Liberal education policy could serve Labor program

Proposed Liberal funding, used in the same way as under the current Digital Education Revolution, will leave many students out of pocket.

The Liberal's planned $120 million “School Technology Fund” could be most effectively used in sustaining Labor’s current Digital Education Revolution (DER) rather than revamping existing school technology programs, according to one school IT manager.

Announced last week by Opposition education minister, Christopher Pyne, the fund will see a Coalition Government spend $30 million per year in providing grants of up to $50,000 directly to schools for technology purchases. The funding has not been specified for primary or secondary schools, and sets no targets for computer to student ratios or the rollout of particular technologies.

According to party policy documents, the grants could be spent on technologies including:

  • smart white boards and other projection technology
  • implementation of Learning Management systems
  • professional development in the area of lCT for teachers
  • laptops or fixed computers
  • software
  • printers and scanners
  • digital cameras and video cameras
  • extra utilities – such as additional of power points or storage facilities for ICT technologies

In contrast Labor has pledged to continue its $2.4 billion DER until at least 2014, with its most significant aspect - the National Secondary Schools Computer Fund - continuing to provide computers for every secondary school student in Years 9 to 12.

The computer fund has so far provided $294.5 million in funding to schools through education departments for a total 292,839 computers to 2802 schools. The Government spent an average $1005.71 on each computer, as well as an additional $807 million provided for the installation of infrastructure required to support the additional computers, equal to approximately $2500 for each computer.

However, if the Liberal’s planned technology fund is spent in a similar way to the DER, the $120 million in proposed funding would result in computers for 34,236 secondary students; one computer for every eight Year 9 students in Australia, or one computer for every Year 9 student in a Queensland government school.

Peter Williamson, an IT manager at an independent school in NSW, told Computerworld Australia that the lack of prescription in the Liberal party’s commitment could be beneficial to schools, as it would be more focussed on specific needs, though the grant volume would be an insignificant amount for larger schools.

However, given the current batch of DER laptops could last as much as six years for desktops and four years for laptops, the funding would most likely be spent on maintaining current programs.

“Schools that are serious about using technology have to continue to invest heavily in staff training, and the 101 other aspects of technology which support the students computer use,” he said. “Funds provided by the Liberal deal could well be used to sustain the effective use of this hardware.”

He argued that even the Labor program would be “hard pressed” to sustain the 1:1 ratio of computers to students currently stipulated in the program, given the extra investment required to deploy and effectively maintain fixed computers or laptops for every student. Instead, those schools without structured programs could potentially purchase more adequate hardware for education, albeit at a lower ratio of computers to students.

“In my experience the cost of maintaining the technology infrastructure is twice the capital spend. So for every $1000 computer you need to spend $2000 on salaries and services to allow the student to effectively use the computer.”

Under former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, the Labor Government initially committed to delivering a ratio of one computer for every secondary student in Years 9 to 12 by 31 December 2011. However, when questioned about delays Rudd told ABC’s Q&A program that the ratio would be achieved by 2013. The program has since been extended until at least 2014, with an additional $200 million added the 2010/2011 Federal Budget for another year’s operation. The DER website continues to state the original 2011 timeframe.

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