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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Bring the Outback In: Distance Learning Down Under

The Alice Springs School of the Air links far-flung Aussies.
By Evantheia Schibsted

Educating kids in the remote and rugged outback of Australia's Northern Territory requires Aussie ingenuity and self-reliance -- traits learned from living great distances from each other in a barren desert twice as big as California.

Such geographical challenges don't faze educators from the Alice Springs School of the Air. Dubbed "the largest classroom in the world," the ASSOA serves far-flung kids by employing the latest technology to connect and educate. Until 1995, the School of the Air depended on two-way radios for connectedness (hence the school's name), but now the far richer environment provided by computers and the Internet more easily spans the vast distances between teachers and students.

"This is our solution to the distance problem," says Jill Tudor, the school's principal. "There's no doubt the new technology has enabled us to make great leaps forward and better prepare our students for being citizens of the twenty-first century."

Founded in 1951, the ASSOA was the brainchild of Adelaide Miethke, an influential teacher affiliated with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which today still offers medical services to Australia's remote populations. After visiting Alice Springs in 1944, Miethke felt that kids of the Outback might benefit from more social interaction. She came up with the idea of using the RFDS's extensive radio network to put classroom lessons into distant rural homes. Her idea evolved into the first School of the Air, and today fifteen other such virtual schools exist in Australia.

The ASSOA boasts a hundred students ages 4-12. About half live on large rural holdings consisting mainly of cattle ranches that also include grazing land for camels and brumby (Aussie-speak for wild horses). Twenty percent of students are Aborigines from small "outstations," while the rest are the children of doctors, teachers, police, and others who work in surrounding communities. The school's price of admission simply requires that youngsters live in a "geographically isolated" area -- the Australian government's term for the Outback. The ASSOA is entirely government funded, from salaries for the tenteacher staff to the computers provided in each child's home.

Credit: David Julian

For these students, attending school doesn't mean going to a building. Rather, it entails logging on to computers at home and participating with mates and teachers in interactive distance learning. Up to four days a week, teachers broadcast lessons from the school's command central in Alice Springs, a town in the heart of central Australia. Consisting of several studios, a post office, and a visitor center, this bricks-and-mortar component of the ASSOA attracts lots of tourists, from world leaders such as Australian prime minister John Howard and the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II to the popular Aussie band the Wiggles.

During virtual lessons, groups of up to four students interact with their teachers in real time. On the home front, tutors, typically parents, provide support and supervision. The school's own Internet service provider, enabled by a satellite system, offers twenty-four-hour email service. Teachers and students can also share information via video clips, music, and PowerPoint presentations. Each student in grades 5-7 has a Web site, as does each teacher and class level.

Computer video links are effective in helping new kids prepare for times when the entire student body meets in that old-fashioned way: face-to-face. Four times a year, classmates make the trek to the school's brick-and-mortar headquarters to participate in a weeklong program of various activities, including an end-of-the-summer swim week around Christmas. Before real-time video, says Tudor, "sometimes children new to the school didn't have a clue what their classmates and teachers looked like. Now they know that their teacher has a happy, smiling face. The visual component has made a big difference."

Despite the school's tech-savvy bells and whistles, Tudor is quick to point to the limited role of technology in the educational process: "We don't use technology for the sake of it. Our focus is high-quality curriculum, and we use technology as the tool. Our teachers are committed to universal access to education -- and that applies to remote areas."

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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