services, Library and Academic Services Unit. Commitment from Schools was sought via Module H's grants for unit development.

  3. To simplify the conduct of the project, by defining the roles for each Manager, enabling each to proceed without having to participate in detail in areas outside their specific expertise. For example, Library staff are not concerned with the technical detail inherent in the private network for Module A, whilst CNS staff are not concerned with how the traffic is to be used for effective teaching and learning.
Nevertheless, the modular design still requires interaction between modules, and there are some disadvantages or risks in this approach:
  1. Important interactions between modules must be covered. For example, estimates of traffic volumes are important for network design, requiring consultation with end users. This has been done, but other areas of coordination and consultation between modules will require attention during 1997.

  2. Coordination with our TAFE partner, South Metropolitan College and its Peel Regional Campus staff is more complex when a larger number of staff is involved. On the other hand, it is also desirable for the benefit of our long term partnership that a good number of staff, ranging across network managers, library user services, open learning designers, staff developers and academic staff, develop working relationships with their counterparts in the TAFE sector.

  3. Creating a University wide awareness and a holistic vision of the project is in some ways more difficult with dispersed responsibilities. Many academics are reluctant to invest their time and effort into non-traditional ways of conducting teaching and learning based upon information technologies. In that context, introduction of innovative delivery techniques benefits considerably from positive support given by senior management, or may even be dependent upon that support. For example, Campus Review (1996) used the headline, "Virtual universities better than new campuses, says Murdoch VC", when reporting on an address by Professor Steven Schwartz (Atkinson and Brown, 1997 [9]).

  4. Linking of the project's schedule to timetables for other activities conducted by each module manager, whilst desirable and a source of economies, leads to a slower rate of implementation. The main impact of this factor, to date, is the link with private microwave networking design, tendering and installation for the Rockingham Campus. As the Rockingham Campus buildings will not be handed over from the builders until August 1997, the network extension to Mandurah has been delayed until that date. Use of a temporary ISDN connection to Mandurah was ruled out for cost and workload reasons.

Innovative delivery

This section gives a brief outline of some key features in each module. Detailed documentation for staff and students is under continuous development, almost wholly via web pages associated directly with the project [1], or closely related topics such as online units and distance education [10]. We did not attempt an explicit definition of "innovative delivery", using instead context defining statements, such as [1], [11]:
Selected units will demonstrate "innovativeness", assessed not simply by the intrinsic merit of any specific "tool" such a web publishing or computer conferencing, but by creative combinations of tools and techniques to achieve effective and economical teaching and learning outcomes in the context of a branch campus committed to alternative delivery [ie, face to face classes not available owing to small size and other factors].
Module A, "Network infrastructure" provides a set of 2 Mb/s private microwave channels to carry PABX traffic, including video conferencing traffic, and ethernet data traffic, via an intermediate repeater station on the Darling Scarp. Module A's budget is integrated with expenditure on private microwave to the Rockingham site [12]. Local area network services are budgeted via other modules. Module B, "Internet access" is concerned primarily with providing and promoting modem access [13], whilst on campus access is provided by the module "Open Learning Centre". We consider that it is highly important to provide both forms of access, because they complement each other, and that modem users should have a local telephone number for their connections.

"Video conferencing" in Module C will utilise an ISDN private link between existing PictureTel installations at Peel Regional Campus and at Murdoch. This module also gives scope for experimental trials with Internet based or "desktop" video conferencing, as we envisage that the main role for this medium will be small group tutorials, with little or no use for traditional lecture delivery [14]. This view is based upon expectations about small class sizes, knowledge about academic staff preferences and workloads gained during preliminary planning, and feedback from students.

Figure 1: Peel Regional Campus, Mandurah. View of main building showing (top centre)
its "communications tower", awaiting the arrival of private microwave.

Modules A, B and C are concerned with infrastructure for services. Roles in delivery of end user services for teaching and learning are contained in other modules, beginning with the Library's two modules D and E. "Network information services" intends to provide a higher level of Library resources for student, TAFE and community users, by using network based resources, because an adequate, traditional stock of books and periodicals would take many years and high expenditure to develop at the Mandurah Campus. It contains the "acquisitions" aspect of Library services. The "Open Learning Centre" Module E contains the "reader services" aspect, which is consistent with a trend towards greater involvement of libraries in information technologies and associated services, such as user training in IT skills, user support and facilities management. Module E takes this trend a little further, as it is concerned also with students acquiring study skills to match more autonomous styles of learning, compared with learning via traditional face to face teaching.

In our context, this trend has been accelerated by the recent decision to restructure the Academic Services Unit into a Centre for Teaching and Learning which is to be a part of the Murdoch University Library [15].

Modules F "Skills for innovative delivery" is concerned with staff development activities to promote adoption of innovative delivery and open and flexible learning. In Module G "Production facilities, innovative delivery materials" we are developing capabilities and infrastructure such as web servers [16], listservers [17], image and video clip production [18], instructional design and consulting services. However, much of the production work, such as writing web pages for a unit, or planning for tutorials conducted via an email listserver, and many other activities will have to be undertaken by individual unit coordinators or unit teams comprising several academics. Thus staff development promoting a high degree of "do it yourself" work is critically important, because a fully comprehensive production service is not warranted in our context.

For Module H "Online units - pilots by schools" [11], a competitive application process similar to CAUT grants was conducted under the direction of the Chair of Academic Council and PVC (Academic), Liz Harman. We used a wide ranging specification of an "online unit", to permit Unit Coordinators to select the most appropriate set of innovative delivery "tools" to match circumstances for each particular unit. Work on these grants continues through 1997, intending to produce unit materials and techniques for a variety of circumstances, not confined specifically to the Mandurah campus. This feature is important because students who conduct part or all of their study without traditional face to face classes can benefit from a sense of integration with other students. Integration is facilitated by promoting wider implementation of innovative delivery, for example if similar use of email and web pages is adopted widely by main campus students who still attend conventional, scheduled classes.

Figure 2: Peel regional Campus has well designed, spacious computer laboratories
for multipurpose student and community use, including Murdoch student users.

Community links

Information technologies are a core part of plans for community links and services, for the same basic reason that IT has a core role in innovative delivery for our enrolled students - the relatively small population base in the Peel Region places a constraint upon services. The main avenues for applications of the Mandurah Campus information technology capabilities will be for our TAFE partner, libraries, schools, and professional continuing education, with some lesser input into business and local government sectors. Sharing of facilities and support services such as library staff is important in a relatively small community, not only for attaining obvious economies but also for community acceptance that this is "their campus". Regional communities resent what they perceive as a tendency to "centralise everything in Perth".

The project envisages information technology as having a major role in catalysing regional collaboration and participation. Providing services such as private microwave transport, Internet gateway, local area network, modem pool and PABX connections is an obvious, essential contribution towards Murdoch's relationship with South Metropolitan College of TAFE and its Peel Regional Campus. Their staff and students become users. If we extend further and join plans for a "tripartite" public library conducted jointly by local government, TAFE and Murdoch University, or further and allow schools sector access, we will gather in many more users. However, being a provider of IT based services in a community oriented manner raises some uncertainties over use of Internet access and services by "non-university" persons. As noted earlier, we encountered some apprehension from DEETYA over community use of our planned IT infrastructure.

During AARNet's relatively short lifetime, we seem to have become accustomed to the idea that Internet access in any form via universities is only for university staff and students [19]. Other sectors should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the context of branch campuses in small regional communities, it would be a substantial community benefit if universities were more proactive in resource sharing. For example, if we have network capacity and can cost share at prices lower than Telstra Internet, should we be inhibited about providing services for TAFE staff and students, or network services to a tripartite public library, or gateway services for local schools, or even services for locally based private providers of Internet services?

Whilst the principal purpose for this project is to provide innovative delivery solutions for Murdoch University students in the Mandurah region, it is important for community benefit reasons that we press forward in resolving questions of this kind about community links and university based information technologies.

References and URLs

NPRF96 Home Page

South Metropolitan College of TAFE

Rockingham Campus.

Atkinson, R. and Sleep, S. (1996). Innovative delivery methods for Murdoch University's South West Campuses. National Priority Reserve Fund 1996 proposal.

Ipswich City, Queensland.

Community and local government examples

PARNet: Perth Academic and Regional Network.

Campus Review (1996). Virtual universities better than new campuses, says Murdoch VC. April 11.

Open Net.

Atkinson, R. and Brown, A. (1997). Online units: What infrastructure services are required? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p6-11. Proceedings 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, Feb 1997.

Online units and distance education

Module H - pilots by Schools

South West Campus Communications

Internet access

Video conferencing

ASU to become the Centre for Teaching and Learning, in the University Library

Multimedia, the web and teaching

Listservers in teaching

Image and video clip production

AVCC: Policy on Allowed Access to the Internet via AARNet Members, 11 Oct 1995

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1997). Information technology and small branch campuses: A case study in Mandurah, WA. Proceedings, CAUSE in Australasia '97, Melbourne, 13-16 April, 1997, pp9-16.

Author: Roger Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology
Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150

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