#40years of educational technology: Telematics

In my final year of teacher training in the early 90s, I was required to write a dissertation. This was a 10,000 word research report on a subject related to my professional development as a teacher. Because of my work in educational technology at the nursing college, I naturally chose to study something that I was familiar with, but with an aspect that would present me with a challenge.

I had no idea just how much a challenge it would prove to be but the focus of my study - satellite broadcasting - was at the time an exciting, emerging field of expertise, and one that involved the use of some very expensive hardware. In fact, satellite technology is arguably the most expensive technology humankind has ever invented. The discipline this fell into was telematics - a name derived from the combination of telecommunication and informatics.

My dissertation involved me researching the history of satellite broadcasting, its (at the time limited) pedagogical applications, and the running of an experiment in which I actually broadcast a live television programme via satellite to my colleagues at nurse education centres across a large geographical area.

The added bonus was that during the one hour live broadcast, my colleagues were able to phone into the studio to ask questions of my guests. It was quite an undertaking and involved a vast amount of planning, including research, analysis of needs, booking of guests, scripting, liaising with the studio and satellite uplink teams, and of course the most nerve-racking part, practising my presenting and interviewing skills under the lights in front of the cameras. There were also a number of technical preparations, including the installation of satellite antennae at all the receiving sites (done by technicians), booking satellite time, technical testing of equipment at the receiving sites (televisions, connections, microphones, telephones) and organising the graphics and visuals I would need.

A week before the broadcast we lost the satellite. The satellite we planned to use, Olympus, suddenly malfunctioned, and began slowly drifting out of its geosynchronous orbit and off into space. Co-incidentally, the Gulf War started. We were now left to decide what to do to salvage my research project. The solution was to use cable to simulate 'broadcasting' of the live sound and images from the studio. It worked. The result was that I managed to gather a number of completed questionnaires from participants to analyse, and eventually wrote up a successful dissertation on satellite broadcasting for education.

This ultimately led to me securing a post managing a £5 million technology research project called RATIO in the South West of England, which was my first job at Plymouth University.  My knowledge of distance education, open learning and telematics technologies was just the skill set the project was looking for. The project commenced in 1996 and within two years my team had established 43 learning centres across the rural areas of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset to support small businesses and individual learners. In the centres we installed a number of networked computers, provided internet access, video conferencing, and of course, digital satellite TV reception equipment (at the time the antennae were one metre dishes known as V-SATs - Very Small Aperture Terminals).

At the height of the project we were broadcasting around 4-6 hours of live TV each week, and I personally wrote, produced and presented a programme known as The Training Hour which was broadcast twice each week. This was at a time when businesses were just beginning to wake up to the benefits of the Web, and the skills that were required to establish a presence on the Internet. We had the ability to share screens with remote learners, and work together with them on their computers, across any geographical distance. RATIO was in the vanguard of telematic projects in the 1990s and early 2000s which established the use of Web based content delivery (now known as online learning), video conferencing, application sharing and other remote tutoring methods that advanced distance education into the truly digital age.

Photo by Adamantios on Wikimedia Commons

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I#40years of educational technology: Telematics by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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