At the close of the recent financial year, NBN Co. announced that construction of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) was ramping up. Fibre optic cable, which will be required by many households to connect to the service, now passes 207,500 premises, and more than 70,000 homes and businesses have begun using NBN services. With a 2020 finishing date, there is still a long way to go before the majority of Australia is connected to the network, but over the coming three years, a large number of schools can expect to receive fast broadband internet access.
It is clear teachers have high hopes for the new technology. A survey conducted by Tecala Group at the recent Association of Independent Schools ICT Management and Leadership Conference found that more than half of our nation’s schools believe the NBN will improve the way school lessons are delivered. Just under one in four believe it will increase both the quality of student work and the expertise of the teaching profession itself. But are these expectations justified?
“A Transformational Technology”
Educational experts seem to agree that access to broadband will usher in a new era in teaching.
Earlier this year, Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), called broadband a “transformational technology, whose global roll-out carries vast potential for sustainable development – by enhancing learning opportunities, facilitating the exchange of information and increasing access to content that is linguistically and culturally diverse”. Her comments were written in the introduction to Technology, Broadband and Education: Advancing the Education for All Agenda, a report prepared as part of a joint initiative between UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The study notes that the use of good information and communications technologies (ICT) is essential when trying to prepare students for life in a technology-aware world and will be crucial to their future employability. It also points to the importance of expanding access to ICT as a means of increasing the efficiency of school systems, improving teacher training and resources, and extending learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Broadband is the enabler for delivering these technologies and systems, in reality a 21st Century tool for the digital age.
So what can teachers really expect when the NBN reaches their school? We already have the internet, but what broadband will bring is the ability to carry information at faster internet speeds. This means that schools everywhere will eventually be able to engage in intensive applications or navigate rich media-intensive websites without fear of the connection grinding to a halt.
The many resources of the internet will become available. Podcasts, video streaming and conferencing, all become feasible and much easier. The wealth of material available to teachers will grow exponentially.
Rather than having to travel, schools will be able to reach out to subjects and engage in interactive video conferences with subject matter authorities anywhere in the world.
There will be greater equity in education. Students in remote Australian communities will have the same ability to access leading libraries or to engage in courses from the growing number of universities that are making resources available online. Distance becomes irrelevant as teachers help their students to travel the virtual world, visiting historical sites, and participating in virtual museum and gallery tours.
Students with special needs will also benefit, with the potential for additional personalised tuition and easy access to engaging, specialised resources.
It is not just a matter of reaching out either. From publishing videos on websites summarising sports day activities through to video conferencing for parent/teacher meetings or as a means of connecting boarding school students with parents, using high speed broadband, schools will be better equipped to share information and communicate with parents and the community at large.
The NBN will finally deliver on the greater promise of the internet, taking education beyond the physical confines of the brick and mortar school building, making learning accessible, affordable and inclusive.
The Impact On Teaching And Learning
Of course, all this is going to affect the way educators teach and students learn. When the internet first began to make a major mark on education in the 1990s, users discovered they required new ways of thinking. Creativity flourished but at the same time, critical thinking and problem-solving increased in importance. Students had to develop the ability to distinguish between good and bad reference sources, and decide what material they could trust. When the NBN brings social and rich media into the classroom, these skills will be more important than ever. After all, almost anyone can put a video up on the internet these days.
As the NBN opens the door to a greater variety of material and formats, we are also going to have to learn new ways of working. Freed from geographical restraints, students and teachers are likely to find themselves spending more and more time participating in common interest groups, online training and engaging with support networks. Collaboration and consultation will become necessary skills for teachers and students.
To ensure collaboration is successful, students will need to learn ‘netiquette’ and develop their interpersonal skills. For example, today’s generation of connected students are used to communicating in the here and now. Whether they are shopping, studying or simply talking to friends, communication happens on the spot, often using mobile devices. Teachers and students alike will need to understand when it is appropriate to expect or provide immediate feedback, and when they need to be patient.
For those who prefer an individual learning style, the new collaborative environment will present challenges and it may take time to adjust but adjust they must. With the speed offered by the NBN, digital communications will become pervasive; a necessary part of everyday life whether at home, school or work.
Teachers are already used to the challenge of managing a class full of students and trying to ensure that they all use their computers, laptops or other devices for productive activities. As the NBN makes computer time more integral to lessons, this challenge will grow.
Thanks to recent government initiatives, the presence of computers within schools has grown substantially in the past five years. However, a 1:1 student to computer policy for senior years only will not suffice once the NBN brings the internet fully into the classroom. Ideally, somehow someone is going to have to find the money to fund a 1:1 policy for all years, or schools will need to find ways to accommodate students bringing their own computing devices (a practice commonly known as Bring Your Own Device or ‘BYOD’).
After all the discussion, debate and in some cases, acrimony surrounding the NBN, it is easy to forget that the network is merely a delivery mechanism. It opens the way to many benefits, but realising those benefits still depends on the school community, and in particular, the teachers and students.
Whether a school chooses to make ICT a priority when the NBN becomes available, how the technologies it brings are integrated into the classroom, and ensuring quality of use, are all challenges that should be carefully considered, preferably before the NBN arrives on your doorstep.
The UNESCO and ITU report Technology, Broadband and Education: Advancing the Education for All Agenda offers a cautionary note that is very relevant to Australia’s current situation.
“Evidence suggests that the use of ICT by students in the classroom is usually limited to searching for information rather than processing and sharing that information; ironically, this is the exact opposite of how students use the same technologies during their free time outside of school.
“Broadband connectivity, in and of itself, will not improve the quality of education. Governments must go one step further than simply enabling the conditions for technology use in schools (i.e. networking classrooms, training teachers or supplying educational resources). The real challenge is to help teachers and students use technology and broadband in relevant and authentic ways that actually improve education and foster the knowledge and skills necessary for lifelong learning.”
The NBN will introduce significant change into Australia’s educational institutions. Whether public or private, schools, colleges, TAFEs or universities, everyone is going to have to learn how to make the most of the technologies and services on offer, and to identify what works best in their particular classrooms, with their particular students. It is likely that the era of increased collaboration will begin as teachers share their experiences, recount the lessons learned and contribute to the development of best practices for ICT in education.
However it pans out, it is going to be an interesting journey.
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- NBN To Usher In A New, Inclusive Era For Students And Teachers - November 2, 2013