Thursday, October 02, 2008

Digital Education Revolution Not Sustainable

Julia Gillard, Minister for Education, addressed the Australian Computers In Education Conference, 1 October 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
  4. teacher training.

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 $1.1B of the $1.2B budget is for the National Secondary School Computer Fund, to provide Year 9 to 12 students with computers. This only leaves 8% 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 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% left for the most important part of the project, which is curriculum tools ($32.6 M), teacher training ($11.25 M) 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. 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% in emissions by 2020. In my report for the Environment Department I pointed out that ICT could contribute 1% of this saving. Instead of doing this, the Australian Government is spending $1.1B increasing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, when the plan could easily incorporate energy reduction measures. This is disturbingly similar to the plot of this week's ABC TV comedy The Hollowmen: "A Waste of Energy".

A few weeks ago I visited Hawker Primary School in Canberra and looked at their award winning sustainability efforts and e-learning. The students and teachers want to have sustainable computer education facilities and know what to do, but are stopped from doing this by the policies of the ACT Education Department. The students at the school teach sustainability to other schools. The Deputy PM should drop for a lesson from the students on what the Federal Government can do for sustainable computers in schools.

1 comment:

Tom Worthington said...

An edited version of this post has been published as "Digital education revolution is not sustainable", in the e-Journal, Online Opinion, 6 October 2008.