“Revolution!” – The Federal Government’s catchcry throughout 2007-10. After many election promises made by both Federal and State Governments to digitally-revolutionise Education across NSW public schools, we question the integrity of these promises as to whether or not their goals have succeeded. Susan MA reports.
Forget hand-me-down textbooks, dusty blackboards, outdated overheads and computers. Three years since its proposition, the Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) program is widely-acclaimed to be successful and operating smoothly like a terabyte hard-drive – Or is it?
More than ten years ago, students had only just began to use the Internet, but the most that you could do was Google information, and playing Davidson’s Maths and Word Blaster to accompany your studies. Desktop computers were decent, and you were genuinely satisfied to have programs that could achieve simple tasks. Social-networking did not exist, as communication amongst peers occurred inside classrooms, during lunchtimes, and physically meeting-up outside school hours.
Today, school students are now downloading homework from ITunes and virtual learning platforms such as Moodle, listening to lessons via podcasts, and are communicating with other students and teachers via social-networks and video-conferencing facilities — not only within Australia but all over the world as well.
As part of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, the $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution program proposed under the former Rudd Government (2007) represented as one of the biggest shakeups in Australia’s Education history.
Rolling-out the program over a span of seven years, the Federal Government continues to contribute sustainable and significant changes to teaching and learning across schools in Australia, preparing students for further education and training, and also living and working in a digital world.
The program not only aims to increase the level of ICT proficiency, and innovative ICT teaching and learning facilities in classrooms; but it also includes the $442 million budgeted ‘One-for-One laptops’ scheme (which provides laptops for every Years 9-12 student), and the $100 million budgeted National Broadband Network program (providing high-speed broadband connections to 90% of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces).
Living in today’s society where students are always accessing and sharing information online and using technology for their studies, many parents have expressed content with the former Rudd Government’s deliver of election promises such as the laptop scheme. Local Sydney South-Western resident Daniel Evans commented that “if Liberal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Liberal Party had won the recent election, students wouldn’t have benefited from this initiative”.
“Labor’s investment in Education follows a decade of neglect by the Howard Government (and the Liberal Party) in which they shamefully allowed our schools’ development to slide downhill,” Evans said.
“Mr Abbott made his intentions quite clear that if they were elected as the new government, the laptops scheme (along with certain resources) would’ve been scrapped. I have three children sharing a desktop computer and laptop amongst them (at home) and it gets really troublesome at times, so I’m really happy that the Federal Government has delivered one of its proposed election promises.”
Although the initiation of new advanced technologies sounds space-aged and technical – yet an amazing opportunity for NSW students – all is not well as complications are starting to arise within schools.
Bossley Park High School, one of the biggest high schools in NSW, was initially allocated with $1million funding by the Rudd Government. According to Bossley Park High School’s Principal Ian Parnaby, the State Government, however, decided to ‘withdraw’ the Federal funding (along with other schools in the State), in order to use it for the Federal Government’s ‘One-for-One laptops’ scheme.
“Our school is fairly forward with our thinking here with technology, and honestly, we could have done so much with that money, and perhaps even more effectively,” Principal Ian Parnaby said.
“Just like the non-government schools, we were planning to use the funding to enhance, and roll-out our choice of technologies over a period of time (just like what the Federal and State governments are doing now). However, it’ll be more controlled, better planned, and we’d be able to preserve it. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Although a majority of public high schools in the South-Western region has hailed the laptop scheme as ‘fantastic’, Principal Parnaby argues that the scheme is starting to collapse, despite being in its second year.
“In a couple of months, schools will be facing problematic financial burdens as people will start to worry about the length of warranty, and when the laptops will become obsolete,” Mr Ian Parnaby said.
“Last week for instance, we just upgraded the programs on the laptops, and the brace on the outside of the laptops so the screens won’t break. There are a significant number of students who regard the laptops as just a handout – a freebie or a toy—I’ve seen laptops that are only a few weeks old, and they look as if they’ve been dropped from the top of the Harbour Bridge.”
Principal Parnaby comments that although the teachers have “jumped on board” with the new cultural technological change, the “thinking” of the students have not caught up as there have been many reports that students are reportedly using the laptops for “entertainment purposes’ (rather than for educational purposes), and teachers are also having trouble of getting students to bring the laptops to school.
Taking the laptops for granted, this lack of responsibility and appreciation shown for the laptops becomes a “conflicting nightmare” for both parents and schools.
“I’ve got problems now, where I’m saying to parents that their son/daughter should take care of the laptops more carefully, because if it’s broken, they have to pay for it. But parents are objecting to it because they think of the laptops as electronic textbooks that belong to the school,” Mr Parnaby said.
Despite slamming the laptops scheme as “a waste of money”, Principal Ian Parnaby admits that the software on the laptops is “absolutely outstanding”. Manufactured by Lenovo and connected wirelessly with IBM, each laptop is worth approximately $4000 each; with highly-advanced programs such as OneNote, Dreamweaver and Adobe suites.
However, this comes with a price for most teachers across NSW. According to Bossley’s Head Teacher of Industrial Technology (faculty) Peter Thompson, many teachers are under “major pressure to learn the programs” as they undertake intensive internalised and external DET-approved training programs, despite many of them consider themselves as ‘techno-savvy’.
“Teachers not only have to accelerate their ICT-learning in their spare time, but they have to also stay on top with the normal things that they have to do,” Mr Thompson said.
“The majority of the training are internalised as we adopt a self-teaching model called ‘Intra-teaching’. While the Year 12s are doing their HSC exams, we roster teachers for training sessions during those available times. Many are finding it very difficult, as the training is either complex and/or cluttering their schedules. And as a result, many are being discouraged from embracing this ‘education revolution’ with open arms,” Mr Thompson concluded.
And if you thought the Federal Government’s funding and resources wasn’t generous enough, the NSW State Government has also been rolling-out its Connected Classrooms initiative for two years now (and will continue to do so in the next four years), investing $158 million to transform the current classrooms into 21st Century classrooms with enhanced ICT teaching and learning facilities.
School students in every NSW public school are now being switched on to some of the most up-to-date technology available: from interactive whiteboards, to video-conferencing facilities and even virtual classrooms. This is accompanied by additional learning tools (such as blogs, wikis, and storage) for students to collaborate and communicate in a secure online environment; and technological resources (such as enhanced bandwidth capacity, internet filtering and network authentication).
A year ago, Governor Philip King Public School did not have any form of ICT teaching and learning equipments in their classrooms. Now, with one fully-equipped video-conferencing classroom and nine interactive whiteboards, Principal Jason Corcoran said the school and its community were “exceptionally happy” to receive $250, 000 worth of the new technologies, as there was “no way that a majority of NSW public schools could not have afforded the upgrades and resources on its own”.
“Surprisingly, my staff has embraced the new changes wonderfully — if you walk into the classroom right now, you would see the class using it as we speak,” Principal Jason Corcoran said.
“The technologies were relatively easy to use, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The State Government will be putting six more interactive whiteboards in the next few months, and you can’t imagine how happy we are. When we talk about value for money, they’re such great resources that enhance teaching and learning; and naturally, we wouldn’t have been able to afford these technologies with our usual budget.”
In fact, less than 12 months ago, Governor Philip King Public and nine other primary schools (including Mount Pritchard Public School and Cabramatta West Public School) participated in a video-conference with award-winning children’s author, Ursula Dubosarsky. Teacher Ms Usher said the video-conference was a “great educational experience” as it not only created a link with their literacy syllabus, but students were able to get “first-hand experience with the technology”, and got the opportunity to “see and talk” to Ms Dubosarsky about her works and personal experiences as well.
However, despite the negatives and (rare) positives that have risen from this overall DER project, the real question is whether the program is successful. There were major concerns amongst parents and teachers that the use of these advanced technologies in classrooms would “reduce the quality” of education, as these technologies will be perceived as “substitutes” for teaching.
Whilst many of these learning experiences can be achieved by using pencil and paper, John Kneale, an English teacher with more than twenty years of experience, argues technology (as a medium) is no substitute for teaching, as these technologies are “necessary tools in the workplace and education that provides opportunities for students to be creative and innovative with their studies”.
“Everyone always doubts the benefits of this digital revolution in teaching, but in the end, in this fast-changing world, this is how education must change in order to keep up with the 21st Century,” Mr Kneale said.
“Education today should not be so much about learning skills but learning how to learn. Technology provides the avenue to do this, as these new technologies offer a more engaging way to learn, especially those who are not motivated to engage in learning.”
Although the Federal and NSW State Government has been slammed over the lack of planning; waste of resources; and spending billions of money (and taxpayers’ money) on some of the other components of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program (such as the National Schools Pride program e.g. refurbishments and constructions in schools) — many see the governments’ initiative to fund and revolutionise digital education as ‘genuine’, beneficial, and moving into ‘right direction’ towards a 21st Century education.
Principal Jason Corcoran (Governor Philip King Public School), for instance, isn’t a big fan of politicians, but he believes schools should look on the “positive” side, and “trust the Federal and State Governments’ promises”.
“What they say, and what they deliver are two different things, but hopefully, these politicians will commit to honouring every election promise they’ve made,” Mr Jason Corcoran said.
“For those who think that the BER program was a rush, or a waste of money, I don’t think so, as I think any permanent resources that a school gets are a bonus. I believe the governments would have actually thought about what schools needed, and what they had to do in order to save Australia out of recession. I can’t speak on behalf of all the schools, but from our perspective, and the people who we interact with, we are generally happy with the fundings and resources. Not just for the school, but for our students as well.”
Nevertheless, despite a majority of the DER program being a success, it is still too early to decide on whether the Federal and NSW State Governments have actually achieved this ‘revolution’. \
With the Minister of Education and Training Verity Firth confirming that the Federal and NSW State Governments will be spending a further $16 million to provide every secondary teacher with a laptop; $11.25 million to be spent on professional development for teachers; and $32million for online curriculum tools and resources — it is evident that Education is not just a top priority and most benefited election promise in Australia, but it looks like digital-revolution in Education will be staying, and will be developing even rapidly in many years time.