The purpose of this paper is to outline the importance of AARNet, the Australian Academic and Research Network, for the vocational education and training sector. Established in 1990 by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, AARNet has grown very rapidly in universities, CSIRO and research units in business, industry and government. Network traffic for electronic mail, electronic news, file server publishing, file transfer, remote login, wide area information services and other applications is doubling every 9 to 10 months. The extension of AARNet into vocational education has commenced with the connection of South Australian TAFE, Tasmanian TAFE and Western Australian TAFE in 1992.
In order to achieve the most effective use of AARNet, managers need to plan for services to be provided to staff and student end users in a readily accessible form with user friendly screen environments. Considerable progress has been achieved in interfaces for the end user, and in hardware flexibility for integrating DOS, Windows, Apple and Unix platforms.
Applications of AARNet may be an integral and direct part of learning processes, as in direct use of network services by students, or an indirect part by means of support for open and flexible learning coordinators, managers, librarians and curriculum developers. From the perspective of traditional face to face teaching in classrooms, laboratories and workshops, computer mediated communications and networks have little direct relevance. However, if we adopt the perspectives of an open learning and flexible delivery, and consider also the needs of the infrastructures required to support all forms of delivery of learning, then computer networks have high relevance.
The technical, network operations and funding requirements for connection to AARNet as an Affiliate Member are now well established and relatively easy to implement, but the implications for institutional management are less well understood. This paper reviews some of the options, from the perspectives of information technology, open and flexible learning, and relationships with national systems for delivery of education and training.
The purpose of this paper is to explore some of these questions, from the perspective of strategic planning for an integrated and coordinated approach to developing infrastructures for information technology. "Integration" means working out ways to add new capabilities which relate readily to the capabilities we have already, for example being able to use the same word processor for all techniques, electronic or otherwise, for transmitting a document to its recipients. "Coordination" means organising developments which interact positively with other activities in one's own organisation, and with similar activities in other organisations, for example being able to use the same transmission protocols for internal and external communications.
The background for this paper is the spectacular growth of AARNet, the Australian Academic and Research Network, since its inception at the beginning of 1990 (AVCC, 1992; AARNet, 1992a; Campus, 1991). AARNet is very rapidly establishing a role as the vehicle for open access, wide area computer networking, expanding from its base in the research and tertiary education sectors into a part of the national communications infrastructure for all sectors of the economy. A further purpose for this paper is examine the opportunities created by AARNet's expansion, for colleges and TAFE systems to include AARNet in their information technology strategies.
|Electronic mail||The most widely used service, constituting about 11% of network traffic. Over 12 million users world wide.|
|Netnews||Divided into about 1500 newsgroups. Contributions are distributed automatically world wide. Used to obtain information and seek contacts in a wide variety of technical and non-technical topics. About 6% of network traffic.|
|File transfer||Network transfer for any files. Anonymous ftp (file transfer protocol) used for distributing documents and software. About 35% of network traffic.|
|Remote login||Access other computers on the network, eg. data bases, supercomputers. About 9% of network traffic.|
The basic services listed above provide a platform for individual organisations to build more complex sets of services, for example:
|Information services||File server publishing, directories, electronic journals, online library catalogues and other structured services which assist the user to locate information.|
|Recent developments of information retrieval tools which enable users to specify plain language commands to search networks and retrieve the desired information, eg WAIS (Wide Area Information Service) and Gopher servers.|
The key set of protocols for AARNet is TCP/IP, named after one of its components, Transmission Control Protocol, and its more general family name, Internet Protocol (Comer, 1988; AARNet, 1992a). TCP/IP specifications are in the public domain, and though not an official international standard, TCP/IP is very widely supported by all the major vendors in computing and networking, by a varied range of gateways into other systems, and by a wide array of software in the public domain, especially for Unix, Macintosh and Microsoft's DOS and Windows. The concepts of independence from proprietary protocols and network hardware, open access and availability from a number of competing vendors are very significant reasons for the popularity of TCP/IP as a specification for computer communications (Atkinson, 1992b).
The basis from which TCP/IP originated is "internetworking", the linking of separate networks to one another to create networks of networks. The typical connection to AARNet is between an organisation's own network, for example a campus LAN, and a state or regional node, which is linked further to other regional or national nodes. Internetworking with TCP/IP means that the vast majority of the network resources reside with the individual networks and computer hosts owned and controlled by the members of AARNet, which is an important and convenient feature in relation to concerns about the autonomy and independence of institutions. Also, addition of TCP/IP to one's network does not disrupt other protocols which may be in use. For example, many users of Appletalk or other protocols which may be the basis for their LAN communications to printers and file servers are also users of TCP/IP for wide area communications.
AARNet users may have in front of them Macintosh, DOS, Windows, Unix or other environments, and the transmission paths or network architecture they use may include one or more of Ethernet, Token Ring, ISDN, Megalinks, Digital Data Services, X25 packet switched, serial links, microwave links, satellite hops or others, even ordinary telephone lines. The end user does not need to know the details, which can be left to the specialists in network systems engineering.
AARNet's total expenditure program for 1992 is about $3.6 million, of which about 70% is expended on the lease of communications bandwidth from Telecom and other carriers, 5% on facilities management, 4% on education and development, 7% on administration including staffing, and 13% on communications equipment. Income is from the universities contributing about 34%, the Australian Research Council 28%, CSIRO 8%, and the Affiliate Member program 13%. AARNet's expenditure is projected to increase by about 20% per year, although the traffic volumes are increasing by well over 100% per year. By the last quarter of 1992, AARNet's traffic load had grown to over 200 gigabytes (200 million million bytes) per week, with a doubling time of about 9 or 10 months (AVCC, 1992).
It could be said that the real costs of AARNet are underestimated if one does not include costing for AARNet accessible services provided free to the rest of the world, such as OPACs (on line library catalogues), servers and files for anonymous file transfers. However, the principle of giving free resources, and obtaining free resources from the networks seems to be very effective and widely accepted.
As a network of networks, organisation of AARNet services such as electronic mail is quite different from older approaches which depended upon a single central host, for example Telecom's Keylink email service, with which users interact directly over long distance connections. With AARNet, members organise their own services, that is their own LANs and associated host computers, which can be integrated with intra-organisation needs, and much of the long distance communication is an automated host to host set of processes governed by the rules of TCP/IP. There are obvious economies and it is not surprising that the network of networks model is displacing the single central host model.
Figure 1. Eudora for Macintosh prompts the user upon arrival of mail and opens the In Box. Eudora is a fine example of software with a high standard of user friendliness and integration of communications with other work. Comparable public domain software is becoming available for DOS and Windows platforms.
Typically, the most favourable form of access to AARNet services is an Ethernet to each desktop. Such a network requires one or more hosts or servers, and an AARNet router, but if users have an Ethernet connection their view of the local hosts, routers and other computers connected to AARNet can be mediated by user friendly screen environments. For example, my own personal view of AARNet services is listed below under the label "client software". Although all items are public domain software, they are models for user friendliness, except that software support is a "do it yourself" activity, such as having to download or "ftp" a new version from archie.au or various US sites. Comparable software for Ethernet networked MS DOS and Windows platforms is available also from the public domain.
|Client software||Server or host software||Function|
|Eudora v1.3b34||POP (Post Office Protocol)||Email utility - fetch, despatch, in, out and other protocols and other mailboxes, edit, aliases, etc.|
|Network News Transfer|
Protocol and others
|News utility - select groups, read, edit, follow up, edit, post new article, etc.|
|HyperFTP v1.3||File Transfer Protocol||Utility to facilitate use of FTP - connect,and anonymous login, receive, send, change directory, etc.|
|Telnet and others|
in the TCP/IP set
|VT100 terminal emulation for remote login or telnet.|
|MacGopher||Gopher server||Information retrieval service.|
User friendliness with respect to software at the desktop is not a problem. The "everyday tools" listed above for Macintosh integrate very readily with other everyday items such as word processor, graphics and others. AARNet email is used for my Unit's internal email, via one of the University's AARNet hosts (the csuvax1.murdoch.edu.au in my email address), in exactly the same way as I use this host for national and international email. Hardware integration is also not a problem. In my Unit's case, the same Ethernet carries Appletalk packets for communications with our Laserwriters and file servers, constituting a significant economy. Ethernet software for Apple is contained within the computers' operating system, and the MacTCP software which translates between Apple's internal protocols and the TCP/IP set is from Apple's public domain. Users do not need to know anything about the details of the communication processes, such as Ethernet or the TCP/IP set or the Unix operating system on their mail host. Software handles the selection of protocols automatically.
Under the University's networking policy, the cost to the Unit's budget for purchasing each Ethernet port including cabling and wall socket is $700, to which must be added the cost of an Ethernet card and transceiver for each Apple machine, varying in the range $185 to $550. The University's internal charge for Ethernet ports represents a full cost recovery for internal unshielded twisted pair cabling and Ethernet 10 base T repeaters. Hosts such as csuvax1 are centrally funded and are relatively economical, partly because the communications software implemented on them is also from the public domain.
The very high growth rates for AARNet traffic, doubling every 9 to 10 months, may be understood with reference to the case of my Unit. In a one year period, August 1991 to August 1992, we increased our number of AARNet users fourteen fold (from one, myself, to all academic and secretarial staff), in spite of very limited funding, by close integration of new capabilities with existing functions, and by extensive reliance on public domain software.
However, the very favourable case study outlined above has to be qualified by the observation that implementations depend to a large extent upon sound strategic decisions in planning and management for networking. If an organisation is locked into proprietary networking and proprietary operating systems for network hosts, expenditure may escalate to levels which preclude access for every desktop personal computer, and complexity may increase to the point at which user friendliness is a lost cause.
Figure 2. An sample screen obtained during use of NewsWatcher, which is an easy to use Netnews reading, composing and posting utility, available from the public domain. For details of the item on Telecentres, refer DPIE (1992). Comparable software is becoming available for the DOS and Windows public domain.If users have a low speed serial network connection or modem connection to their AARNet host, the scope for obtaining a user friendly interface is reduced. In general there is less software available in the user friendly, client server model of interaction, compared with the Ethernet scene. Users of serial port connections to hosts generally have to contend with the host operating system, such as Unix or VMS. For example, a Eudora user (or POP Mail user in the case of DOS) with Ethernet does not need to give any commands to the host, because all transactions are handled by Eudora interacting with the POP protocol running on the mail host. By contrast, a serial port user typically has to interact manually with the host, encountering a more complex, command line oriented environment which is more difficult than the usual personal computer environment. Users with a multitasking capability on their personal computers, such as Windows for PCs or Multifinder for Macintosh, will encounter less difficulty than those not provided with multitasking.
The first step in encouraging effective use of AARNet services is the provision of good access. By itself, this step has enabled a great amount of discovery learning by staff (Howse, 1991), and as another example, many parents will be aware of the independent learning occurring with home computers and modems for accessing bulletin boards. However, it is very important also to manage the second step, which is the development of significant roles for the information flow. If this flow has an important role in the users' everyday work, there is a higher incentive to utilise this new medium. Applications of AARNet, with particular reference to vocational education aspects of open and distance learning are described below.
The formal statement of sponsorship emailed to AARNet Administration by the WA universities on behalf of WA TAFE's application recorded that:
. . . this will establish a very important extension of AARNet's benefits within Western Australia, and within the TAFE sector of education on a national basis.The DEET Communications Link Project was a Reserve Fund grant conducted by Murdoch University (Atkinson, 1992a). One activity undertaken by this project was the allocation of $20,000 to WA's Department of Employment, Vocational Education and Training for the TAFE sectors's connection to AARNet, to pay all of their additional costs for the first year. The email quoted above indicated some of the specific factors operating in the context of Western Australian intersector collaboration in telecommunications (Atkinson, Latchem and Davy, 1991) and the Communications Link Project.
Bringing the TAFE sector into AARNet has been one important objective for the DEET Communications Link Project, which is granting $20,000 to DEVET WA for this purpose. Also, the Project has distributed printed copies of documentation on AARNet and Internet [Capon, 1992; Goldstein and Heard, 1991; Kehoe, 1992] to all WA colleges, to assist in developing staff awareness of the network. We have nominated all four universities as the joint sponsors for the application, because this reflects the approach adopted in the DEET Communications Link Project and its orientation towards activities with benefits for as many campuses and users as possible.
There has been considerable collaboration between the TAFE and university sectors in WA for many years, particularly in applications of telecommunications in education, and in delivering post school education to non metropolitan centres and regions of the state. AARNet membership by DEVET will facilitate and help to expand that collaboration. There are benefits also for TAFE staff who are undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate study and research with the universities, in education and many other disciplines. TAFE has diverse links with the business and industry sector and in a growing number of cases the membership of AARNet will assist such work (Atkinson et al, 1992).
The more important and broader factor is that AARNet provides its new Affiliates from TAFE with national and international access to email, electronic publishing and news, file transfer, remote login or telnet capabilities, and some support services such as assignment of Internet addresses and a central domain name server. It provides an open access networking of networks which is also an excellent basis for organising networking within each TAFE, between and within colleges. However, AARNet does not organise applications of services, or provide host computers except in some limited and specialised cases. Services and hosts are matters for the individual TAFEs and their colleges to undertake. In this respect commitment to AARNet has little impact on the autonomy and independence of TAFEs.
The AARNet Advisory Board has considered the matter of TAFE connections and it
endorsed a general model of interconnection to the TAFEs via connection of TAFE networks to AARNet at nominated gateway(s), and noted that such a model would not preclude a university and the State TAFE network reaching an individual agreement to share communications facilities to particular locations where there are common requirements (AARNet, 1992b).In this way the AARNet Advisory Board has provided scope for smaller, remote locations to gain access to computer communications networks by sharing regional networking resources between sectors. For example, this is very relevant for regional colleges of TAFE, learning centres (McGregor and Latchem, 1991) and the telecottage concept (Horner and Reeve, 1991; DPIE, 1992). Collaboration is important in such circumstances, because the affordability of resources such as modems, leased data channels, quality printers and learning centres is improved by aggregating numbers of users across more than one sector.
There are some gaps in access to AARNet which are significant for persons in rural and remote communities needing computer mediated communication as a component of course delivery. The problems relate to dialup connections by telephone line and modem to an AARNet connected campus. If the user makes a local call, expenses are much lower, and the procedure is less complex, compared with connections made by STD calls, or by Telecom's Austpac service.
The ADEnet project addresses this problem (Atkinson and Castro, 1991), but a wider application of this solution is very dependent upon collaboration with the TAFE and school sectors, because their geographic distribution of their sites is much more extensive than is the case with universities. Further work in this project is likely to concentrate upon some pilots for small site access to AARNet, in collaboration with some TAFE colleges in regions which do not have a university campus (Atkinson, 1992c).
A discussion paper for the National Distance Education Conference (Moran, Thompson and Warren, 1992) recommended to the AVCC that AARNet links with TAFE be promoted, by means of a joint working party, to facilitate common interests in a comprehensive national education network service for open learning and distance education. Recent activities by the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET, 1992a; 1992b; 1992c) indicate a much increased level of interest by government in promoting the use of AARNet for open learning and distance education, although this Department is not connected to AARNet at the present time.
Computer networking is not a tool confined only to the tertiary education sector. Articles about Internet networking and its applications to primary and secondary school education appear frequently on the networks. For example, Sears (1992) describes a TCP/IP network comprising 76 schools, 500 Macintoshes and PCs, a number of medium sized servers and a link to the University of California at Davis, serving nearly 50,000 staff and students with a variety of innovative applications.
AARNet's Affiliate Member program (AVCC, 1992) provides a way to expand the network's services into the TAFE, schools, government and business sectors. Strong encouragement should be accorded to such expansion, not just on behalf of open learning and distance education interests, but for the wider purposes of securing an infrastructure to support all forms of delivery of learning, curriculum development, professional development, administration, research, library functions, links with industry and other activities.
One important aspect of the introduction of AARNet to an institution is well planned and centrally managed operation of the LAN and key hosts. This does not mean tight restrictions upon the choices which individual users or departments may wish to make about hardware and software for personal computers. Wide area networking in the AARNet model thrives upon a wide diversity within the institutional or departmental LANs. This diversity may include proprietary email systems, such as WordPerfect Office, or Microsoft's Mail, but why use a proprietary product if the public domain offers tools which are comparable and cost very much less? Proprietary protocols for networking, such as Novell's or Apple's, may coexist with TCP/IP on a LAN connected to AARNet, so a single standard should not be imposed unless there are good reasons to do so.
Central planning and implementation of a network extending to all colleges within a TAFE system is of particular importance, although it is usually seriously under-resourced, and may have to contend with the legacy of obsolete models for communications between dumb terminals and remote mainframes. Central planning may include model designs for LANs within colleges, and remotely operated central services for network management, host management and security. As a provider of internetwork services by means of a single point of interconnection, AARNet is not involved with intra-organisational networking, although concepts and models for open access networking drawn from AARNet are highly relevant for the task.
As a network of networks and a vehicle for regional, national and international communications, AARNet carries services which are available to every user anytime and anywhere on the networks, and can be originated anytime from anywhere on the networks. The network offers interaction with a peer group, without the need to know beforehand any persons in that peer group, or their location, or their schedule of activities. It is not surprising that the Open Learning Initiative (DEET, 1992b) has realised that electronic networking is a vitally important medium for enhancing open learning and distance education (DEET, 1992c). Developers of open learning and distance education applications carried by AARNet do not have to worry about scheduling in the way that is the case with audio, audiographic and video conferencing or television broadcasting.
Another important concept exemplified by AARNet is the scope for decentralised approaches in which a number of providers support a particular application. For example, the conduct of clearing house and database functions (DEET, 1992a) can be decentralised over AARNet by use of the gopher server concept, whereby the user interacts with gopher client software and sees a single database, responsive to plain language commands.
AARNet is not a relevant basis at present for building audiographic teleconferencing systems, such as those using Apple based "Electronic Classroom" or DOS based "Telewriter" and "GCTS". Typically, audiographic applications use their own proprietary protocols over public switched telephone network connections made as required for each teleconference session, in contrast to the permanent private network connections between local networks and hosts which are the usual basis for operating TCP/IP communications protocols. However, if based upon ISDN semipermanents, there is scope for audiographic applications to coexist on the same channel with a connection to hosts which are further connected to AARNet, by means of digital telephone handsets and multiplexers to partition the 64 kb/s capacity into subchannels for voice, audiographic data, and TCP/IP traffic.
From the perspective of traditional face to face teaching in classrooms, laboratories and workshops, computer mediated communications and networks may appear to have little direct relevance. However, if we adopt the perspectives of open learning and flexible delivery, and consider also the needs of the infrastructures required to support all forms of delivery of learning, then computer networks have high relevance. Computer networking is a highly supportive tool for enhancing the delivery of open learning and distance education, because it can be used very readily for one to one, class group, peer group and "broadcast" forms of communications, for information retrieval and for courseware distribution, whilst retaining individual freedom of choice in the scheduling of learning activities. Computer networking is also a very effective medium for communications relating to professional development, courseware development and many other activities which are essential in the infrastructures for education and training. This is especially the case with open learning and distance education.
There are some risks which TAFE managers face in connecting to AARNet, or in implementing any expansion of networking and communications capabilities. Given their closer connections with State governments, some may feel obliged to wait for progress to be achieved by the Australian Education Council's "Open Learning Technology Corporation" (Spring, 1992; DEET, 1992c). Surprisingly, the AEC and its consultants on telecommunications do not appear to have recognised that TCP/IP provides a ready made "common and agreed national technical specification" with very few problems about acceptability, ease of implementation and functionality on and between a wide range of types of local network (Atkinson, 1992b). Others may feel that government commitments in principle to OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) protocols preclude any use of TCP/IP protocols, or that TCP/IP is about to be superseded by OSI, both of which are quite erroneous interpretations. AARNet forecasts no substantial change in protocol technologies over the next three years (AVCC, 1992) and OSI is not established as a clear and viable alternative to TCP/IP (see, for example, Australian Communications, 1992).
The main risks in implementing an AARNet connection may be non-technical in nature and potential impact. Open access networks such as AARNet, with their seductive encouragement of lateral, non-hierarchial communications ranging far beyond one's own college or Department, may be a change agent arriving too soon and too quickly for managers to adjust. Documents and ideas are liable to flow everywhere instead of being confined to a neat and orderly handing up and down in the traditional way. Because AARNet originated in the university sector and has a distinctively national and international orientation, some may regard it as a sort of Trojan horse which could impact negatively on the goals and directions of vocational education and training sector.
As a tool which may appear to offer more benefits for open learning and distance education than for traditional teaching, computer communications may be regarded by some as giving a kind of unfair advantage to flexible delivery methods. Introduction of AARNet may generate an increased demand from staff for desktop computers, network connections, local hosts and user support services, all having budgetary implications. Some managers may feel that connection of an open access network, reticulated to every desktop, constitutes some kind of devaluation or questioning of existing networks based on proprietary protocols.
No doubt these issues will be examined extensively, and this could constitute an important part of the processes by which staff in TAFE, and in vocational education and training generally, adopt the benefits of wide area open access networking. The national organisational framework of Affiliate Membership of AARNet is in place, with well proven, stable and relatively economical technologies, and a large and rapidly expanding user base. AARNet itself provides one of the best avenues for discussion and resolution of networking and information technology issues, so instead of trying to resolve these in isolation, it would be very timely for the TAFE systems not already into AARNet to join as soon as possible.
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Dr Roger Atkinson is Acting Director of External Studies at Murdoch University, with 14 years' experience in distance education. Recent activities in research and development include convening the DEET Communications Link Project, directing the Reserve Fund Video Conferencing Project at Murdoch, and coordinating the Reserve Fund ADEnet Project for improved computer communications in distance education.
Cite as: Atkinson, R. (1992). Applications of AARNet computer networking in vocational education and training. In What future for technical and vocational education and training?. Proceedings, Conference of the NVCER, Melbourne, 14-18 December, Vol 2, p.1-14. Adelaide: NCVER. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/tafe-conf92.html
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