From Radio to Interactive Distance Learning – the role technology has played in teaching Australia's most remote students is significant.
For much of Alice Springs School of the Air’s (ASSOA) history, two-way radio was the backbone of communication between students and their teachers back at the Alice Springs base. As a school whose focus has always been on ways to offer remote children the best educational experience, advancements in technology have been followed keenly and implemented by the school when relevant or possible. A sense of community and belonging is integral to the school and technological advancements have served to enhance these feelings.
In the early 1990s many people in remote Australia received upgraded telephone systems, enabling them to make direct and very clear telephone calls throughout Australia for the first time. For the School this permitted more frequent and satisfactory contact and follow up with students and supervisors. The service differs from standard telephone connections however, and is not able to support any type of broadband connection. With television now also in most of the homes of our students, the school conducted trials of direct television lessons in 1992. This was via satellite transmission and was unfortunately too costly to be an ongoing tool.
The most major development in the role technology plays in the delivery of School of the Air lessons came in 2002 when a project involving the use of two-way satellite equipment was embarked upon. The project, subsequent implementation of the technology, and development of teaching material and strategies is referred to simply as IDL (Interactive Distance Learning). The broad aim of the project was to establish a shared broadband Interactive Distance Learning communication infrastructure for families, to enhance the quality of the learning experience through transfer of work, exchange of ideas and support of learning in a manner that is quicker than traditional mail services. The speed and reliability of such connections remains far from what people in major urban centres would experience. Still by 2006 Alice Springs School of the Air had become completely reliant on satellite technology to conduct classes.
The initial project was part of a joint Northern Territory (NT) and New South Wales (NSW) venture. The basic technical concept of the project was to have a studio transmitting to remote sites equipped with a satellite, computer and relevant software. Any number of students can ‘logon’ to any session being transmitted.
The technology itself was not new, rather the next stage along from one-way video conferencing that had been in operation in different contexts for over a decade. The challenge for the school has not been in getting the technology to work but to make it effective in enhancing the students’ learning experience. This technology has been commonly used in the ‘stand and deliver’ methodology. In such a model a teacher/trainer/lecturer can broadcast a lesson to a limitless number of students. This is the traditional lecture approach of imparting specific facts on a defined topic in a predetermined amount of time.
As educators of young children the School acknowledges the need to teach certain content, skills and processes and ensure that the NT curriculum is covered, but more importantly instil a love of learning in the students. IDL is but one link in the chain to achieve this. The School is charting its own course in developing effective pedagogy via IDL, as it is the first use of such technology with this age of student. The School is both captain and navigator on this voyage.
Two IDL studios have been established here at Alice Springs School of the Air, there is also a studio in Katherine at Katherine School of the Air (KSA), and one in Darwin at the Northern Territory Open Education Centre (NTOEC). NTOEC offer distance education to secondary age students throughout the Northern Territory and operates on a very different model to ASSOA for their normal delivery as well as their use of IDL. All three schools are now part of the Northern Territory Distance Learning Service.
At ASSOA each student site has a satellite dish and associated computer equipment that allows the reception of data, audio and visual feeds from the studio and the transmission of audio and data back to the studio. This allows the students to see and hear their teachers in real time as well as being able to speak and be heard by other students in the class.
Students are able to re-size the video image of the teacher, allowing them to work simultaneously on their computer, sharing learning materials between teacher and student as well as student to student. IDL also allows lessons where the teacher can demonstrate skills or learning processes, including, but certainly not limited to; music, singing, science demonstrations, physical education skills, drama, poetry, modelled reading and art. In addition to teacher demonstrations, it allows for the integration of other media such as video and music.
The teacher cannot see the students but having the students see the teacher is a huge improvement on high frequency radio. Teachers are in the process of working through different strategies and ways of using IDL. Staff are reviewing the parts of the curriculum that are difficult to teach via traditional correspondence or radio and looking at whether IDL can offer a solution. In addition, teachers are considering what they want to achieve in terms of higher order thinking skills and how IDL may be able to enhance and improve the development of such skills. The possibilities are boundless and staff members are keen to think outside the box to ensure that students get the maximum benefit possible from the technology.
It is important that IDL not be seen in isolation. It is one part of a complete solution that incorporates a range of tools including email, web access, game play and a plethora of other technologies and approaches. It is at its base, a means of communication as is the telephone, fax and regular mail services. Alice Springs School of the Air continues to use all of these forms to communicate with its students.