The WA.Regional Project: the establishment and evaluation of an electronic mail network in rural Western Australia

Garry Gillard, Report for AOLIN, 1989


The WA.Regional Project was set up during 1988 with funding from a Murdoch University Special Research Grant and with the assistance of AOLIN, the Australian Open Learning Information Network. In the course of the Project an electronic mail network was established which was to be shared by Murdoch University and Western Australian country post-secondary institutions. Funding was applied to the purchase of hardware and software for use in accessing electronic mail systems, and (by AOLIN) for free use of the system for a limited period for new users.

Objectives

The objectives of the Project were: to extend and strengthen collaborative arrangements for the support of external students; to facilitate the continuing development of contracting arrangements by which Murdoch external courses are partly taught and supported by regional institutions; to develop awareness and encourage use of electronic mail systems in Western Australia generally; and to evaluate the setting-up and operation of the network with regard to its intended goals.

AOLIN is an inter-institutional self-supporting educational network of people with a common interest in the use of information technology for teaching, research and administration. Members communicate with one another using the Telecom public electronic messaging system called Keylink T. AOLIN provides a service to educational institutions, but operates independently of them and of Telecom. One of the objectives of AOLIN is to support systematic evaluations of information technology, and the present Project has received such support.

Support for the Project has also been derived from its relationship with the expansion of contracting: cross-sectoral co-operation between country colleges and tertiary institutions in Perth. Contracting at Murdoch University began in collaboration with the Great Southern Regional College in Albany, and GSRC's Admissions Officer, Yvonne Davison, was the first non-metropolitan associate member to join under the auspices of Murdoch and this Project. Discussions are underway with centres in other towns, and agreements have been reached so far with the Geraldton College of TAFE and Karratha College, both of which are also on line with AOLIN.

The Project leader, who will be the co-ordinator of the new network, was already Administrator of the Murdoch node of AOLIN, and an Education Officer in the External Studies Unit of the University with special responsibility for some aspects of telecommunications.

The basic operational objective of the Project was to have one person at each country college or centre who knew the rudiments of the use of electronic mail, and who could therefore act as a point of contact, both for communications and for the dissemination of practical knowledge about using a communications system. This objective has been achieved, at the time of writing, in five cases, at Albany, Hedland, Karratha, Carnarvon and Geraldton, and Esperance TAFE College and the Newman Campus of Hedland College will soon be enabled. (The Bunbury Institute of Advanced Education uses Keylink through its parent college, the WA College of Advanced Education. Kalgoorlie College was invited to join the Network, but have so far declined.)

Establishment

At the time of their registration on the system, new members were sent a number of items: Telecom's Introduction to usage (which later became Executive users guide Keylink T), User training kit, and training video; Angela Castro, A guide to AOLIN for new members, revised by Garry Gillard; 'Questionnaire no. 1 on user profile' from the AOLIN Executive; the pre-use questionnaire designed for this Project; Angela Castro, 'Introducing AOLIN'; information about Keylink charges; a list of AOLIN members names and organisations; and a letter which included a request that they enter into a contract to pay fees incurred by their usage of the system.

Two new nodes were created in the system: the WA.Regional subdivision (within the Murdoch division), with its own bulletin board of that name; the Murdoch.University bulletin board for posting information about the University of interest to anyone, including the WA.Regional people. The node Murdoch.ASM already existed, with its associated bulletin board and administrator, the Project leader. Two lists were also created: WA.Reg.List, and Murdoch.List, for easy mailing to members in those two groups.

The Guide to AOLIN for new members, written specifically for the target group, offered advice about hardware and software, logging on and using Keylink T commands, and was intended to be the main source of information for its audience, as it was more appropriate for their needs than Telecom's Introduction to usage, and the User training kit was seen as being poorly designed. The video program was sent in the hope that it might provide some motivation, although it was seen as silly.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that new users experienced more difficulty in setting up their equipment and getting it to work than with factors under the administrator's control. They had to get permission to purchase equipment and to get a dedicated telephone line which might have to be modified to go through a local PABX. Telephone calls received by the administrator at the time of operationalisation were more likely to be concerned with modem connections than with Keylink commands. Once people had read and sent their first messages, no difficulty was experienced in using the system.

Usage

Analysis of four responses to the pre-use questionnaire received to date revealed that three of the respondents had had previous experience of electronic mail, although all had used a computer before. Three had their own terminal or computer, and one shared. None had a terminal or computer at home, but three could take one home. All were happy with computer storage (as opposed to hard copy).

All respondents were content with the training information they had been sent: two particularly liked the User Training Kit; two liked the video, although another thought it was 'childish'. All respondents expected to find general bulletin boards useful; three of the four thought they would find useful: limited bulletin boards, private messages, and databases; and one thought computer conferencing might have some usefulness. They expected to use Keylink either 15 or 15-30 minutes in the average week, logging on once a day (one), 2-3 times a week (two), or once a week (one).

All could type material in themselves and were free to use the system as they wished. Three thought it would be useful in many respects, but one was more guarded.

Two felt that a preference for the telephone might limit their use of the system, and two thought that a lack of time might. Only one was limited in access to a computer/terminal. Three thought that electronic mail might replace some mail communications, and two thought there might be less telephone communications. One thought there would be little change.

All commented on their ambitions regarding AOLIN along the lines of improved communications, contacts, and personal development. Only one saw any possible disadvantage: that of increased cost.

Three of the regional members were able to respond to the post-use questionnaire by the time of writing. They found that their use was more limited than they had expected: although all three found the general bulletin boards useful, only one reported useful private messages, and no other use was reported. All three logged on on average for 15 minutes or less, and only 2-3 times a week (one), once a week (one), or less often (one) - not as frequently as expected.

All three respondents nevertheless thought the system was useful in many respects - the same three as on the previous occasion. Two found that they were spending less time in communicating with staff at other institutions as a result of using electronic mail. The same two found that some mail communications had been replaced.

In their general comments, one felt there had been insufficient use on which to base a generalisation, one was using AOLIN as a demonstration/prototype in investigating the use electronic mail in other spheres, and the third felt that there had been more involvement and access generally.

Conclusion

This was a Project with modest aims, in keeping with its modest funding. Had the user base expanded more rapidly it might have been possible to have carried out more exhaustive investigations of such matters as patterns of system use over time, the kind of tasks for which the use of a computer-based comunication system is appropriate, how use of such a system relates to impacts on and benefits for the work involved, how communication networks are affected, and how social and institutional distance among users and their preferences for different media affect the use and impact of computer message system. In other words, it was not appropriate to carry out the evaluative phase of the Project.

The implementation aspect, however, must be seen as having been successful. Four of the target colleges have been operationalised, and an additional college, not in the original plan, has also been established as a user; two more are held up only for the temporary lack of hardware. That leaves only two institutions out of contact with this University. One of them uses Keylink, but is closed at present to transmissions from AOLIN. The status of the last is unknown to this researcher, but may be a member of TAFENet.

Use of this system will continue to expand under the present administration, as one of the continuing developmental functions of the External Studies Unit at Murdoch University, with the associated development of course contracting, and the establishment of the Western Australian Distance Education Centre.

Electronic mail will in time, and probably soon, be an essential part of the range of communications media which educationalists will employ to get the maximum benefit from the developing networks of educational information of all kinds and everywhere in the world. It is a technology which will become an essential part of the range of available telecommunications techniques. Whatever else it is, education is concerned with empowering. Electronic mail is one medium, one means, of getting and giving power.

Garry Gillard, Murdoch University, 1989