If there's one program that encapsulates all of the technologies currently offered by the NSW Department of Education, it's the xsel Western NSW Region Selective School.
Not only do its students have access to the same netbooks delivered by the Digital Education Revolution, it relies on the Department's extensive wireless network, participates in its videoconferencing network and uses both Oten and moodle learning management systems. Xsel provides selective-level mathematics, English and science education to Year 7 students in schools across the Western NSW region. Of the 200 students who applied to be a part of the 2010 program, 30 were chosen based on results from the 2009 NSW Selective School Placement Test and recommendations from the principals of their respective primary schools. The selected students still go to their local high school with the same group of friends, but they divide roughly half their time between the standard curriculum and the xsel program. Program manager, Bill Adams, said the program is currently running in 20 schools with a staff of nine teachers who, like the students, divide their time between the program and their home schools. Xsel is the first of its kind in Australia, filling a gap for gifted and talented students who were traditionally forced to attend selective schools in the Sydney metropolitan area or partially selective boarding schools such as Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School in Tamworth. The Western NSW education region spans 365,000 square kilometres but lacks a fully selective bricks-and-mortar high school.
A distance education model is already available for students who wish to study at a selective level, but Adams said the xsel program allows students to continue education with their peer group. It also means students can still participate in physical or hands-on subjects like PE and woodwork. The technology that underpins the program, however, is even more interesting. This year's intake of Year 7 students — the first to be involved in the program — were also the first in NSW to receive the same second-generation Lenovo netbooks delivered in NSW by the Digital Education Revolution (DER). The netbooks are not funded by the Federal Government program, but they have the same technical specifications and are loaded with the same software as those delivered to Year 9 students this year.
"We were able to jump the gun on that," Adams said. "We have been lucky enough to piggyback onto that, so our students are the only Year sevens with DER laptops."
The Intel Atom-powered netbooks run Windows 7 a range of software, including Microsoft Office 2007 and an Adobe software suite made up of Photoshop Elements, Flash Professional, Fireworks, Dreamweaver and Connect.
The netbook's built-in webcam and microphone, in conjunction with Adobe Connect videoconferencing software, allow students to communicate remotely with teachers as individuals or within groups. The netbooks are connected to their home school's 802.11n network — part of the world's largest Wi-Fi network. Students submit their work via the moodle content management system, an open source content management system which provides similar functionality to the Blackboard-type user interface used in many Australian universities.
According to Adams, the netbooks and Adobe Connect software are vital to the program's flexibility. Although much is made of interactive whiteboards and permanent videoconferencing solutions, these technologies would put a strain on a school’s resources in the xsel context.
"The kids can be housed wherever is convenient," Adams said. "We're not demanding a specialist room; as long as they're supervised and have good access to the wireless, we're happy."
The 30 students are separated into three "pods," each of which have three dedicated teachers for English, mathematics and science. The students take part in seven 20-minute video conferencing sessions — known as "synopps" or "synchronous opportunities" — with the teachers over a fortnight. They are timetabled so that the students have the opportunity to work on assessments and still receive face-to-face lessons from their home school teachers each day. "The major emphasis for term one is getting our head around Adobe Connect," Adams said. There have been few issues so far, though Adams noted there was some "variability in connectivity in schools; in some places the wireless signal is strong, and somewhere it isn't so strong. [Adobe Connect] demands pretty good connectivity."
However, while the wireless network can be a bottleneck, the broadband connections that connect the participating schools haven't been a problem. This is largely thanks to a Telstra-run fibre network that connects the Department of Education's 2400 education facilities, with bandwidth of between 4 and 100 megabits per second (Mbps).
"We have some schools in the Lachlan area which do a lot of videoconferencing, which drags the broadband priorities," says Adams. "That has the potential to slow down the conference but we haven't experienced that yet."
Xsel’s use of broadband in the virtual schools program has already been acknowledged; at the fourth Annual National Awards for the Effective Use of Broadband held by the Australian Telecommunications Users Group, xsel won the award for "application in the educational realm in the use of broadband”. Adams said he was shocked, but was "quite happy" with the award, which was delivered by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy.
Xsel also relies on the TAFE NSW Oten distance education scheme, which currently supports thousands of tertiary level students.
"They have an enormous online learning and student management system. They supplied all of the software, exactly the same gear they use for their students. We are just piggybacking on the Oten system; they hardly notice we're there."
The only technology component that didn't make it past the initial planning stages was interactive whiteboards. “The reason we're not using them explicitly in xsel is because they are a fixed piece of hardware on a wall, and we need to have those kids mobile within a school,” Adams said.
Of course, one of the downsides of an extended ecosystem is the support required for maintenance. Adams and xsel regional director, Carole McDiarmid, regularly visit the participating schools, but the visits are more about retaining relationships with the students and home school principals than technology. Xsel doesn't have any IT support staff; the program relies on the DET technical support officers (TSO) and computer coordinators within the home schools.
"One of the strengths of being in the DET is that it is a system," Adams says. "It brings forward to an initiative like this all sorts of systemic strengths. We already have the personnel in place for the whole technology-driven revolution that's going on in schools."