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The purpose of this section is to publish information regarding studies that are in the planning or implementation stages. It will not only serve to inform readers of current initiatives but also to facilitate exchange of information among researchers working in the same area.

With respect to each project, it is planned to list the topic, the research(s), the institution (if any) through which the project is being conducted, a contact address and/or telephone number, and a brief description of the project itself.

Intending contributors should send the appropriate details to: The Editor, 'Queensland Researcher', Research Services Branch, Queensland Department of Education, P.O. Box 33, North Quay Q 4000.

TITLE:Distance Education Satellite Trial : School of the Air - Mt Isa. (Progress Evaluation Report).


The Queensland Education Department's Distance Education Satellite Trial was launched in January 1986 to explore the applications to distance education of the new technology associated with the AUSSAT satellite communication system.

The trial follows a year of intensive planning and development activities under the direction of the Satellite Trial Implementation Committee, chaired by the Director of Curriculum Services.

The focus of the trial is the isolated primary school student in the form of eight Year 6 pupils of the Mount Isa School of the Air.

The one-year trial features two major innovations: the use of satellite technology and electronics and the localisation of the educational program for children in isolated areas. Three major goals have been put forward for the trial:

An evaluator has been assigned to the trial. Data collection methods for the evaluation include: This progress evaluation report was compiled at the half-way point of the one-year trial.

Description of Program

The normal procedure in distance education in Queensland has been for students to complete and return lesson papers sent from the Primary Correspondence School in Brisbane. Home Tutors, usually the student's mother or a governess, supervise and assist the students in their school work. With parental agreement, High Frequency (HF) radio transceivers have been provided to students to communicate daily in half-hour lessons with a teacher based at the nearest School of the Air. These radio lessons have complemented rather than replaced correspondence lessons. A wide range of support services supplement these basic processes.

For the purposes of the trial, each of the eight isolated homesteads has been equipped with a 2.4m dish with associated electronic components which comprise the Minor Earth Station. Each child has a work station comprising an AUSSAT student console with combination microphone-headset, an Apple IIe computer, a TV monitor, two disk drives, a printer, and a video cassette recorder.

Along with this powerful communication system, the role of the School of the Air teacher has taken a central position in the process. The children's learning program is based on rewritten and specially adapted versions of the printed lesson papers of the Primary Correspondence School, supplemented by video and print materials as well as computer software. Materials are sent from the returned to the School of the Air, rather than the Correspondence School.

The learning program consists of:

Audio (Teacher Contact Sessions): The children participate in 'on air' lessons for two 30 minute sessions each day with the trial teacher based in a studio of the School of the Air (Mount Isa). In the earlier sessions (8.30am) the students are actively involved in group learning activities such as shared problem solving tasks, debates, role playing and other enrichment activities based on newly developed lesson papers.

The later half-hour session (11.00am) is taken up by teacher directed lessons concentrating on the individual and involving one to one, group, or whole class tutoring in areas needing clarification or remediation.

In addition, 'on air' sessions are held fortnightly for the children's home tutors. In these sessions the teacher outlines new work units and indicates the work that will be covered in future 'on air' lessons. A time schedule for work to be completed is also given when necessary. This has proved to be an essential aid to the home tutors in planning their work ahead.

The satellite system allows for telephone audio clarity and has the special facility of two channels. Using this system the teacher can have two groups of students working on separate tasks simultaneously or can work with one or two children while the others work as a group.

Students can call on the teacher for help during the school day by pressing a call button on their audio console.

Interactive Video ('Outer Site'): A live interactive television program is transmitted fortnightly into the homes of the Year 6 children via the satellite. The program was developed to explore the possibilities of using the television medium for teacher/'child interaction. It aims at providing opportunities for pupils to participate interactively in real-time experiences not otherwise available. The link provides for one-way video and two way audio transmission from a central Brisbane studio to the isolated homesteads and the trial teachers in Mount Isa. This means the students and trial teacher in Mount Isa can hear and see the TV presenters, and the presenters can hear but not see the students and teachers.

Learning Package: This has four main components:

In the 12 months prior to the trial's launch a special project team which included the trial teacher worked to rewrite or modify the Year 6 correspondence papers. The exception was mathematics which was left unaltered to allow for easier transition back to the regular correspondence lessons in Year 7 in 1987.

The idea was to develop an integrated learning package which would take advantage of the improved communication system, and allow the School of the Air teacher to take full responsibility for the children's learning.

Central to the learning packages are the newly developed lesson papers. These are based on social studies and science and are divided into six units covering the year's work. A unit consists of between two and six week's work on a specific topic and includes an assignment booklet to accompany the lesson papers. Unit topics include 'Climate and Resources', 'Urban and Rural Living'' and 'News and Newspapers'.

Speaking and creative writing sections were transferred from the language arts papers and integrated with these units as it was considered that these subjects were better handled using the audio mode rather than print. Resource material from the Curriculum Services Branch, booklets, video assisted learning tapes, loan video scheme tapes and audio tapes complete the package. The video assisted learning tapes were specially selected for the trial to provide the students with specific back up material for the new lesson units. As with all School of the Air students, the children on the trial receive regular copies of video cassettes under the Loan Video Scheme. These usually contain recordings of selected ABC school broadcasts with support print material.

Learning and enrichment activities in the Teacher Contact Sessions are centred on these units, making use of the flexibility of the system for such activities as role playing, debating, report writing, summarising and group work.

Reading is being promoted through a modified Read in Bed - It's Terrific (RIBIT) program which includes literature that supports the curriculum content. Books distributed to the children cover poetry, epics and sagas, myths and legends, folklore as well as contemporary literature. An important part of this scheme is the addition of teacher conferencing sessions with individual children on the books they have read. This program is supported by a special RIBIT segment in the 'Outer Site' video program where the presenter discusses a selection of the books with the children.

Several units are directly supported by computer software. The students will be able to refer to data bases for information in some social studies assignments and 'Newsroom' to produce their own newspaper.

Computer Link: Computers are used in two ways - in the stand alone mode and communication mode. The former does not rely on the satellite communication link and the children operate the computers as they would in regular schools. In the stand alone mode the software available to the students includes simulation, drill and practice, tutorials, problem solving, word processing, art software, as well as data bases.

In the communication mode software has been developed to transmit diagrams, pictures and written work between the teacher in Mount Isa and the eight students. Teacher and students are able to use the voice system to discuss this material which is the focus of specially designed lessons. An electronic mailing system allows the teacher or students to send messages or text to any of the other sites where it can be stored for future retrieval. This enables the exchange of student tasks with the teacher and with other students as well as the sharing of data files.

Computers were chosen to provide graphics to illustrate 'on air' lessons rather than using direct television instruction to support lessons because:

An attempt has been made to create a new learning environment to reflect aspects of a normal classroom where the teacher can sit down with individual children and discuss and modify written work and easily illustrate lesson content and difficult concepts.

Apple IIe computers were chosen for each workstation. This decision was taken because of the range and availability of educational software and the access to design expertise needed to establish the data communication system. The trial teacher has a more powerful Sanyo 16 BIT computer to create the screens and to manage the network operation.

A special feature of the network allows the teacher to assign control to any other site including control of the movable cursor. This enables the teacher and students to point electronically to parts of a screen graphic or to add information to all or any of the screens connected to the network.


The trial teacher reports that the two half hour teacher sessions are being fully utilised. As well as the activities mentioned earlier, the second session at 11.00am has been used for individual conferencing on written work that the class has done on the word processor. Since at present the trial has access to the system during the whole school day, these conferencing sessions are often held at other times. The data transmission facility allows this conferencing to be done by the child sending the writing sample to the teacher's file via the computer communication link and then both teacher and pupil bringing up the work on their screens simultaneously for discussion.

The trial teacher has reported that educationally the most rewarding aspects of the audio link have been that:

Interactive Video

As it is largely experimental, the format and content area of the 'Outer Site' program have varied from program to program. Methods of presentation in the interactive segments have also varied considerably.

In the early program the children had a limited range of participation. Their involvement and input was mainly be responding to the questions of the presenters, and by asking questions.

Later programs used different techniques. Presenters undertook role playing to introduce social studies topics. Interaction followed their dramatisation of each topic but at this stage the presenters still controlled the discussions as in the earlier programs.

The most recent programs have attempted to pass some control over to the children. In an art appreciation program the children had direct input by manipulating actors on a set to create new moods and tell new stories from paintings. This idea was developed in the following program when the children directed actors and the production crew to create a teleplay which was then performed and recorded.

Another program allowed the children direct participation by performing science experiments at home, following studio demonstration by the presenters. The children then reached conclusions which they indicated to the presenters.

These programs have proved to be extremely motivational. Home tutors report that all schoolwork ceases for the duration of the transmission and the whole family views the programs. A close rapport has developed between the presenters and the children although they have never met.

One drawback of such interactive television is the fact that it draws upon a disproportionate amount of production resources, both manpower and financial.

Learning Packages

The learning package has been very favourably received by the children, home tutors and trial teacher. The Curriculum Services Branch of the Department has already shown interest in adapting the learning package for use in other school situations. The social studies/science lesson units have had positive feedback from the home tutors. These provide appropriate material for integrating other subject areas and different learning strategies into the 'on air' lessons. The children enjoy their 'on air' activities based on these units.

Initial problems with terminology and home tutors' management have been attended to. These problems arose from the fact that the new social studies lesson units covered varying time spans of up to six weeks. Home tutors had been accustomed to two-week correspondence lesson papers and found organising the work difficult. The trial teacher subsequently prepared overviews which help home tutors to plan their work. Problems are dealt with in the fortnightly home tutor sessions. These sessions have been transferred to an afternoon time slot as the morning session was interrupting the school routine of those home tutors who had several other children on School of the Air lessons and correspondence papers.

The Video Assisted Learning tapes which are directly referred to in lesson papers are being used regularly by all students. The Loan Video 5cheme tapes however are not. One home tutor feels that the children have had a significant amount of extra activity added to their day's work and finding time has thus become a problem. In addition the satellite gives the families access to high quality ABC TV reception which means at the time when the Loan Video Scheme tapes would probably be viewed (after school, or at weekends) the children have another alternative. The "Outer Site' TV program also fills the role of imparting general knowledge.

An interesting development is that localising the point of mailing and return of lesson papers has not speeded up communication in all cases. This is because mail from some centres is sometimes routed through Townsville and Brisbane. Alternative methods such as using regular coach services are being investigated. The introduction of the computer communications link for data transmission will alleviate this problem to some extent as there is the likelihood that some of the students' work will be transmitted directly to the teacher's file for marking.

The RIBIT reading program has had a great impact on the children who, in the trial teacher's words, are 'devouring' the books.

Computer Link

The development of the data transmission system is one of the most interesting developments in the trial. It involves major technical innovations as special software and hardware had to be developed to establish and control the network as well as to transmit data via the satellite. The problem to be overcome was the need to transfer screens or files reliably to the eight sites, in a matter of seconds, during on air lessons. This required the development of a very fast modem capable of high data transmission rates.

At present all sites have been set up for data transmission and lessons are being conducted using the system. This involves the teacher sending work to each student prior to a lesson and then working through the exercises using the audio link. It is also possible for the students to complete the exercises, put them on file or print out their answers. Electronic mailing is also being used by the students to exchange written work such as newspaper reports they have written.

The computer software is currently being modified to allow for automatic switching of the system from data to voice and vice versa.

Home Tutors' Role

In distance education the home tutors' role has been recognised as a highly important part of the education process of the isolated student.

In some respects the introduction of high technology with the satellite system has made the home tutors' role more complex. In other respects, with the School of the Air taking more control of the learning program, their role has been simplified.

Many rewarding aspects of their new role have already been reported by home tutors. They now have extra time available either to spend with their other children or to do other chores. This is because the children spend one hour a day on air with the School of the Air teacher and sometimes work on after the sessions either independently or in conference with the teacher or other students about some aspect of their work.

The home tutors have been able to develop new understandings in lesson presentation from the on air lessons which can make their own lessons more interesting.

The availability of the call button to contact the trial teacher when problems occur has been reassuring to the home tutors. They feel less isolated having this instant back up available. Also children can consult directly with their teacher via the call button without using the home tutor as an intermediary. This has taken some of the load off the home tutors. Now when difficulties with the lesson papers occur, the children can seek help from the teacher rather than the home tutor who is often involved in teaching other members of the family on correspondence lessons.

The children were reported as becoming more independent of the home tutors who were not all 'taking in' information given in the lesson. Incidental monitoring of 'on air' lessons has been common in HF radio sessions because the HF radio receivers are fitted with loudspeakers. The trial children have headphones, and the home tutors cannot listen unless they use a second headset. This is not commonly done because there are often other children or other tasks to attend to. The children now have more responsibility to note what tasks are required and when, and what materials are needed for future lessons.

Although the home tutors report no disadvantages for their children, from their own point of view several felt more time-dependent. They felt obligated to ensure that their child attended all sessions 'on air' which tied them down all morning. There are possibly two reasons for this. Firstly, they feel that it would disrupt the small class if their child was absent for any session. Secondly, due to the high profile of the trial and the large amount of resources invested in it, they felt it would be 'letting the side down' to miss sessions

Technical Aspects

The reliability of the equipment is a major factor in this trial, as technical problems have been complicated by the distances involved. Equipment must be transported to Brisbane for maintenance, or in the case of the large electronic units, technicians must visit the isolated sites. This involves up to a 1200km round trip from Mount Isa, which itself is a two-hour flight from Brisbane. Rain can completely disrupt the roads leading to many homesteads, isolating them for several days.

Technical difficulties in the first term caused some frustrations to home tutors who in the past have been in complete control of the home learning situation and comfortable with the HF radio. The new home learning program is largely dependent on high technology, much of which they are not familiar with. They thus feel dependent on technicians and support personnel to a great extent, and feel somewhat inadequate to make the best use of the potential of the system.

The involvement of different groups in the development of the system has also created challenges with respect to co-ordination and communications. A private computer consultant company, two component manufacturers, two State Government departments, AUSSAT, and Telecom have all been involved.

As the trial passed the half-way stage feedback from the trial teacher and home tutors remained consistently positive. Technical problems at some sites have caused frustrations but have not dampened enthusiasm for the system being trialled.

The trial teacher sees his role as very satisfying as he feels more in control of the whole learning program. He has input into the development of the lesson papers and the Live Video program, controls the audio lessons, marks the students' work, and issues their reports.

The home tutors, having adjusted to the new technology and learning program after (in some cases) many years on the traditional HF system, are pleased with progress.

The successful implementation of the computer link is an exciting development with many potential applications to distance education in general.

The power and scope of this instructional system, allied to the positive attitudes of the parents and their strong respect for the trial teacher, ensures that the procedures for localising the delivery and management of distance education will be given every chance to succeed.

Comments or enquiries concerning the above may be directed to:

Brian McInally or Ted Hobbs
Research Services Branch
Department of Education
P.O. Box 33
North Quay Q 4000
(07) 227 7194
Please cite as: QIER (1986). Studies in progress 2(3). Queensland Researcher, 2(3), 45-58. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr2/studies-in-progress-2-3.html

[ Contents Vol 2, 1986 ] [ QJER Home ]
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