In "Broadband for a Broad Land" I started drafting a submission for an Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network (due 5 February 2011). In rereading "Vision for a Networked Nation", which Roger Clarke wrote in 1994 (with my assistance) for several of inquiries, I was stuck with how current the issues still are. The NBN plans to use terrestrial fibre for connecting homes and small businesses in urban Australia. issue then is how far this can be extended into regional areas and the relevant merits of wireless terrestrial and satellite for remaining areas. The "Vision" paper discussed "The Public Electronic Library" with the Internet redefining the role of the library. The suggestion of libraries being funded was taken up with enthusiasm by Australian federal, state and local governments, with Internet access now being routine in public libraries. I propose this be extended with the "Australian Learning Commons", being a free online publicly accessible collection of education resources for pre-school, school, adult and community education, TAFE, vocational, tertiary universities. Libraries can become classrooms for every level of education and schools can become centres to support all forms of education.
The Vision paper discussed the need for "Network Literacy", that is skills in to operate computer equipment, use the basic applications and be able to read and write to suit the medium (for example email style versus traditional paper letters). However, this has been taken up less by government, with a tendency for programs to provide computer hardware, not education in how to use it.
The area which has received the least government funding and attention is to use the computers for teaching. I propose to address this by using a term which is coming into vogue with educators: the "learning commons". This is used to describe the transformed library of an educational institution which now supports online education. This usually refers to the physical design of the library building, replacing shelves of books with computers on desks and teaching spaces.
The term "learning commons" has been expanded to include the online environment provided as well, with the library of the educational institution providing materials as well as formal online course materials.
The term "learning commons" can be further expanded to cover the aggregation of materials publicly available in educational institutions in Australia. This can cater for formal education by students enrolled in institutions, studying on a campus or online. It can also cater for informal adult education.
Australia has a tradition of public access to education, with the Mechanics' Institutes of the early 1800s. The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, founded in 1833, is still in operation providing "...the intellectual improvement of its members and the cultivation of literature, science and art...". The School of the Air has been providing a form of electronic mediated distance education since 1951. Adult and Community Education provides low cost education outside the formal systems.
All these forms of education can now be brought together by the use of online technology. The same learning materials can be shared, as can physical facilities.