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Digital education revolution is not sustainable

By Tom Worthington - posted Monday, 6 October 2008


Julia Gillard, Minister for Education, addressed the Australian Computers In Education Conference, October 1 2008. She talked about the Government's $1.2 billion Digital Education Revolution strategy being about more than computers for students. She said this was a matter of equity and national economic survival. The minister also mentioned "sustainability", but in an economic sense, not environmentally or educationally.

The Minister outlined four priorities:

  1. universal access to high quality computers;
  2. computers must be networked;
  3. compelling educational content; and
  4. teacher training.
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However, the Australian Government appears to have left other ICT equipment and support out of the budget. Teachers have pointed out that interactive whiteboards are more educationally useful and should be a higher priority than computers for students. Also the facilities needed for supporting computers need to be considered.

The Australian Government is placing undue emphasis on computers for students. The $1.1 billion of the $1.2 billion budget is for the National Secondary School Computer Fund, to provide Year 9 to 12 students with computers. This only leaves 8 per cent of the funds for networking, content and training.

Of the remaining funds, $100 million will be spent on high-speed fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband connections for schools. As the Deputy PM points out this can be used for virtual classrooms, e-books, visual and audio streaming and high definition video conferencing. However, that will require additional equipment in the school not budgeted for by the federal government. Also schools in remote areas will not receive this level of network service, as the Australian Broadband Guarantee only provides for 512Kbps download and 128Kbps upload in rural and remote areas.

With almost all the Digital Education Revolution budget spent on computers for students and broadband, there is only 5 per cent left for the most important part of the project, which is curriculum tools ($32.6 million), teacher training ($11.25 million) and support ($10 million).

The example of the Learning Object Repository Network in the Vocational Education and Training sector is a good model for schools to follow in developing and sharing content. However, that system is hampered by the lack of open access to the materials. The Minister should require the use of a Creative Commons type licence on materials developed with the government funding to ensure the content can be widely used, without the need for schools to worry about paying licence fees.

A nationally consistent approach to storing and managing online curriculum content with a Learning Activity Management project and integrated online learning environment is a good idea.

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These should not be developed in isolation from the initiatives in the vocational and higher education sectors. The same issues are faced by teachers in schools, TAFEs, companies, government agencies and universities. Much the same solutions are being explored from primary schools to universities, with the vocational sector the most advanced in their use of ICT. However, at present the sectors are developing the same techniques independently, duplicating effort and wasting resources.

A major failing of the Digital Education Revolution is that it does not address climate change thus increasing cost and pollution. At ACEC'08 on Tuesday, Mark Winter from Computers Off Australia, outlined how power saving measures could make saving to schools power bills and reduce carbon emissions. The same day Professor Garnaut recommended a reduction of 25 per cent in emissions by 2020. In my report for the Environment Department I pointed out that ICT could contribute 1 per cent of this saving.

One area where energy efficiency could have an early impact is computers for schools. The Australian Government is funding new computers and thus can require that only energy efficient computers be purchased using those funds. Apart from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this will reduce the cost of electricity to run the computers. In addition, schools provide a good way to educate the general community, through the children teaching their parents about sustainability.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, an author and independent IT consultant. He is also a member of the On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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