Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Attitudes and access to technology in distance education

Robert Fox, Anna Boyd and Allan Herrmann
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University
There has been a great increase in the technologies available in the higher education sector in recent years. The fact that the technology is available however, does not necessarily imply that it should be used without reference to students' needs and expectations.

Using a sample of Curtin University distance education students, the project aimed to determine student perceptions of the use of technology in distance education in terms of their access, perceived usefulness and potential difficulties with use.

Results indicate that there are differences in perceptions of and access to technology for different groups of students on the basis of age, gender and discipline differences. In addition, it appears that for rural and remote students in particular, the focus should be on improving communication between the student, the unit controller and the institution, and increasing the quality of the learning experience for students by using current, commonly available technology.


In recent years, the Commonwealth government has severely limited systematic growth of higher education. In a recent discussion paper (National Board of Employment Education and Training (NBEET), 1994) it was identified that any future growth in this sector, would probably be through alternative modes (read technologically based) of delivery.

While the philosophical, pedagogical and political arguments surrounding this paradigm shift are being hotly debated, we believed one of the basic questions was being ignored; ie. what access do current distance education students have to the various types of technology which are touted for the future delivery of their university studies? The secondary issue of their perceptions of this technology and its uses also needed to be addressed.

Worldwide, there has been a great deal of literature written on the issue of access to and delivery of technology, with a literature review by Bridge and Salt in 1992 uncovering 1248 entries on the subject since 1985. Many recent papers question whether well-intentioned efforts to improve access and participation through technological innovation, is creating more distance rather than less (eg. Kirkup et al, 1994; Harry et al; Dillon & Blanchard, 1992; Campion, 1991). Wells (1993) cautions that institutions developing computer mediated communication (CMC) courses should ensure "that this democratic medium does not become an elitist one", by ignoring issues of gender , minority groups and rural access. A second area eliciting comment in the literature is the need for course design in distance education to be educationally, rather than technologically driven (eg. Bates, 1991; Ortner, 1992).

This paper outlines some of the findings of our investigation[1] of attitudes and access to technology for a population of distance education students. The study surveyed Curtin University of Technology students enrolled in at least one 'distance education' provided unit of study in semester 1, 1993. Of the questionnaires mailed to students in the sample (1854), 887 (48%) were returned. This return rate was considered reliable and in comparing the broad education enrolment profile of those who returned the surveys, it was felt to be a representative sample of Curtin distance education students.


The questionnaire comprised four sections; three addressing issues relating to specified educational technology and one soliciting demographic data. In addition, an open-ended question on the use of technology was included. The first issue, which is the focus of this paper, is student access to 24 different types of hardware which may be used within distance context. Because of the potential for the use of technology, we believed it was important for the university to know to which technologies the students have greatest access, before rather than after, committing large sums of money to courseware development.

Results and discussion

Figure 1 shows the levels of student access (with the categories and frequent access amalgamated) to a range of technologies for Western Australian students. The graph of percentages of the responses shows three levels of access (not to be confused with ownership); those above 80%; those between 70% and 20% and those less than 20%. As might be expected the high access hardware items include telephone, AM radio, audio tape, television and video recorders.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Levels of access to a range of technologies for Western Australian students

When cross tabulations were examined, differences in the levels of access to the technologies across the Western Australian regions (metropolitan, rural and remote), sex, age and Division (ie. discipline) were apparent. In general the 30 to 39 years age group tended to have higher levels of full/frequent access than other age groups eg. significant differences for videos[2], answering machines and Macintosh computers. The fact that as age increased access to slide projector increased while access to an audio CD decreased, may be seen as anecdotal evidence for the way technology enters the community. In general males have better access to most types of hardware significantly, slides, IBM compatible computers, modems, fax, as well as email/CMC infrastructure.

Students from different disciplines also had different levels of access to the range of technologies identified in the questionnaire. It was not surprising that students in the Division of Science and Engineering had significantly greater access to slides and IBM compatible computers than students in other division, particularly those in the social and health sciences. Science and engineering students, with business students, also had significantly greater access to modems. Business students were in the highest access group for email/CMC and fax, although they had significantly lower levels of access to CD-ROMS, compared with high levels for those in the social sciences. Perceived, rather than actual potential access may be a complicating factor in this analysis, in that for example business students are less likely to need access to a CD-ROM for literature searches compared with those in the social sciences, and thus may make less effort to find an access point. Distance students of the Muresk Institute of Agriculture and the West Australian School of Mines (WASM), which are both rural branch campuses of Curtin, had amongst the lowest levels of access to the majority technologies identified in the questionnaire. This may be explained as more a factor of their rural location, and the remote employment opportunities for this group, rather than the nature of the discipline per se.

As indicated, metropolitan students tended to have higher levels of full/frequent access to hardware than those from rural and remote areas. The exceptions were modem and fax, where rural and remote students had significantly higher access. This result becomes more interesting when viewed in the light of students comments. The importance of access as an issue for students was reinforced by the fact that 45% of those that responded to the open ended question regarding the most difficult thing about using technology, mention access as a major issue, nearly double the number of comments elicited for any other issue. The 'Access' group of responses included not only simple access to hardware and software, but also the question of access outside normal working hours and the time taken in travelling to get the access.


From the analysis of the data so far, patterns of attitudes and access to technology for Curtin University distance education students are emerging. The results of the completed survey should help to provide a useful database on the attitudes and access to technology for this population of Curtin distance education students. This information can be used to make informed decisions and choices in the development of technologically based courseware. It will also be very important to ensure that in an effort to improve student access to higher education through the use of technology, that institutions do not create a new elite.


Bates, A. (1991). Third generation distance education: The challenge of new technology. Research in Distance Education, 3 (2), 10-15.

Bridge, H. & Salt, H. (1992). Access and delivery in continuing education and training: A guide to contemporary literature. Nottingham UK: Publications Unit, Department of Adult Education, University Park.

Campion, M. (1991). Distance Education: Access, equity and participation and/or efficiency and effectiveness. In ASPESA 10, pp. 59-70.

Dillon, C. L. & Blanchard, D. (1992). Education for each: Learner driven distance education. In ACSDE Research Monograph 4, pp. 9-33.

Harry, K., John, M. & Keegan, D. (Eds.). (1993). Distance Education: New perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 1-3.

Kirkup, G., Jones, A.C. & Kirkwood, A. (1994). Equality of opportunity in distance education and the impact of personal computers for students. In M. Thomas et al (Eds.), Deciding our future: Technological imperatives for education. The 11th International Conference on Technology and Education, University of London.

Latchem, C. & Pritchard, A. (1994). Open Learning: The unique Australian option. Open Learning, 9, p3.

National Board of Employment Education and Training (1994). Resource Allocation in Higher Education in Australia. A discussion paper. Canberra: Department of Employment Education and Training.

Ortner, G. (1992). Does two-way communication require a new distance education technology? In G. Ortner, K. Graff & H. Wilmersdoerfer (Eds.), Distance education as two-way communication: Essays in honour of Boerje Holmberg. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Land GmbH.

Wells, R. (1993). The use of computer-mediated communication in distance education: progress, problems and trends. In Davies, G. & Samways, B. (Eds.), Teleteaching: Proceedings of the IFIP TC3 teleteaching conference, Teleteaching '93. (pp 79-88). Trondheim, Norway.


  1. This project was undertaken with the support of the Teaching Learning Group, Curtin University of Technology and funding from Commonwealth Quality Grant monies to Curtin University.

  2. Pearson chi2 (For levels of significance see Appendix 1)

Appendix 1

Table 1: Statistically significant chi2 values for Access x Division/Age/Gender/Region

Statistically significant
p <
p <
IBM Computer19.180.05---15.140.01---
Mac Computer---12.460.05------
Slide projector22.980.0124.960.0113.640.01---
Audio CD---32.760.01------
Answering machine---16.760.01------

Please cite as: Fox, R., Boyd, A. and Herrmann, A. (1995). Attitudes and access to technology in distance education. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p89-93. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/fox2.html

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