Faster broadband for better learning

Thorrington School Principal Paul Armitage: “We will make better use of the internet’s data-hungry multimedia, video conferencing and online learning tools. It will open the door on twenty-first century teaching…

Paul-ArmitageThorrington School Principal Paul Armitage: “We will make better use of the internet’s data-hungry multimedia, video conferencing and online learning tools. It will open the door on twenty-first century teaching and learning.”

Last year, the government announced it will accelerate the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband via fibre optic cable across the country. It will invest $1.5 billion over six to 10 years, with the private sector investment matching this figure.

The initiative aims to provide broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to the 75 percent of New Zealanders in urban areas. An extra $300 million is ear-marked to improve service to rural communities.

While all schools have broadband, for the majority it arrives at a discouragingly slow rate – in some cases as low as 1 Mbps. This makes us 20 out of 31 OECD countries for average broadband download speed (Australia clocks in at number 11), and well overdue for an upgrade.

How fast is ultra fast?

The government is promising access to broadband speeds of 100 Mbps or more for at least 97 percent of schools within six years.

Howard Baldwin, Manager e-Learning Innovation at the Ministry of Education, is passionate about the difference that the broadband initiative will make. “Many teachers are getting frustrated trying to use the next generation of web-based tools and services. Ultra-fast broadband will allow teachers to build in online collaboration as part of their day-to-day work – it just isn’t possible at the moment.”

It’s a challenging project. New Zealand is a hard country to cable, points out Douglas Harré, Senior Consultant at the ministry. It’s mountainous, with a geographically dispersed population, divided into two islands and positioned at the bottom of the world. Just the opposite of the densely populated, relatively flat countries like Portugal, Netherlands and Hungary at the top the OECD’s table.

And how will students access their broadband? Schools will need to have enough computers to make the government’s investment worthwhile. Unlike New South Wales in Australia, where 10,000 new computers are introduced into schools each week under their Digital Education Revolution plan, there are no plans here to offer 1:1 laptop support for students.

Learning transformed

Access issues aside, where the rubber hits the information highway is what schools will do with ultra-fast broadband. The ministry, which is continuing to fund ICT professional development for teachers, has always looked to schools to identify innovations in teaching and learning.

Paul Armitage, Principal of Thorrington School, which is part of a consortium of Christchurch schools upgrading their broadband ahead of the government’s roll out, says access to ultra-fast broadband will provide his students with advanced learning opportunities.

“It’s a really exciting future for us. We will make better use of the internet’s data-hungry multimedia, video conferencing and online learning tools. It will open the door on twenty-first century teaching and learning, which has been inaccessible because of the limitations and expense of our current broadband connection.”

Trevor Storr, an e-principal based at Waimate High School, suggests that learning with broadband can go beyond accessing video on YouTube. He says any experience that can be digitised can be shared and worked with collaboratively across the internet.

He envisages teachers using tools like video conferencing to provide specialist subject tuition to learners in any location. He cites the shortage of teachers of te reo Māori in South Canterbury schools and proposes setting up a virtual language department. “Learners will have greater choice in what they learn and how they learn it,” he says.

Douglas at the ministry is also excited about local developments. He says the current focus on accessing content from the rest of the world needs to be balanced by greater interest in our own backyard. He points to institutions like Te Papa, NIWA, the National Library and schools themselves with content to share.

Collaboration is essential

The National Education Network could be the service that transports teaching and learning down the pipes. This year up to 200 schools will be connected to a trial version of a national network that will provide access to content and services such as e-asTTle, Te Kete Ipurangi, the Virtual Learning Network and high-definition video conferencing.

Other services that could be included are learning management and student management systems, Voice Over Internet Protocol and e-portfolio software. This year’s Budget also provided funding for a further 300 schools to be added as the network is gradually scaled up. “The purpose of the trial is for us to learn about what works and what doesn’t,” says Howard.

Details are still on the drawing board, but the National Education Network has the potential to reduce expensive data costs for schools and improve the performance of services. This would be especially the case if all schools were involved, although such a requirement would challenge a sector governed by Tomorrow’s Schools thinking. A truly national network is necessary to ensure equitable access for all students and spread teaching innovation between schools.

Another opportunity for schools is for them to take the lead in supporting their communities to access online content and services, particularly in rural areas where the penetration of broadband lags behind urban centres. Schools could become a hub for their communities to link to the modern economy and the networked world. Howard comments, “We need an approach where [school][/school] spaces are flexibly available to communities – shared libraries are a great example.”

Broadband is necessary, but not sufficient. The bigger picture includes improved computing resources for students, training for teachers, collaboration between schools and within communities and, perhaps most important of all, a vision for teaching and learning with ultra-fast broadband.

Sarah Jones works at Boost New Media
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