NBN 101: A broadband-driven education revolution?

Will the National Broadband Network change the face of education in Australia?

The great NBN button push: Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Senator Stephen Conroy and independent MP Tony Windsor (right) together with two local school students officially turn on the National Broadband Network in the city of Armidale, NSW. Armidale is the first city on the Australian mainland to switch on the fibre network.

The great NBN button push: Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Senator Stephen Conroy and independent MP Tony Windsor (right) together with two local school students officially turn on the National Broadband Network in the city of Armidale, NSW. Armidale is the first city on the Australian mainland to switch on the fibre network.

At the mainland Australia launch of the National Broadband Network (NBN) earlier this month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, pushed the ceremonial button alongside smiling school children. Gillard spoke to us of the potential the NBN had to “overcome the tyranny of time and distance” that traditionally held education back, while Debra Kelliher, principal at Armidale PLC where the festivities were held, asked that as we forged fibre connections to the school, that we also forged “connections of the heart”.

[This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at aspects of Australia's fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates surrounding the National Broadband Network (NBN). For in-depth NBN coverage, head to our NBN tracker.]

As the yellow button was pushed and the taiko drums played, the NBN was used to link Armidale PLC with Circular Head Christian School in Smithton, Tasmania, for a rendition of Waltzing Matilda spanning thousands of kilometres. Children also engaged in a virtual art gallery tour, a maze of panoramas that gave students a look at famous artworks they might not otherwise have been able to see in such detail.

Education played a large part in the official launch of the fibre network on the mainland.

However, does the NBN really possess the ability to render meaningless the geographic “tyranny” of Australia's vast landscape? And is the NBN the key to a new education revolution? Computerworld Australia set to out to answer some of these questions.

One educational institution that has come to rely on broadband in recent years is Open Universities Australia (OUA). The organisation, which provides 43,000 students with access to university courses across Australia through correspondence, is now focussed on what the NBN can do for education.

“Students get courses from the universities and it is more and more online,” OUA's chief executive, Stuart Hamilton told Computerworld Australia. “Traditionally it was through CD-ROMs, but now the delivery mode is very much based on the internet.”

In a submission to the parliamentary inquiry around the role and potential benefits of the NBN, Hamilton wrote that the NBN could have a tremendous impact on education once the rollout is completed across Australia.

Hamilton's submission rejected the idea that the "NBN will mainly provide access to entertainment and other purely private benefits”. “Recent communications and infrastructure changes have shown that innovations that may have originally focussed on private entertainment are quickly found to have wider social and economic uses," the submission argued.

"The recent widening use in business and education of Facebook and YouTube on the applications side and the iPad on the hardware side are not going to be the last examples of that phenomenon. ”

Hamilton's submission identified four areas where the services of a national broadband network are relevant to OUA's students:

• Access to learning materials in relevant media;

• Equal educational opportunities for students regardless of where they live;

• Access to 'virtual classrooms', including real time collaboration with classmates and teachers; and,

• The chance "to take part in practical classes through simulations and online demonstrations".

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