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How the NBN will change education: Australia’s “Last Spike” moment

When I grew up in Canada there was a famous painting on the wall of nearly every primary school classroom. It was called “The Last Spike” and it depicted the final railway track connection being hammered…

Much like the development of the railway in the 19th century, the National Broadband Network (NBN) will transform our society. Wikimedia Commons

When I grew up in Canada there was a famous painting on the wall of nearly every primary school classroom. It was called “The Last Spike” and it depicted the final railway track connection being hammered in to create a true east-west transport corridor. In a real sense, it was the making of Canada; a nation-building project.

The same can be said of the National Broadband Network (NBN) today. Once completed, it will connect all Australians as never before - in communications, healthcare, news, media, science, invention and, particularly, in education. And it will do so at all levels.

In fact, its importance for the future of primary and secondary education is only just beginning to be appreciated. Remember the ethos of that famous Australian invention, the outback School of the Air. For students in regional Australia, it meant connection and access to educational opportunities unbound by geography.

What pedal-powered short-wave radio was to remote stations of the 1950s - a direct link to the world of learning - the NBN will be to the children of the next decade. But the difference is profound. It will be multipoint and immersive, “many way” instead of two-way. It will make a baseline of high-quality learning available to every individual, every class - while teachers will be able to collaborate with each other across state and territory boundaries as never before.

They will be able to work across states to assess new forms of curriculum and to give them “local engagement”. They will be able to develop their own pedagogical skills through peer-to-peer communities. And when students from Alligator River want to enter a science fair with young people in Deloraine, they will be able to share a “digital project” enabling Year 8 students from the Northern Territory and Tasmania to work together in a whole new way.

Imagine the open-access impulse of EdX or Coursera, blend it (literally) with the National Curriculum project in Australia and then one has an inkling of what is possible. But between “possible” and “actual” lies the challenge.

Some call it access, others the “digital gap”. But it is not a simple matter of urban versus rural opportunities or outback versus city access; this misreads the situation.

In fact, there is already a huge “digital divide” in this country. It starts right outside our university campus gates – not hundreds of kilometres from them. Serious inequities already exist. The NBN will address them head-on – and it will solve them.

Every day, citizens travel past tertiary campuses without realising just how fortunate those inside are: university staff and students have access to superbroadband unlike anything most Australians have ever seen or experienced. For most people, AARNET3 (Australia’s Academic and Research Network) is a mysterious acronym; for us, it is an essential engine for our education and research. It is so customary that its enormous benefits are almost taken for granted.

But it is well worth remembering what these benefits are. For example, at Monash we have special, purpose-designed secondary schools on three of our six Victorian campuses. Those schools are public-purpose, taxpayer-funded institutions.

At the John Monash Science School on our Clayton campus, all of its 600 students have a student card just like our undergraduates. They have access to our library, to the Web of Science, to Elsevier, to Humanities Online. They can share their homework assignments through Google Docs; they can collaborate via videochat. They can connect with more than 100 television news channels from around the world — including Al Jazeera in both Arabic and English; BBC World and CNN — at no cost. They can download at 100 megabits per second — the gold standard for academic work.

The learning opportunities are superb. Consequently (and by design) innovative curriculum invention happens all the time - with school and university staff working together to mint new forms of pedagogy.

But a school located just down the road – even one with students who are equally motivated and talented – has very few of these privileges. This has to change.

The genius of the NBN is that it will break down that divide all across Australia. Instead of a digital “rain shadow” the whole nation will have equitable access. Instead of the frustration of strangled speeds, poor image clarity and slow (or no) service, an NBN society will be fundamentally more fair and productive.

But this will not happen without careful planning, and without a major series of moves to prioritise access to educational projects during the NBN rollout. The way forward is for universities to partner with secondary schools, with TAFE institutions and with the private sector to model the new face of learning.

Ultimately, then, the NBN is all about people; not about technology. It is about being able to train, inspire and educate students of whatever age to work together as never before. And it is about devising solutions to real challenges in an interdisciplinary way.

The role of public and educational libraries will be a crucial too. If the word “portal” means anything, it means democratic access to that wider digital world; libraries are placed centre-stage in that process.

Meanwhile, every university and TAFE in the nation should be considering the establishment of digitally-enabled secondary schools on their campuses.

The NBN project is one which is beyond politics and it deserves bipartisan support in every state and territory. The “last spike” moment is now.

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

  1. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I agree that the national broadband network is a great contribution to Australia's infrastructure, but this piece is confused. It raises so many inconsistencies and non sequiturs it is hard to know what to concentrate on.

    The school of the air relies heavily on a parent or governess to supervise the pupil at home because young people need supervision and support in their education. How many times do parents have to ask their children to do their homework? Broadcasting classes thru the nbn will not change this.

    Teachers don't collaborate much with their colleagues in the next suburb: why would they be more likely to collaborate with colleagues across the country electronically?

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  2. david poole

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Gavin makes a good point,"Teachers dont collaborate much..." and I think that the Author also picked it up, the author has said "But between “possible” and “actual” lies the challenge."
    Our perspective( www.projectcoach.com.au) is that Teachers in the future are going to need to be coaches, and utilise the wealth of information available, to guide their students. They will also need to be more aware of the needs of Industry, and the economy, so that they guide their students in a way that the teaching is relevant. Research, in the academic sense will contribute to this wealth of knowledge that is used by the coaches / teachers.
    I am continually amazed that Teachers still don't use existing technology, that most students use, such as gaming on line, to help their students, be they primary, secondary or tertiary.

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to david poole

      I agree the "possible" and "actual" gap is a crucial hedge. However, I do think that with the NBN and current interactive virtual classroom technologies (2-way+ video enabled), supervision will be comparable to face to face situations quite quickly.

      I do take issue with the "teachers don't collaborate". In the ACT, at least within clusters of schools, there is substantial collaboration between different schools, teachers and classrooms. The main barrier to more collaboration is time and this…

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  3. Michael Brown

    Professional & academic

    You don't need the NBN to provide adequate internet access thoughout the country - it could have been done for a fraction of the NBN cost, and much faster.
    Having said that, there is no doubt the internet will have a huge impact on the disadvantaged and remote communities both here and in developing countries. Bill Gates and Google are supporting the Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/) which provides free high quality video lessons on "on everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history". The impact will be massive.

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    1. Martin Ankor

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Brown

      "You don't need the NBN to provide adequate internet access thoughout the country - it could have been done for a fraction of the NBN cost, and much faster."

      How exactly?

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    2. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Michael Brown

      Leaving aside the cost - although you can see my piece on this - I am not particularly a fan - an interesting statistic of the NBN is that the target of only 3% of the population not being covered by the NBN actually translates into 25% of the Aboriginal population. For the communities in the northern half of Australia covered by satellite, the NBN will deliver little.

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    3. Marlon Perera

      -

      In reply to Martin Ankor

      Exactly.. its all well and easy to say 'this is stupid, and it can be done better and cheaper', but I've never seen an argument that stacks up..

      All the options presented by opponents of the NBN have been cheaper, but not better (in terms of speed or functionality). You can either have a very good broadband network, or a cheaper one that isnt as good.. you could argue that the cheaper one is better value for money, but saying a cheaper option (such as fibre to the node) is 'better' is just patently incorrect.

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    4. Leah Lane

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Glance

      The NBN will deliver little via satellite?? Compared to what !!

      Agreed that it is nowhere near as good as fibre but it is better than the NOTHING they get now!!

      I am on NBN satellite (interim service) and while I would love something better, it is much better value than the ABG satellite that I was on previously and when they put their own satellites up, it will be faster again and give better value for money.

      If a community is so remote that it is not feasible to hook them up to fibre, how should this situation be handled. Satellite is a poor cousin but at least the NBN is offering something for everyone. I would have thought this should be encouraged and supported by everyone who is concerned about equity. The oppositions lack of a plan really would offer them nothing at all.

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    5. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Leah Lane

      Hi Leah,

      In WA at least they already have satellite that is of higher quality than is going to be offered by the NBN. There are also areas which won't be covered at all by the NBN satellite. The point is that the NBN will largely be improving areas that already have broadband capability - and not necessarily bringing anything new to areas that don't.

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    6. Markie Linhart

      Rouleur

      In reply to Michael Brown

      "You don't need the NBN to provide adequate internet access thoughout the country - it could have been done for a fraction of the NBN cost, and much faster."
      Why are we still getting these 'it can be done cheaper' comments, it's been stated elsewhere by industry and others that the (productivity) savings to the Health and Power sectors alone will more than cover the $26b investment by the government…
      Given that this is probably the single most important infrastructure project in this country since the telegraph; I just don't understand the myopic attitude to the NBN that prevails - particularly for some inexplicable reason on the political right.
      The NBN is a complete entity - not a hotch potch of 'cheaper' components - for the very reason that it will work in its entirety. We don't want to end up with say, a railway system that still in the 21st century has different gauges!

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    7. Francis Young

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Marlon Perera

      And fibre to the node is not cheaper in Australia, because Telstra owns the last mile copper. In 2007, the FTTN budgeted at $4.7 billion was found to cost $11 billion to construct, plus $15 billion compensation to Telstra to acquire the ten million copper tails to premises. $26 billion for electricity-guzzling cabinets in every suburban block capped permanently at copper upload speeds does not compare favourably to $12 billion to lay all-purpose fibre to premises in every urban centre.

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    8. Francis Young

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Glance

      Not true, David. The NBN satellite service in 2015 will deliver 12 Mbps per user down and 1,2 or 4 Mbps upstream to anyone, anywhere, and will do it for the same cost as today's ADSL in cities. Expect remote communities to also benefit from concentrators of terrestrial bandwidth shared locally using wireless to avoid satellite latency due to the round trip to 35,700 km altitude. Therefore 100% of aboriginal premises will have access to this on the same basis as non aboriginal premises, and where any economic disadvantage exists you can expect government to assist. Creating a perceived divide between indigenous and non indigenous Australians by your assertion helps nobody.

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    9. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Francis Young

      Ah, so you were at the meeting we held with the NBN people where they explained how this wasn't going to help the remote communities we cover? I didn't notice you there.

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    10. Leah Lane

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Glance

      How is the satellite now better than what will be offered by NBN? What are the specs (speed/latency) and costs? Which areas are covered by satellite now and wont be by the NBN satellite?

      I am finding that the interim service is similar in terms of speed to my older ABG satellite connection and miles ahead on the basis of cost. I expect both speed to increase and cost to decrease when the NBN satellites go up.

      If remote communities already have a better deal with a satellite provider that…

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    11. Leah Lane

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Glance

      Sorry - should clarify my comment about "normal people". I meant this in the context of me being an individual who can only access retail ISP deals rather than a community (aboriginal or otherwise) who can perhaps JOINTLY access other types of deals not available to individuals.

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    12. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Marlon Perera

      I use high speed Internet to show videos from the net to classes.
      However I always download them and store them locally in two places first.

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    13. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Markie Linhart

      I hate to break the news to you but the Internet is built with a wide range of different data capacity. It is actually designed in that way. Otherwise we would be trying to build SONET network to the home.

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    14. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Michael Brown

      Michael,
      "You don't need the NBN to provide adequate internet access throughout the country - it could have been done for a fraction of the NBN cost, and much faster".

      This is stated by someone who says he is a professional, academic and a director. I am constantly stunned. Is this a professional belief, a personal belief or simply a political belief?

      The NBN is about the economy; about being an enabler of the economy of the 21st Century. It is about improving productivity and optimising…

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    15. Stuart Robertson

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Francis Young

      Hi Francis. Whilst I support the rollout of the NBN, I disagree with you comment. The issue, and I'm guessing that this is what David is referring to, is that the NBN Satellite solution is structured to provide solutions to remote individuals and not to remote communities. There are a no doubt numberous communities dotted across australia that have local networks available, be they wireless, wired, etc. where a common backhaul channel is used. In this instance specs of the service will be better…

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  4. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    In IT, there is a term called "vapourware".
    Many of the claims about the NBN fit into this category.
    Most people who talk about the NBN don't have a clue about how a network really works.
    The simple challenge I put to readers is who has heard of a CDN, and who knows the peak hours for Internet usage within Australia, and what effect this has on Internet speed.
    As for health, access to high cost diagnostic equipment is not provided by the NBN.

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    1. Francis Young

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      High cost diagnostic equipment is more likely to be funded by your health fund. Instead of paying for additional hospital days for post operative patients, merely to allow a twice daily quick check by a doctor, taking patients away from family, home cooked meals and normal life, they will be able to fund rental of a cheap device and an active NBN port to connect it. A comprehensive diagnostic device with two way video capability can cost as little as $100. This also releases hospital beds and ward staff, extending the useful life of wards before they need to be expanded at considerable cost to health budgets.

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    2. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Francis Young

      Diagnostic equipment supplied by health funds has nothing to do with NBN.
      Diagnostic data can be sent via even a dial-up speed - data does not required much bandwidth.
      Everything mentioned can be done now with ADSL or HFC cable.
      If a patient suffers a haemorrage,etc, they will be dead before they get back to hospital
      Your post was classic case of vapourware.
      http://www.news.com.au/national/hot-off-the-e-presses-turnbull-swipes-at-nbn/story-fndo4eg9-1226416100268

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    3. Francis Young

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      ADSL and HFC fail to reach 30% of Australians. The answer is the NBN. We are particularly talking about people not close to a major hospital.

      Take a look at the latest finding from this UK three-year, 6000+ patient, 238 GP practice trial of home delivered health monitoring, and then tell me again about vapourware.

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  5. Mandy Lupton

    Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

    There is another digital divide that might surprise you. I have recently conducted a study into teacher-librarian's use of social media in teaching and learning in schools in the Brisbane/Greater Brisbane. I found that independent and private schools had generally embraced social media, for instance using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google Docs etc. However the Education Queensland state schools were blocked from using any social media or cloud service that required students to register or login…

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    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      I can understand your concern. You won't be able to show teachers how students are uploading their porn and videos of playground fights to dropbox so that they can watch them in class.
      Of course, I hate to break the news to you but a large proportion of students have smartphones and Iphones which are not subject to these filters.

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    2. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Philip, in my experience the sort of behaviour you describe is the exception rather than the rule. As an IT teacher, I would imagine that your responsibility is to teach students about the good, bad and ugly of the internet. We can't do that if we can't access the same tools that the big bad world can access.

      I realise that 50% of Australians with mobile phones have a smartphone. Those figures also hold true for my postgrad students who are practising teachers (I survey them on their ICT use at the start of the semester). And they tell me that they access Facebook and other social media from their smartphones while they are at school. However, in relation to their students, I wonder what percentage of low SES students have a smartphone?

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    3. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      As an IT teacher, I teach my students about network management, and part of this is to advise management on risk assessment.
      I also advise them to read Terms of Service and to identify data integrity.
      I happen to have a rather significant amount of expertise in student use and misuse of the Internet. It troubles me that so many teachers have such a naive idea of the Internet, how it works, and the players in it.
      One high school principal for example couldn't understand the issue of sending the contents of a database from Sydney to Melbourne via a three man operation in the United States. The database contained the names, address, and report details of 900 teenage girls.
      This data would have been in a jurisdiction where Australian privacy laws don't apply.
      Even the Australian police have expressed concern at getting information from Facebook associated with criminal activity.

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  6. Jim Wright

    Retired Civil/Structural Engineer, IT Consultant/Contractor

    I have worked on railway lines in East Africa and Australia and none of the projects I was engaged or older ones that I studied, was there any analysis which stated that the cost was to be recovered in a certain way over a certain time. The builders simply had faith that over time, the presence of the railway line would be a driver to developmental efforts whose value would far outweigh the initial cost. The only project that I am aware of is a railway line from Uganda to the Congo, intended to carry…

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    1. Jim Wright

      Retired Civil/Structural Engineer, IT Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Jim Wright

      Whoops, I hit the Submit key a little too soon. Please insert "on" before "none of the projects" and "failed"before "project that I am aware of".
      Oh, how I envy the finger-dexterity of my grandchildren as they tweet away!

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