The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations will soon issue a request for tender to construct a $70 million internal fibre network between vocational educational institutions and government schools across Australia, as the Federal Government agency looks to better utilise the increase in computing technology resulting from the $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution (DER).
The Vocational Education Broadband Network (VBN), announced last year and originally slated to cost $81.9 million, is expect to be built over three years. It will provide an education backbone network that, like higher education service provider AARNet, will facilitate a private connection between educational institutions that can bypass the internet for internal communication. The network will also allow institutions to share applications, but it will not provide internet access as AARNet does to research institutions and universities.
The network will build upon the fibre networks already built in NSW and Victoria, and those planned to be built in other states, by providing interconnects between states and territories to join the separate networks.
A request for expressions of interest into the project was released by the department in February 2010, calling for participants to offer both proposals for building the network, and the potential applications to be delivered over the network, funded by an additional $10 million from the Federal Government.
Group manager for the DEEWR’s Schools Teaching, Students and Digital Education Revolution Group, Evan Arthur, said the network would begin in VET and TAFE colleges and ultimately move to secondary and primary schools. It would help schools to communicate and traverse applications without incurring the cost often associated with normal telco networks.
The vast majority of government schools in Victoria and NSW now have access to fibre networks, due in part to the $100 million funding provided in the Government’s DER to roll out higher bandwidth access networks. A total of 47 per cent of Australian schools now have fibre access, followed closely by 42.3 per cent with DSL. The remainder use satellite, wireless, while 1.3 per cent of government schools have stated they currently have no internet access.
The Catholic education sector is also in the process of building its own network, which would involve fibre rolled out to schools where viable, and upgrading of copper networks in other cases.
Despite the influx of fibre access, however, Arthur said about 75 per cent of government schools continued to operate at less than 4 megabits per second (Mbps) - a problem he said was exacerbated by elevated fibre access access costs from telcos.
“The actual cost to the telecommunications provider, when they have fibre lit inside a school with active equipment inside that school... to move from 4Mbps to 100Mbps is not an awful lot, but it is a factor which bears very heavily on the use of communications technologies by Australian schools,” he said at the World Computing Congress 2010 in Brisbane.
The NBN would go part way to solve the speed issue, while also making fibre access near-ubiquitous among Australian schools and upgrading the communications technologies of those who won’t receive fibre under the rollout. It would also help to close the gap between bandwidth speed and use by students, which in NSW is forecast to reach 200TB worth of data downloads per month by the end of the year.
Some of the applications delivered over the new vocational education backbone are likely to focus on the promotion of the use of technology to further education among teachers, according to Arthur.
“In many cases, it is easier in fact to do the core processes of teaching and learning offline than online because those processes are complex,” he said. “The information management processes involved there in one-to-many, many-to-many interactions back to a single point, are extremely complex.”
Technology, he said, was an important part of the education process, and would be an enabler for effective learning. It not yet central to teaching, however.
“I think it remains true that technology is not at the centre of the process of teaching and learning in Australian schools, and certainly not in secondary schools. I don’t believe that is something we can accept for the future... we need to be realistic about where we are at the moment.”
John Daniel, president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth of Learning - which encourages the use of technology for education in developing Commonwealth countries - challenged the notion of projects which aimed to deliver one computer for every student such as the DER and the global One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project as being ineffective ways of promoting learning. Instead, he pointed to the Hole in the Wall project in India as a more successful venture, as it placed shared computers outside of the classroom in public locations, promoting collaborative learning.
Speaking on the same panel as Daniel, Arthur defended the DER’s attempts to deliver a computer for every students in Years 9 to 12.
“I don’t think, in Australian schools that it’s desirable to have a whole bunch of kids trying to fight for the keyboard. I do think, however, that the missing link in all this stuff has been easy to use, easy to implement for extremely time-poor teachers, ways to use collaborative learning environments, social networking tools, the ability for students to have their own computer to quickly and easily allow that computer o enter collaborative activities... the reality is while we have an overall investment in tech summed up, we have not spent a lot of time working out complex, one-to-many hierarchic environments.”
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