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Satellite and Kerosene Lamp: Distance Education at the University of the South Pacific

ICDE Bulletin, vol. 12, September 1986: 57-61.

G.M. Gillard & A.I. Williams

Garry Gillard is now an Education Officer in the External Studies Unit of Murdoch University, Western Australia. At the time the article was written he was Co-ordinator of Course Development at USP. Ivan Williams has held a number of positions at USP, after coming to Fiji as Principal of the Nasinu Teachers College: Lecturer in the School of Education, Director of the Fiji Centre, and, presently, Head of Distance Education.

The University of the South Pacific was established in the period before countries of the South Pacific Region had obtained independence, on the basis of a Report of a Higher Education Mission to the Pacific (the Morris Report 1966). The Mission was set up by the Governments of the U.K. and New Zealand and with the co-operation of the Govemment of Australia. The University was to serve the needs of the countries now called Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Western Samoa. The main campus is on the site of the former RNZAF flying-boat base in Suva, Fiji, (the Laucala Campus) with a second campus in Apia, Western Samoa, of the School of Agriculture (the Alafua Campus). There are University Centres in nine of the eleven countries, Nauru and Tokelau being the two without this service at the moment.

The USP is unusual not only by virtue of its being a regional University, at which students of eleven countries may study, but also because of its geographical distribution. Although the headquarters of the University are in Suva, the other countries which own and are served by it lie in a semi-circle whose radius is 1500 miles. And although the University region is the size of Australia, the landmass of the islands is that of its smallest state, Tasmania. Two of the independent countries (Nauru and Niue) are tiny single islands you can drive round in an hour. Others consist of islands which are hundreds of miles apart. And there are over three hundred islands in Fiji. So geographical variation is enormous.

Economic variation also exists, to the extent that whereas Fiji and Nauru have viable economies, Tuvalu’s only exports are stamps, a bit of copra and bêche-de-mer, and Tuvaluans. The University could not exist without aid. Most students are supported by government scholarships, and these in turn are sustained by aid from the wealthier countries. Trained people can often not be spared by their governments to leave the workforce for long enough to get a degree, which is one reason for the existence of the Extension program. Difficulties of transportation are enormous, both within and between countries. Most travel is by air, of course, given the huge distances to cross, but some countries cannot afford air transport internally, and have to use shipping, which is infrequent. Again, Tuvalu is an example: it is possible to fly in and out of Funafuti weekly, but possible to reach other atolls only twice a year. The costs of air transport are high: from Suva to the easternmost USP Centre in Rarotonga the fare is of the order of US$l,000.

Communications through the University Region are paradoxically good. In the cultural sense, first, because of the nature of the University presence in each country. Each Centre is led by a Director who was born in the relevant country, or, in two cases, is married to such a person. Through these people the University has excellent access to the Regional governments and to information about the educational needs of the countries. Centres are the medium through which not only credit courses are delivered, but also in-service short courses. They also develop continuing education courses to meet local needs. In the technical sense communications have been good up to the present because of the availability of the NASA ATS-1 satellite, as well as the usual postal and telephone services. Difficulties have recently arisen with regard to satellite communications, of which more below.

Extension Services is the section of USP which delivers credit courses, but also the agency which offers most of the non-credit, or ‘continuing education’ courses. Some short-term, in-service and vocational courses are conducted by one or other of the University’s Institutes: the Institutes of Education and of Social and Administrative Studies for example. However, other courses and programs are made available through Extension Services, some as ‘continuing education’ courses and others for ‘credit’. For example, the Diploma in Librarianship is composed of vocational credit courses of the USP, but the Pacific Pre-School Teachers Certificate has courses which are part of the continuing education programme of the University but is awarded by the Pacific Pre-School Council.

Extension Services is headed by a Director. Heads of two divisions report to her: ‘Distance’ and ‘Continuing’ Education, for credit and non-credit courses, as already explained, and she is responsible for the management of the Regional Centres. The Head of Continuing Education looks after areas such as Pre-School, Creative Arts and Agricultural Liaison, and also supports numerous and varied continuing education ventures in the Centres. Head of Distance Education oversees the work of the Co-ordinator of Course Development and his Course Developers; and until recently the people responsible for audio, video and graphics used to report to him. A University Media Unit is presently in the throes of a difficult parturition. A Technical Manager and two Satellite Operators are the remnants of the former communications section, which has lost its initial impetus. Administrative support staff are headed by the Secretary, Extension Services.

The offering of distance education began in the School of Education but it soon became apparent that a separate division could not only take responsibility for these offerings, but also co-ordinate the work of the Centres, and Extension Services was set up. Programs of three kinds are offered through Extension: pre-degree, sub-degree (diplomas and certificates), and degree. There are also programs and courses labelled ‘Vocational’ which make academic demands at all three levels. The pre-degree courses are necessary because of the different levels of out-put from the secondary schools of the Region. There are two levels: Preliminary, which is equivalent to sixth-form secondary, and Foundation, which is equivalent to seventh-form. In fact, in some cases, the University’s programs and course materials are used in schools by schoolteachers who act as ‘tutors’ for the purpose. And in one case the Foundation materials are used by another institution: the recently established National University of Samoa, which makes extensive use of USP materials.

Writers and designers need an image of a typical student to keep in mind while developing courses. In fact more of our Extension students live and work in Suva than in any other one place. However, the student we have in mind while developing distance education study materials, and delivery, teaching and assessment systems, is a teacher or other government officer on a remote outer island, many miles, and a day or more distant in travel time, from the nearest USP Centre. This student is unlikely to have anyone locally to discuss study problems with, he will have few if any relevant books available for reference, he must study in the evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp, he may have occasional access to a radiotelephone, and he is unlikely to be sophisticated in Western terms, operating most of the time in a language other than the English of the course materials and the campus tutors. But students are well motivated through the desire for professional improvement and career advancement, and have had a reasonable secondary education, and often, some tertiary education also. For most of these isolated students there is a postal service of reasonable regularity and frequency, and many of them have radio-cassette machines. Five-sixths of them are mature students in their twenties and thirties.

The image of the typical student as dependent almost entirely on USP course materials implies, among other things, that there is a compelling need for these materials to speak to students in a friendly, helpful way, i.e. in a guided didactic conversation. In consultations between designers and writers we stress the Holmberg model more than any other, as we see it as crucial.

Postal delivery of study materials, and interaction between student and lecturer through the post, is the one essential ingredient of the USP’s distance education programme. The main preoccupation of Extension Services is the original production of high-quality printed materials for self-study, and the continual revising of existing materials to improve their content and effectiveness for the individual learner. These printed materials, produced in Suva, are often accompanied by commercial set textbooks.

Some courses also make use of audio-cassettes though none currently offered has taped information which is indispensable to the course and the student. These tapes are easily delivered through the post, and few students in the region would find it impossible to listen to them.

Many students (about three-quarters of them) are not so isolated and can meet together for local tutorials. So, increasing numbers of courses allow for these learning advantages for those fortunate students. Often too, some of the course work is marked ‘locally’ which gives all students of that part of the region a much improved feedback time. There are also a great many students who can get to one of the USP Centres to view video-tapes, which we are beginning to use to introduce credit courses.

These same students are also able to attend a USP Centre to participate in satellite tutorials which, at the moment, have a total of 300 hours a year devoted to them. Even so, a comparatively small number of those students attend, and there are, unfortunately, restrictions on the amount of choice of times when the satellite facility is available to the University. Local tutors and students are able to attend only when their day’s work is over and optimally the hours from 5.00 pm. to 7.00 pm. would be used for satellite tutorials. However, USP competes with other ATS 1 users and currently two hours on each of the five working days, Monday to Friday, from 6.00 pm. to 8.00 pm. Suva time, have to be shared between the lecturers wishing to offer these tutorials.

It has been estimated that the proportion of students who actually use satellite tutorials is as low as 5%. And yet, the University, with U.S. assistance, places a lot of stress on the satellite as a potential learning mode. This presumably reflects, inter alia, a desire for a high dialogue mode to compensate for the predominant low dialogue mode of the study guide. In this Region, it is difficult for students to attend workshops and tutorials as part of other distance learning. Nor is the telephone cost-effective - or even possible for many students. So the satellite is seen as providing the potential for an actual dialogue mode. And many students have found that it is a motivational force of some importance.

The academic content of extension studies courses, and questions of its acceptability to teaching departments, teaching schools, and the University as a whole, are largely the concern of lecturers based in, and working most of their time in, the four schools of the USP. Extension Services offers mainly editorial, design and production, delivery and maintenance expertise and processes with regard to offerings of credit courses.

Supporting the team of course developers (who are involved in all stages of planning, producing, delivering, teaching, and assessing of courses to varying degrees), are graphics, audio and video units of Extension Services. The audio studio produces professional quality taped programmes for general broadcasting, and also a range of tapes which support course materials. The studio’s multiple fast-copying facilities make the production of tapes for individual learners relatively easy.

The video unit has, in fact, contracted over the last few years in response to a realization that the regional governments could not afford to support the sophisticated equipment which was in process of being installed in the various Centres in 1979. That degree of sophistication is also beyond the technical maintenance capabilities of most countries of the region, and funds to provide maintenance from Suva cannot be found. So, the transmission via satellite of live pictures and video-taped material between the studios of the USP region is not envisaged for the near future. Nevertheless, the video unit still plays an important role in the distance education programmes of USP. It produces a variety of video-tapes which contribute to non-formal education in the South Pacific in a significant manner, and has recently begun to produce a number of short programs designed to introduce the University, programs of study, and individual courses and lectures.

When, in 1971, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) offered its Applications Technology Satellite (ATS-1) for free use by the people of the Pacific, the USP was among the first to join the Pan-Pacific Educational and Communications Experiments by Satellite (PEACESAT). Having realized its enormous potential for the outreach programme, the University applied for its own satellite time independent of PEACESAT, and in 1974 the USP network (USPNET) was established. In 1977, USPNET’s time was increased to 24 hours a week. In 1978, further US generosity enabled the ground terminals to be improved and Apple II microprocessors were installed in each, and slow-scan equipment in some of them. This was the time of the great expansion of the video unit, an expansion over-ambitious for the place and time though tremendously exciting in its possibilities.

Outstandingly successful as a means of administrative communication, the use of ATS-l has proved vital to the success of USP’s efforts to take the University to each regional country. The offering of its use for teleconferencing by all manner of international, regional, and more ephemeral groups and organizations is seen as an important contribution of the University to general education and the development of the region. Unesco, WHO, Pacific Church groups, women’s interest groups, librarians and others exchanging experiences and information or sounding opinions about future actions and activities, are examples of its usage.

Satellite tutorials are the other main way in which ATS 1 aids distance education in the South Pacific. Dozens of courses offer weekly, fortnightly, or occasional tutorials over satellite - about one-third of the courses offered through extension studies of the University each semester. Feedback from students who have attended these tutorials shows that most of them find the tutorials helpful to their learning, and they say that they would attend satellite tutorials if they were offered in future courses. However, it is also true that the percentage of those students, who live close enough to a USP Centre, attending satellite tutorials is not very high, and attendance does diminish as a series proceeds. It is suspected that a number of students are intimidated by the equipment and the studio environment, and inhibited by the public nature of their conversation with the tutor. These factors and the occasional frustrating atmospheric interference, persuade some lecturers that satellite tutorials are not worth the resources and effort put into them. Other disagree claiming that they are valuable, and are concerned when student attendance is poor.

It is clear that the USP’s use of the satellite for tutorial provision is still in an experimental stage, especially when the use of computer print-out message traffic, as an adjunct to tutorials, is only just beginning.

Despite all the difficulties which stand in the way, a number of course co-ordinators have nevertheless insisted on a face-to-face component in their teaching, reflecting perhaps a reluctance to embrace the idea of learning at a distance. The scientists have always insisted on laboratory sessions, and recently they have been joined by technology with its demand for workshops. This tendency is actually on the increase, as opposed to what one might expect, and the (academic) Department of Education has now begun to talk about ‘workshop courses.’

This is a phenomenon of a different type from that of the summer course (or ‘sandwich course’) which is simply a contiguous course of short duration. The fact that such courses are often based on distance learning derives from the fact that the distance materials are well or at least explicitly designed, so that their structure assists people working under the pressure of a short-term course. We in Extension Services are concerned that the idea of the ‘workshop course’ is to some extent a falling-back onto conventional teaching and may represent a failure to think the course through in terms of design for distant students. For some skills development, and in the face by the impracticability of supplying ‘home kits’, they are probably necessary however. The problems of the USP in distance education are large and real but are mostly out of the control of teachers and administrators. They are in the nature of the size of the economies of the countries of the South Pacific, and of the geography of the Region. Within those constraints the University does function as a provider of post- secondary education of many kinds, and reaches out effectively to people wishing to study in their own countries and their own style.

The ATS-1 satellite is no longer in service and USP is therefore, without satellite communication at the moment. However, negotiations are taking place for the use of Intelsat.


Apted, Maurice (1980) 'A guide for students', unpublished paper, USP Extension Services.

Hailey, John (1983) Management by satellite: management education in the South Pacific, USP.

Livingston, Kevin T. (ed. 1980) Studying by Extension, USP Extension Services.

Naidu, Som (1983) 'Telecommunications technology in distance education systems and their appropriateness for particular societies and regions', unpublished paper, USP.

Report of the Higher Education Mission to the South Pacific (1966) HMSO, London; known as the Morris Report.

USP Extension Services, Extension Studies Handbook, USP, annual publication.

USP Extension Services (1981) Over to Suva, USP (videotape).

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