Can the NBN revolutionise education?
The NBN is about providing a platform that will enable wider delivery of high bandwidth applications than is currently possible over internet connection technologies like copper or hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC). Exactly what shape many of these applications will take is open to speculation. However, already there are examples of bandwidth-hungry applications that can revolutionise the classroom.
In December, the University of Melbourne trialled technology that allowed medical students to observe virtual reality surgery demonstrations in 3D. The Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) platform used in the trial was developed by partnership between Ericsson and the university's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES).
"The University of Melbourne has shown that early surgical training is improved by the addition of virtual reality to the training program, and it is becoming clear that 3D TV is a way of getting the message across to young surgeons from around the county," the university's Professor Steven O'Leary, William Gibson Chair in Otolaryngology, said in a statement at the time.
"Suddenly people understand how the NBN will help deliver academic and continuing education across Australia," said broadband strategy manager for Ericsson, Colin Goodwin. "It's exciting!"
In March, IBES executive director, Kate Cornick, told a House of Representatives committee hearing into the NBN that the Uni TV service used in the virtual surgery trial may be able to boost the number of international students studying at the university.
The potential impact of high quality IPTV-based services is not the only way in which the increased bandwidth offered by the NBN is likely to alter the Australian educational landscape. Another example of possible fibre-fuelled changes to education is AARNet's recent negotiations with universities to offer “always-on access” to uni resources for students and researchers at their homes at NBN mainland sites in Armidale and Townsville. Macquarie University is looking to , and offer remote access to students and staff. While Macquarie's own attempts are independent of the NBN, proper use of the architecture and Web development applications envisaged under the program require significant bandwidth on both ends for a seamless experience.
Another possibility for both researchers and students is quick access to large datasets. For example, under one proposal the massive data expected be produced by the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope may be made available to anyone to study — if they have the bandwidth.
As with health and entertainment, it is likely that many of the uses to which Australia's FTTH network will be put in the education sector are yet to be thought of. Universities can be notoriously bandwidth-hungry, and just what kind of impact smaller institutions and individual homes getting their hands on gigabit bandwidth will have on how Australians teach and learn is yet to be seen.
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