top of page

How Southland Delivered Distanced Learning By Recreating The Office


Written By Corey Fuimaono (he/they) @coreyfuimaono | Contributing Writer

What if you had to consume curriculum content via linear television? I’m sure you remember linear TV, your parents will. I certainly do. I remember watching CUE Television as a kid, seeing shows that were made for students of SIT’s distance learning courses, only to realise a decade later that what we know today as remote learning didn’t revolve around pre-recorded lectures or boring Zoom calls; but included interesting quirks on local TV. After chatting with some of the people behind the scenes, here is a brief insight into the SIT2LRN programme.

It was considered a giant experiment when the Open University was launched in 1969 in ol’ Mother England - the first of its kind to offer remote learning. It made sense to offer higher education to adults who missed out on it and were stuck with mundane work and family lifeor to those who didn’t have the necessary qualifications to attend university in the first place. But how could those students learn outside of printing and posting out thousands of learning material packets? By putting it on television. Sometimes, at odd hours of the night. The Brits weren’t the first or the last to do this, however. In the little southern hemispheric country of Aotearoa, New Zealand, we did the same thing… decades later.

It’s a bit of a mind blur for Tom Conroy, current sports broadcaster and former proprietor of CUE Television (previously Mercury and Southern TV). He says it was after the turn of the millennium when the idea was pitched that the Southern Institute of Technology could deliver its curriculum through television. The idea was genius. It could target those who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) move to Invercargill but still wanted access to higher education. SIT was enacting its Zero Fees Scheme at the same time. The scheme aimed to attract young people to Invercargill for their tertiary education - to stimulate economic activity and increase the population after deep declines in the 90’s. It was so successful and popular that it sucked me into their film school in 2014, but I digress.

To get the idea off the ground and onto screens, Conroy says it took financial support from SIT, thanks to then CEO and current Tertiary Education Minister Penny Simmonds, and a significant contribution from SKY Television to broadcast Southland TV to the rest of Aotearoa. For SKY, it would have been a manageable risk but a great opportunity, especially as educational content wasn’t their forte. Though the first productions were made to benefit primary and secondary school teachers in Southland, SIT2LRN started broadcasting its programming proper in 2003.

The early years were described by tight turnarounds and studio-based shoots, all shot and edited on tape and then put to air. Back then, as Conroy remembers, a large portion of the shoots were incredibly simple and cheap to produce – even if it meant filming one person beside a whiteboard. Jade Gillies, who headed SIT Productions for a couple of years, says the shows covered a wide span of topics, from science to dog husbandry and cosmetology. Given that the programs were intrinsically linked with the academic curriculum, there was a fair bit of content to consult on, script, and pump out on time to students from all over the motu. Week after week, ideas flowed about what could be done and depending on what needed to be filmed. Outside broadcasts with four to five camera set-ups weren’t out of the question. With SIT. bankrolling these productions, you could expect 12 hours’ worth of educational programming on Southland TV a day. Conroy says it was easier for viewers once MySKY and Freeview DVRs came onto the market. These programs would have played at any time during the day or at the dead of night.

In 2006, one of the more memorable programs was created for students of the Diploma of Hotel and Tourism Management. Remembered largely because it resembled The Office in its approach to characters leading the drama, the mint handheld camerawork, and the remarkable resemblance that Nathan Kahukura’s character, hotel owner Paul, shared to early 2000s Ricky Gervais (facial hair is wild). Imagine that instead of a regional office of a paper conglomerate, you’re seeing the behind-the-scenes operations of a Southland hotel with dysfunctional characters and equally unorthodox methods.

One episode begins as Paul gets word from head office that revenue and booking numbers are down. He’s given tips on how to fix this, but thanks to not knowing how to do his job properly, his solution is to charge the heck out of existing visitors and cut down on offerings. Complaints from guests skyrocket. This ‘solution’ leads an angry mob to berate the receptionists. Paul tries to run and dash for the exit but to no success. Each episode covers one side of how the hotel tries to improve how it runs for guests and staff. Each major scene ends with the presenter, Melisa Jones, asking the viewer to contemplate what they thought of each character’s action and what they would do instead. Gillies, who now operates a holiday homes outfit himself, remembers how fun it was to create that program. Many times, the cast and crew burst out laughing in the boardroom scenes. The series had to be filmed on Sundays at the Kelvin Hotel, which is still running in the heart of Invercargill. The talent was all sourced from the town’s amateur theatre scene – or at least those who might have been available back then.

How could drama ever possibly reinforce learning for a tertiary course? I hear you asking from that bewildered face of yours. Teri McClelland, who worked with Gillies and the small SIT Production team as a producer, explained it as edutainment. I asked her whether she had approached this edutainment with a research-led approach. No, she said. However, she did explain that students needed to learn through a multitude of different ways – where one of those ways was through situations and role-play. It was a fine balance between making sure programmes delivered the curriculum and making sure the viewer was engaged. Thanks to the positive feedback and interest in the SIT2LRN Distance Learning programs they were getting from students and random viewers to Southland/CUE TV, this approach worked better than expected. There was even a point, as McClelland told me, where SIT2LRN’s series on Learning English, hosted on iTunes U, was outperforming course content from Stanford University (which really got to them, poor Yanks).

As the saying goes, good things come to an end. CUE Television ceased broadcasting in 2015, after 19 years on the air. The SIT2LRN programme continues to this day but is fully online. Some courses have videos, but they don’t have the edutainment factor. Rather, they’re more explanatory of concepts, with interviews of practitioners from different industries, and of course lecture recordings are included too. While insightful, it just doesn’t have that quirk and charm that The Office recreation had. McClelland agrees that edutainment has room within online spaces so perhaps we tell those tutors recording lectures to get good and give us some tea to learn from. If you’re interested in learning more about SIT2LRN’s programming of the mid-2000s, contact the folks at the Southern Institute of Technology. Tell them that Corey Fuimaono sent you.


bottom of page