Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Convergence and distance education: The promise and problems of emerging communication technologies

John M. Renner
Science, Technology and Engineering
Edith Cowan University
No one would deny that we are in the age of convergent communication technology. The scope, diversity and rate of change in this area make decisions as to the most appropriate delivery systems at best difficult and at worst risky. The thrust of this paper takes the form of a warning: that unless universities accept these difficulties and face the attendant risks, they could in the next decade face the prospect of a diminishing role in education or even extinction as a provider.

"We are only now beginning to understand the implications of convergence; an environment within which computing telecommunication, TV and radio come together to create a transparent interactive delivery system." (PTC, 1995).


The Pacific Telecommunications Council Conference (PTC 1995) in January this year addressed the issue of convergent communication technology for distance learning from various perspectives, educational, technological and commercial. Indeed, it became apparent during the Conference that a number of universities and university consortia in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are already positioning to maximise the advantages of high-tech communication technologies. Quoted examples included: (i) NTU's commitment to globalise delivery via satellite over the next five years (trials have already been conducted in Canada and Malaysia and this month in Australia); (ii) the University of Saskatchewan where provincial delivery is being extended to other provinces and to the United States; (iii) Open Learning Agency, British Colombia, where similar plans are in train; (iv) OLA Australia's negotiations with South East Asian countries particularly Thailand; (v) Cal. Polytech, in co-operation with IBM to explore the use of an IBM ES/9000 and planned LAN File Server/Enterprise Systems Architecture (LFS/ESA) to support network delivery of multi-media education on demand; (vi) the same concept at Virginia Commonwealth University. Typically, the older well-established universities have been slower to respond, though it is hard to imagine that they will wait much longer. Globalising university delivery will happen within the next five years.

These and related trends serve to reinforce an emerging viewpoint that distance education can be defined more liberally than in the past. That is to say, distance education can be for "anyone, anywhere, any time". Distance learning can be effected within a few metres of a delivery site, or many thousands of kilometres away. Delivery will be convergent interactive and "asynchronous". It will include on demand video, text, graphics and sound. In quality it will match, perhaps exceed, that of face-to-face presentations. Where possible it will employ on-site as well as independent learning. A definition of our own Virtual Campus serves as an examplar of future delivery (Ring and Watson, in press).

The implications of these measures are substantial. Standards and cross-crediting provisions are already agenda items in all universities and will require considerable discussion and discipline. Increasingly, education will be viewed as a business, employing cost-effective solutions to reduce labour costs, better "customer" service and to maintain a competitive edge. Delivery technologies will assume a more prominent place in university budgets and universities will shift resources to enable technological convergence systems to be implemented effectively (hardware, software, new curricula, staff training and allocation of staff time). Instructional design specialists will be in keen demand. Delivery systems will include Internet (and WWW), satellite services, cable (including twisted pair, video and optical fibre) - each with substantial costs. Partnerships will emerge amongst universities and with commercial suppliers. In short, change in educational delivery is a certainty for the future.

Educational implications

Recently, Oliver and Grant (1994) reminded us of the impressive range of distance education technologies available to universities, plotting level of interactivity against level of learner independence (Figure 1). The authors would be first to acknowledge that positioning a particular delivery technology on the graph is at best subjective. Location depends largely on how a technology is used. Further descriptive details are available in the Oliver and Grant publication.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Distance Education Technologies (after Oliver and Grant, 1994)

More simply, the graph can be used to highlight directions of change in distance delivery (Figure 2). Arrows could be added in north, north-east and easterly directions from "one-way delivery".

Figure 2

Figure 2: Categories of Learning

The educational challenge

The current decade has seen the beginning of a re-organisation and rejuvenation of distance education in Australia, driven substantially by advances in telecommunication technology. New opportunities for remotely located students to interact with each other and with university lecturers have encouraged more venturesome educators to explore innovative approaches to distance learning including adaptations of face-to-face practices hitherto reserved for on-campus students. Notwithstanding, distance education in Australia is still largely achieved by one-way transmission systems. The situation is ripe for substantial change; for creative commercial input as well as internal review.

There can be little doubt that the convergence opportunities described in this paper will stimulate universities to re-think their educational priorities. Increasingly, universities will be pressured to give budget precedence to electronic delivery systems. Students, even those close to university campuses, will be able to complete substantial proportions of their degrees through electronic access. And in future, teachers will become as familiar with their students from screen images as from face-to-face contact. A hub of campus activity will be the multi-media interactive communication centre. Students world-wide will be able to enrol and study at the University of their choice via global multi-media highways without leaving home. Each university of note will evidence a global hinterland exercising a capacity to interact instantly "in real time" with its students at will. Since these dramatic changes are already upon us universities must reconsider established policies and practices of educational delivery. For example:

  1. Universities are considering options and issues arising from emerging interactive technologies, economic, social and industrial as well as educational (Oliver and Grant, 1994).

  2. Interactive global communication introduces the prospect of increasing choice by students for university places and greater competition for students internationally. Universities can be expected to increase their geographic spheres of influence.

  3. University strategic plans will increasingly refer to current and projected developments in communication technology; the impact of technology on distance education as teaching/learning support systems; the effectiveness of teaching using convergent technologies; and the responsiveness and achievement of students using convergent systems. Monitoring will become increasingly important as investment in hi-tech communication systems grows and with that growth an increasing demand for performance appraisal (Renner, 1993).

  4. University budgets are beginning to reflect the increasing importance of effective global communication. Hardware and software to support advanced communication systems will take an increasing proportion of recurrent funds, as will related support services. Likewise, training programs for university staff specialising in distance education, training of technical support staff, additional support for multi-media curriculum development will require budget allocations.

  5. Strategies will be needed to monitor the effectiveness of the new technologies: monitoring the effectiveness of implementing new equipment, new software, new methods of delivery (Renner, 1994); monitoring the possibility that educational policy will be shaped by the technology, the opportunities it affords and the limitations it imposes (Oliver and Grant, 1994); monitoring the possibility that diversity amongst universities could be diminished by over-arching global delivery systems that ignore international boundaries and cultural traditions.

  6. Enterprise bargaining in universities will necessarily take into account the potential of technology to focus responsibility for multi-media delivery on relatively few academic specialists supported by tutors. That is to say, university policies will need to address industrial issues arising from technological change (Renner and Grant, 1993; Isaacs, 1994).

  7. University teachers will need to become more technologically literate, more aware of the non-neutral nature of technology, more skilled in the use of convergent systems, more willing to debate issues exposed by new communication systems, less inclined to be content with established educational practices (Beynon, 1993).
We are rapidly approaching the time when denial of convergent communication systems will be tantamount to a denial of the right to be a university. At the same time, however, universities are essentially about people; for people. The fostering of individuality and individual talent is at the heart of university life. It follows that multi-media must be kept in perspective; an educational tool, a facilitator of individual learning and creative expression, rather than a technological imperative.

Concluding comments

What of the future? Will converging communication technologies impact increasingly on university education? Or, will universities lag behind the corporate sector in the adoption and implementation of convergent technologies? This paper has evidenced the opportunities and rewards for institutions prepared to invest in integrated systems. Meanwhile, however, stand-alone products and services such as electronic networking, desktop video, telecommuting and interactive television continue to penetrate the education market. Impressive though these technologies may be, the technological and educational breakthrough awaited by many will only be achieved by creative integration akin to the Virtual Campus.

Predictably, convergent interactive technologies epitomised by the Virtual Campus will rapidly, perhaps painfully, become part of our educational infrastructure. By the turn of the century, enhanced by optical fibre and satellite, they will have enabled global access to education and prompted reviews, re-assessments and re-orientations of university priorities. Moreover, improved access will offer opportunities for academics to develop new styles and strategies of programme delivery, explore emerging curriculum opportunities, adapt teaching/learning skills. Doubtless, educators will respond to these opportunities with varying degrees of enthusiasm. On one hand, some academics are already suspicious of educational changes driven by technology (Postman, 1993; Carey, 1993). Others, however, having experienced the opportunities for interaction with students provided by the Virtual Campus, support the application of convergent systems for education; their potential to achieve on a global scale what has been regarded as best practice within the walls of a university classroom.

Given the mix of positive and cautious responses from academics, what does the future hold for our own Virtual Campus? Implementation is proceeding prompted by encouraging support from users. But further developments cannot be taken for granted. Critical questions continue to be raised. Will the investment be cost effective? How many academics will willingly adopt the technology? Will confidential communications between student and tutor be adequately protected? Student/staff surveys have been conducted, reports prepared, evaluations undertaken, in each case recommending the Virtual Campus Board of Management to proceed with expansion and up-grades of the system. Sustained implementation, however, will depend on a complex of factors including leadership and financial support, educational and technical R and D, progressive upgrades and articulation, training of educators and technicians to support the use of convergent communication systems for education. Monitoring of two-way broadband interactively and the effectiveness of the technology targetting level, quality and scope of implementation will play an increasingly supportive role (Renner, 1993).

Convergent technologies enhanced in performance by global networks will, before long, provide interactive access to all people - "anyone, anywhere, anytime". But global education will not be for all universities. The inter-continental market for students is more likely to be dominated in the twenty first century by powerful university clusters - the educational multi-nationals. Smaller, less influential universities, unwilling or unable to adopt convergent communication systems may fade while the stronger compete head to head for students. Whatever the outcome, university education must endeavour to retain existing strengths, avoiding pre-packaged courses bereft of spontaneity and debate; courses delivered more for financial gain than educational fulfilment. Perhaps what is needed is an additional form of convergence, one which integrates a vigorous technology with the needs and wishes of people.

This paper began with a quotation. As universities grow to understand the importance of that quotation, so too will competition increase in the student marketplace. Its implications take us well beyond the technology into such areas as selling new opportunities to academic staff, providing adequate support and encouragement for high-tech distance delivery and identifying niche markets, quality courses and talent to enable effective implementation of emergent technology.


Beynon, J. (1993). Technological literacy. In Beynon, J. and Mackay, H. (editors), Computers into classrooms. London, Falmer Press, 212-232.

Carey, J. W. (1993). Everything that rises must diverge. Paper presented at the Australian Communication Association Conference. Melbourne, Australia.

Isaacs, D. (1994). The impact of telecommunications on education. Search, 25(6), 170-173.

Joseph, R. (1993). Converging telecommunications technologies. Telecommunications Policy, September/October, 493-501.

Oliver, R. and Grant, M. (1994). Distance education technologies: A review of instructional technologies for distance education and open learning. Intech Research: Perth, Edith Cowan University.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, Knoff.

PTC95 (1995). Proceedings, Pacific Telecommunication Council 17th Annual Conference, Honolulu, 22-26 January.

Renner, J. and Grant, M. (1993). Implementation of a full bandwidth optical fibre network at Edith Cowan University. Research Report. Perth, ECU and Telecom Australia.

Renner, J. M. (1993). Enhancing the quality of engineering education through interactive television: an evaluation of video networking in Western Australia. Proceedings, Australasian Association of Engineering Education Conference, Auckland, New Zealand.

Renner, J. M. (1994). Convergent electronic networking: An interactive delivery system for distance education students in Australia. Proceedings, UNESCO Conference on International Networking, Perth, Western Australia.

Ring, J. and Watson, A. C. (1994). The Virtual Campus: ECU's developmental pattern. In IFIP Working Party on Multimedia in Universities. Elsevier (in press).

Please cite as: Renner, J. M. (1995). Convergence and distance education: The promise and problems of emerging communication technologies. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p223-228. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/renner.html

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