Tony Dean remembers the close relationship between distance education and audio-visual education 1970s – 1990s

Congratulations to the School of Isolated and Distance Education on celebrating 100 years of correspondence and distance education in Western Australia.

In the 1970s and 1980s I worked as a Senior Education Officer at the Audio-Visual Education Branch of the Education Department. During this period we worked closely with the then WA Correspondence School (later the Distance Education Centre) during an important period of innovation and transformation.

The Audio Visual Education Branch was located in Vincent Street, Leederville, on the premises which were later to become the home of the School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE).

During the 1970s and 80s there was a growing demand from the Correspondence School and later DEC for learning materials that would complement traditional correspondence education. We produced 35mm slide sets, filmstrips, audio cassette recordings and photographic materials that were incorporated in various ways into correspondence lessons.

With the advent of colour television and video cassette recorders in the late 1970s, we saw an opportunity to exploit these new technologies to enhance distance learning. We applied for, and received, joint Federal and State Government funding to establish a trial of a video loan scheme that enabled us to provide distance education students, living in a fixed location, with a colour TV and VCR. Each week we would record video cassettes that included copies of ABC educational broadcasts, copies of titles from our own 16mm film library, and later our own original video productions. These tapes were posted to students in isolated locations around the state.

The trial was not without its practical and technical challenges, one of which involved educating parents in these locations how to take the lid off their VCR and periodically remove the accumulated dust from its critical components. Nonetheless the trial was a great success and the scheme later became a regular service. On the basis of our experience, similar schemes were established in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

In the early 80s the AV Centre in Leederville was extensively enlarged and modernised and included the construction of a broadcast-standard television studio, enabling us to dramatically expand our video production. The Distance Education Centre became one of our major clients, and DEC staff would come to our studio each week to record new lesson materials that could be sent to students on videocassette. Examples of these programs can be found in the archive material on the SIDE Centenary website.

In the mid-1980s Australia’s first domestic communications satellite, Aussat, was launched, and this opened up new opportunities for us to deliver distance education more efficiently and to a much wider audience. Students in isolated locations now had access to broadcast TV for the first time, including ABC educational programs. We recognised that there was also a need to supplement the ABC with specific local educational content relevant to WA needs. We negotiated with the Golden West Network (GWN) to provide us with up to two hours per weekday to provide educational programs, in a service called EdTV.

EdTV was a regular segment of the GWN broadcast schedule for nearly ten years. It included a wide range of educational programs produced or provided by the Education Department, including DEC, as well as TAFEs and the universities. Although most programs were pre-recorded, EdTV also provided us with the opportunity to broadcast live, interactive programs from our TV studio in Leederville. DEC Live Science was an early example of this genre, and allowed students watching the program live to phone in with their questions and comments during the broadcast.

Western Australia was seen as being at the forefront of new developments in distance learning and new technologies, and educators would regular visit us from other jurisdictions to understand more about the close relationship we had established between distance education and audio-visual education.

In 1988 I was seconded to the Education Department’s head office to work on a review of distance education. I worked with Dr Daryll Hull to co-author the report, Future Directions for Distance Education, which recommended, among other things, a new School of Distance Education, bringing together DEC and the Schools of the Air.

The report was generally well received but not implemented at the time due to budgetary constraints.

Meanwhile the Audio Visual Education Branch became known as the Centre for Educational Technology, and later WestEd Media, and continued its close relationship with the Distance Education Centre. However, in the early 1990s budget pressures resulted in the closure of WestEd Media. Staff were redeployed, much of the production equipment was sold, and the site in Vincent Street Leederville was put on the market.

Fortunately, the site at Leederville was retained, and the State Government decided to establish the new School of Isolated and Distance Education at the site, combining it with the adjacent former Leederville Primary School site. This meant that the new SIDE could continue to use the production facilities including the television studio which had served distance education well over the previous ten years.

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of dramatic change, as correspondence learning evolved into multi-media distance education. Although it pre-dated the internet era and the emerging opportunities made possible by online, broadband technologies, it was a time when distance education students, for the first time, were able to engage with the same learning materials as those available to students in regular classrooms. Many of the materials we produced for DEC were actually picked up by schools and used in classes. Distance education was no longer considered ‘second-class’, and in fact became a leader in adopting new and emerging technologies to make education more appealing and more accessible to a wider audience.

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