SATELLITE-BASED COMPUTER NETWORK SERVES STUDENTS ON REMOTE PACIFIC ISLANDS

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SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 11, 2002 – The Chronicle of Higher Education)---The view from the idyllically palm-strewn Fijian capital is postcard-perfect -- all creaking trees, bone-white beaches, and azure seas fading into a vast distance.

But Oceania, the generic name sometimes given to the island groups sprinkled across a broad swath of the South Pacific, also is among the world’s most remote and sparsely populated areas. Its impressive natural setting has long been a major challenge for educators -- and a logical place to offer instruction at a distance.

"Distance has always been a great issue for those who work here -- today perhaps more than ever," says Eberhard H. Weber, a lecturer in geography in the School of Social and Economic Development at the University of the South Pacific. "And distance learning is therefore a particularly important question for the university as well."

Although located here, the university also serves 11 other tiny member countries and territories that span an expanse of ocean considerably larger than the size of the United States: the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The Suva facility acts as the university’s major campus; there are two other smaller campuses in Alafua, Samoa, and in Emalus, Vanuatu, where agriculture and law, respectively, are taught. Each of these island countries, as well as the other member countries of the University of the South Pacific, have centers connected to a new computer network called USPNet-2000.

Two-Way Data Circuit

Through that network, the university for the first time has high-speed wiring -- a two-way data circuit -- that links it to its outlying centers, which will allow for much greater exchange of information and audio services. In addition, the system can provide as many as four simultaneous video transmissions of lectures that are delivered from Suva.

"The Internet features could still be improved," says Keith Moala, director of the university’s information-technology services, "but overall the network has been a very big step forward for us."

In practical terms, the new network allows students and instructors from any of the university’s member countries, working in their own local centers, to participate in audio tutorials with their counterparts. Students and staff members may take part in, or watch, live video broadcasts of lectures in which participants can see and talk to one another.

The capabilities are illustrated by equipment in a conference room here. The room has a couple of large televisions, with a small camera set atop one set and a triangular black microphone on the table next to it. Used together, they link the institution with any of the other 11 points of the South Pacific from which the university draws its student body of some 10,000, about half of whom are enrolled as distance learners.

Tradition of Distance Learning

USPNet-2000 has "created a new confidence in us when it comes to meeting any future crises -- be they natural or man-made -- as well as opening up a dimension in distance education that really has no parallel anywhere else," says Rajesh Chandra, South Pacific’s deputy vice chancellor.

The university was no stranger to distance learning before USPNet-2000. It took its first steps in this area as far back as 1974, when it established its inaugural communications system for a notably low-tech region. Even today, several countries within the South Pacific system lack general Internet access, basic television services, or even ready access to telephones or reliable transportation.

A typical student in Nomuka, an outer island of Tonga, for example, can only physically be reached by the university’s office on the Tongan mainland by way of boat -- if, say, the university needs to urgently send along program materials or information from an instructor, as happened recently when the university wanted to courier some examination papers to a student.

Sudden Changes

However, to verify the boat’s timetable, one must telephone the wife of the secretary of the local church, which happens to own the boat, although she, too, can be a little difficult to reach at times. Another option is to drive down to the wharf to check with the boat’s captain.

But sometimes plans are abruptly changed at the last minute, depending on local weather conditions and whether the church has any pressing, last minute business requiring the services of its water vehicle. (In the Nomuka case, the university ended up chartering a small, 30-horsepower boat for the 10-hour trip.)

The university established its initial radio-communication system here in the mid-1970s, later upgrading it to a rudimentary satellite-transmission system for communication between countries. But these arrangements proved unreliable when it came to tutorials, and were often a headache for those in Suva wishing to use them for even the simplest administrative purposes.

Geography, Mr. Weber’s discipline, is one of 13 subjects offered to distance learners at the university. In general, the university prefers students to spend at least a portion of their time on campus to complete most of its 165 credit programs.

A Grim Trial Run

The institution does, however, confer about 40 different educational certificates with no requirement on the part of the participants to ever undertake face-to-face instruction, along with a bachelor’s degree in education that can now be completed entirely at a distance. The average tuition fee for a full-time student is about $1,200.

The $5.6-million financing for USPNet-2000 came from grants from the governments of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, together with contributions from the university's constituent members.

Although it was designed originally with the university’s distance learners in mind, the network passed an unexpected and grim trial run for hundreds of students in the wake of a political coup that took place here in Fiji last year.

USPNet-2000 was introduced just five weeks before a successful uprising against the democratically elected government of the man who was then Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. Along with 45 others, the premier was taken hostage by insurgents at his official residence on May 19.

Mr. Chaudhry and the other hostages were released several weeks later, but not before the country’s military chiefs had assumed power and parts of Fiji, including Suva, witnessed unprecedented scenes of rioting and street violence.

Students from many countries either did not return to campus at all last year, or else came back in greatly reduced numbers; through its new communications system, though, some 1,200 of the absentees were able to finish their studies.

Because of the new technology, "we’ve managed to come through a very difficult crisis, and have even managed to cope fairly well with it," says Richard T.U. Wah, the university’s acting head of distance education.

At the same time, adds Mr. Wah, the political situation "ultimately dissipated a lot of our energy in the area of distance learning -- we’ve been unable to take the university to the new level of distance learning on account of having to deal with some of these immediate issues."

Enthusiasm for Distance Courses

The country returned to civilian rule in August 2001. But the enthusiasm for strengthening distance learning here continues, even if not everybody at the university is completely taken with the official aim, as Mr. Wah puts it, "of no longer being wedded to just one physical place any longer."

Some professors fret that transferring on-campus courses to distance learning could ultimately lessen the value of their face-to-face offerings, especially in the sciences.

The head of the School of Pure and Applied Sciences, John Bonato, told a forum here recently that, while his department was totally committed to the concept as a whole, he did not see the possibility of offering many of its courses at a distance.

The university’s science and math degrees are "high-standard ones because students come here to be placed in a scientific environment," he says.

Mr. Weber believes that it would be "a pity" if face-to-face learning were to ever fully fall by the wayside. However, "without distance learning, many, many students would be unable to receive any instruction at all," he says. "They shouldn’t be deprived of that opportunity."

With the country’s political unrest now behind it, administrators intend to use USPNet-2000 for a more upbeat purpose early this year: a virtual open house for the entire student body. Traditionally, the university has held separate open houses at each of its centers, but the coming event will see all of them linked together simultaneously by USPNet-2000, with the main campus in Suva hosting the ceremony.

The university will use the technology to hold real and virtual tours of the different campuses and centers, with video cameras following the respective tours and transmitting their progress back to the other centers.

The university also recently finalized an agreement to share its latest distance-learning expertise with the University of the West Indies, which serves a similar grouping of smaller island nations in the Caribbean and expects eventually to use an inter-island network similar to USPNet-2000.

Another current collaboration involves Japan’s University of the Ryukyus, in Okinawa, and could see the two sharing the USPNet-2000 system, using multiple satellite links across the Pacific Ocean, by as early as 2003.

Serious Challenges

Mr. Chandra, the university’s deputy vice chancellor, who also heads its distance-education committee, believes that South Pacific has no choice but to continue expanding its distance-learning component -- and not just because of the system’s proven value in times of political crisis or for virtual open houses.

"We have serious challenges looming in the years ahead," he says, "especially when one factors in the Internet and the growing competition from other institutions seeking to offer distance learning."

Central Queensland University, in Australia, for one, now offers distance learning from a campus in Fiji, and New Zealand's Massey University, in Auckland, has begun a similar outreach to prospective students in the region.

The recently opened National University of Samoa, while not yet in a position to provide distance learning, is expected to attract many students over the coming decade who in an earlier generation might otherwise have headed for the University of the South Pacific.

None of these competitors yet offer a network with the broad reach of USPNet-2000.

"We’re confident that the university is already well organized and boasts a strong structure and a network of facilities that can’t yet be matched, so it would take a very major provider to pose a real threat to our current work," says Mr. Chandra.

All the same, Mr. Chandra predicts, this unique institution might only have as little as "four or five years" before a major provider might emerge on the picturesque scene to try its own hand at paving the region’s vast geographic spaces with new bridges of distance learning.

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