Fast broadband critical to future of education: teachers

NBN has transformed teaching at Willunga High School, says principal.

The NBN could be a transformational tool for teaching, according to educators who spoke at the Connected Australia conference this week.

After connecting to the NBN in the McLaren Vale, South Australia, Willunga High School improved student attendance and engagement in learning, according to the school’s principal Janelle Reimann.

The NBN was a “catalyst in changing our teaching and learning practice,” she said.

“I cannot stress to you how powerful this has been in transforming our learning … Our students are now being able to produce work that is of a higher level than they had ever done before.”

Fast broadband and the NBN are also critical to the success of massive online open courses (MOOCs), which increasingly will rely on real-time video, said Remy Low, academic advisor for the Mount Druitt University Hub project.

MOOCs can potentially provide students with a near limitless range of courses and offer professionals an effective method to undertake continuing education and broaden their skill set, Low said. They also potential provide big institutions a means to provide job training and scout for fresh talent, he said.

However, problems with video streaming can be a deal breaker for students trying to take classes through a MOOC, said Low.

“If something is going to be buffering every two minutes ... you have the potential of losing a student every two minutes.”

Low estimated that 6 to 8 Mbps upload and download speeds are required to provide a “seamless” experience for students. Those speeds are well within the targets announced separately by Labor and the Coalition in their respective NBN plans.

Broadband also fuels virtual reality simulations for medical students, according to Stephen O’Leary, William Gibson chair in otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne. The university can simulate ear surgery using 3D virtual reality equipment, and two VR setups can be networked so that a teacher can help guide the student.

The university has found that using virtual reality for this purpose works “better than traditional training,” O’Leary said. However, “reliable broadband” is a must because any lag in the connection can ruin the simulation, he said.

Connecting a high school

Reimann said Willunga High School had to overcome infrastructure limitations and work out effective website filtering policies before it could truly take advantage of the NBN.

The South Australian high school has 1150 students in years 8 through 12 and was a trial site for the NBN.

When Willunga first connected, “it didn’t work,” Reimann said. The connection was supposed to be 100Mbps but once it got into the school and was distributed to students over the school’s Wi-Fi network, the connection had crawled to 1Mbps, she said.

“Instead of having a Ferrari roaring away, we had a Tinkertoy.”

Determining that the problem was the school’s dated infrastructure and not the NBN itself, Willunga hired an IT firm and spent about $350,000 on upgrades, Reimann said.

Due to a limited budget, the school performed the infrastructure upgrade in three phases. In the end, it took about 12 months from initial connection of the NBN in August 2011 to get to a point where the broadband connection was reliable, she said.

Willunga also had to adjust its Internet filtering policies as a result of the NBN. Seeking to take advantage of the faster connection, the school at first opened YouTube to all students and staff. After three days, however, the school had used up its entire monthly Internet allowance, Reimann said.

To address the problem, Willunga increased its monthly allowance and restricted YouTube access to teachers and year-12 students, she said.

The high school has taken several steps to encourage teachers and students to take advantage of the NBN connection, Reimann said. For example, the school gave all staff Macbook Pro laptops and iPads so no one could say they didn’t have the necessary equipment, she said. The school also required teachers to mark papers electronically and encouraged them to use virtual classroom software, she said.

In addition, Willunga has placed textbooks in the cloud and used remote learning capabilities to connect students to experts across the country, she said. Students and staff have been encouraged to find and share new ways to take advantage of the faster connectivity in the classroom, she added.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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