OLYMPUS satellite Image: European Space Agency, 1989

Satellite TV in Europe

Under the leadership of Jacque Delors, by 1985 the European Economic Commission in Brussels was pushing hard for greater European economic and political integration. Britain, reluctantly under Margaret Thatcher, was a full member of the European Economic Commission, and so the Open University was eligible for grant funding for many of the EEC’s projects.

I was particularly supportive of greater European integration and Britain’s active participation, mainly to ensure greater peace and prosperity in the future, given the interminable wars between countries across Europe throughout history. Britain was gently declining as a world power and Europe at the time seemed to be growing, but above all, I loved visiting Europe and working with my European colleagues. The diversity of different languages and cultures across such small distances was astonishing (and probably the cause of all those wars)

It was during this period that the EEC funded several programs, such as ERASMUS, for the exchange of students between different European countries. DELTA was another EEC program that aimed to improve the use of information technologies for advanced distance learning.

In the late 1980s there was a lot of interest in the EEC in using satellites for cross-European education and particularly training. As one of the few Europeans at that time with any knowledge or expertise in the educational use of satellites, I was frequently involved in discussions, workshops and grants for testing and evaluating the use of satellites for teaching and learning. The Open University with its now nearly 20 years of using broadcasting for higher education teaching was also well positioned.

These EEC programs offered substantial funds for research and development. I worked closely with Paul Bacsich, a colleague from the Faculty of Technology at the Open University, and together we were very successful in working with our network of European colleagues to bring in some large research grants from the EEC.

One was a £70,000 grant from European Commission DELTA programme for a feasibility study of a two‑way voice and data satellite network, to link up 12 distance teaching universities in 11 European countries. This was linked to an EEC decision to launch its own high-powered satellite, OLYMPUS, in 1989, which was to be the vehicle which would carry the educational network.

Unfortunately, though, OLYMPUS had a disastrously short life. It lost a solar panel, then later it received incorrect instructions from a ground station in Italy that affected its stability, and ground control was not regained until almost a year had passed. (The rumour was that a technician at the ground station was watching an Italian soccer match when control was lost). Then in 1993, OLYMPUS was hit by a meteor shower which further damaged its stability, and it was put into a safe but useless orbit in space.

Also, the process for obtaining these grants was complex. Usually you needed at least six partners from six different countries, including at least two of the less economically advanced countries in Europe, and at least two business or industrial partners.

In addition to putting such complex teams together and getting agreement about roles, there was a lot of EEC bureaucracy involved in submitting proposals and then, if successful, administering the projects, and in particular getting the money delivered to the right places, and so a great deal of time needed to be invested in these EEC projects, and their actual outputs in terms of educational effectiveness were often dubious.

However, the EEC projects were important in bringing researchers from the less economically developed countries in eastern and southern Europe into contact and partnership with researchers and institutions from the more economically advanced countries, and the process probably helped with the larger goal of European integration.

Eventually it became clear that satellites had limited potential for education and training. The gains or benefits, if any, were marginal compared with the use of other technologies, especially as the Internet became more widespread across Europe in the mid 1990s. Americans in particular who had pushed the technology hard were naïve in thinking that satellite technology was a silver bullet for education in developing countries.

Satellites now are integrated with most terrestrial communications and broadcasting systems so do not need to be specialised for educational purposes. Nevertheless, at the time it was exciting to be engaged in such a dramatic and leading edge technology.

What did I learn from all this technological innovation?

I pulled together most of what I learned from these forays into different technologies, such as video discs, cable TV, and satellites for teaching and learning, into a book I published eventually in 1995, called Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education.

In the book is a report on one conference I attended in Vancouver in 1985. There was a presentation on the use of video-discs in education. Embarrassingly, the two presenters from an American university couldn’t get the technology even to start. While they were trying to fix things, the chairman opened the floor to questions. A Canadian elementary teacher asked how much the equipment cost, and how much it cost to make the video disc that they were waiting to see.

‘About $5,000 for the equipment, and about $100,000 to produce the disc,’ came the reply, followed by gasps and some laughter.

‘Well,’ persisted the teacher, ‘how do you expect schools to be able to afford such technology?’

‘Easy,’ said the presenter, looking up from behind the equipment he was trying to fix. ‘The biggest costs in education are the teachers. Replace the teachers and you can afford this technology.’

‘If you think education is just about sitting a child down in front of a piece of machinery, you clearly don’t know what you’re are talking about,’ retorted the teacher, and walked out of the room, followed by about half the audience.

But that was how naïve some technology enthusiasts were about using technology for teaching and learning in the 1980s. The naïvity still exists today, but here are some of the lessons that I learned as a result of evaluating a variety of new technologies in the 1980s:

  1. Any technology is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ for teaching in itself. It is the way it is used that matters.
  2. Student access is always an issue with new technologies. If students can’t access a particular technology, it is useless to them. You may need to wait a few years until everyone has access.
  3. Pedagogy matters. Technologies can usually be used in support of a variety of different pedagogical approaches, but they also have their limitations in certain teaching contexts. Instructors need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve before deciding on what technology to use and how to use it, but also be open to new learning outcomes if the technology enables them (see also 1 above).
  4. Costs are important and should always be assessed when adopting new technologies, but the structure of the costs of a technology are often mis-understood or mis-applied. It is particularly important to differentiate between fixed costs and variable costs. The ratio of fixed to variable costs is a major differentiator between technologies. Some technologies are only valid with high numbers of student users (where variable cost is almost nil), but then become very cost effective, even if fixed costs (e.g. production) are high (television broadcasting is a good example). If the technology is to be used with small numbers of learners, all the costs (not just equipment) must be low.
  5. Start-up costs may be high but long-term costs may be low, so you need to run a trial for some time to test a technology’s effectiveness.
  6. You need to look at benefits as well as cost. Sometimes the benefits clearly justify the extra cost – but not often, and benefits are often difficult to measure.
  7. Organisational and support issues are critical. The technology may give good results, and in terms of equipment cost per student may not be expensive, but the costs of production, distribution, training of teachers/instructors to use the technology, and costs of supporting students all need to be considered (indirect costs). Some technologies demand much more in terms of indirect costs than others.
  8. Technologies that can be used easily by teachers and students without specialised training will always be used more than expensive, difficult or complicated technology, no matter how powerful.
  9. There is no super-technology (not even AI). Usually the most effective form of teaching combines one or more technologies with human teaching.
  10. It is important to distinguish between technologies that can be used across an institution/system (such as an LMS or Zoom) and those that are very useful only in specific circumstances (such as virtual reality or simulations).
  11. There are very few technologies developed specifically for teaching or training (LMSs are an exception). Manufacturing scale, long-term reliability, and technological standardisation are all important for the adoption of a technology in education.
  12. What we learned about using older technologies in education will usually also apply to any newer technology. Research and practice will be needed to identify any unique educational affordances or benefits of a new technology.
  13. We need to define better the affordances – the unique advantages – of human teaching over technology, when technology is also available.
  14. Making the right choice of technology for teaching is always a complex process, with many variables to be considered. SECTIONS is a model that suggests a systematic way at looking at all the key variables when assessing a new technology for teaching purposes.

I leave it to you to decide how relevant these conclusions made at the end of the 1980s are for today.

What did I learn about giving presentations?

One last word. It is many times easier today in technological terms to give presentations than it was 20 years ago. Even when Powerpoint arrived (not until 1989) to replace overhead transparencies (which always had to be renewed because the ink smudged) it was usually necessary to take your own computer (and sometimes even your own projector) to a conference or meeting to make a presentation because of different standards (e.g. Windows vs Macintosh).

Overhead projector with transparencies Image: Lake Michigan Computers

Nevertheless I do have some guidance regarding giving presentations even today, when all you need usually is a flash drive. There is nothing more embarrassing (especially if you are extolling the virtues of technology for teaching) than standing in front of a restless audience waiting for the presentation technology to work.

  1. Keep it simple, technologically. Do not be bleeding edge – or you’ll bleed.
  2. Always have a Plan B if the technology doesn’t work – you may even need a Plan C. For instance, could you manage 45 minutes without any technology?
  3. Give as much information as possible in advance to the conference organisers about the technology you will be using or will need.
  4. Always arrive in plenty of time to test the technology before the presentation.
  5. Trust the local technician – and be nice to them. They know their systems better than you do. If he or she says it will work, it probably will, but ask if they could be there during the presentation or at least for the first few minutes, in case there are glitches.
  6. Be there. It may sound obvious but there is nothing worse than presenters who do not turn up without prior notice. If you do cancel, it should always be because of an emergency, not because you don’t fancy the treck across the country or you have an important meeting at the last minute. You are letting down not just the conference organisers but all those who paid the costs of travel and conference fee to listen to you.

These may seem obvious but I cannot count the number of times presenters have failed to do one or more of these at conferences I have attended. It is so unprofessional. If they are obvious to you, give them to your graduate students – please!

Up next

Microcomputers and the Internet. I will describe my first use of a microcomputer and my first introduction to the Internet, and how I took this knowledge to the OU and helped (with others such as Tony Kaye) to offer online learning on an OU course in 1988. This may take a few days as I have yet to write it.

Further reading

A.W. Bates (1995) Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education London: Routledge

Chapter 10: Choosing and Using Media in Education, in Bates, T. (2013) Teaching in a Digital Age (3rd Edition) Victoria: BCcampus


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here