Satellite Lessons: Vocational Education and Training for Isolated Communities

Article excerpt

Abstract

At the Western Institute of Technical and Further Education (WITAFE) in New South Wales (NSW), vocational education and training (VET) courses are being delivered to students in isolated homesteads and remote Aboriginal communities by Interactive Distance eLearning (IDL). IDL provides satellite-supported two-way broadband voice, oneway video and Internet access for school-age and adult distance education. Adults commonly access VET courses offered by WITAFE using the equipment provided to their children who are students of a 'School of the Air' or through community facilities in remote Aboriginal communities.

By providing lessons via satellite to isolated students TAFENSW is helping to counter long-standing inequities in distance and rural education by decreasing the digital divide and assisting with rural renewal. Through a case study, this paper examines the influence of the provision of IDL and Internet access for adult students in isolated homesteads in NSW and also the benefits and challenges of teaching and learning with IDL.

Keywords

Rural, Remote, Isolated, Aboriginal communities, Distance education, Interactive distance learning, VET, Expanded curriculum, Connectivity, Interactivity, Connectedness

Received 9 March 2009 Accepted 23 April 2009

Introduction

Australia is a large continent and is home to some of the most geographically isolated communities in the world. This expanse, while central to a sense of place and identity in the Australian psyche (including the majority of Australians who live on the urban coastal fringe), is a source of educational marginalisation for Australian people living in rural and remote areas (Twyford & Crump, 2009). In many instances, due to geographic isolation, these communities experience a range of disadvantages, not just in education but also in employment, health services and transport (Crump, Twyford & Littler, 2008). The Bush Talks consultations conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC, 1999) found that access to education of an appropriate standard and quality is a significant concern in rural Australia as distances encompass barriers to the provision of educational services. The HREOC Report Recommendations: National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education (HREOC, 2000) provided further evidence of disadvantage and unequal educational outcomes for rural Australia.

This geographic isolation from educational institutions offering vocational education and training (VET) courses is one barrier among many to education and training for adults living in remote areas. For those seeking post-compulsory VET in rural, regional and isolated regions of New South Wales (NSW), a lack of proximity to a college of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) has been shown to contribute to low participation levels (Crump et al., 2008). For adults living in rural and remote areas who need to, or prefer to, remain living at home, the choice to engage in VET has traditionally only been available by commuting long distances to attend face-to-face TAFE classes or by utilising distance education providers such as the Open Training and Education Network. Commuting long distances is often not financially viable or practical for many adults and youths who have left school and wish to undertake further education. While the traditional alternative (correspondence or distance education) is not always a viable choice for students who desire, or need, regular interaction and support from their teachers and peers. Quite often students have to leave for urbanised areas for education and training due to fewer options to pursue career goals locally.

The Department of Education and Training (DET) in NSW and TAFENSW are attempting to address inequities for geographically isolated students by utilising technological advances in information and communications technology. The Interactive Distance eLearning (IDL) project initiative, launched in 2003, has improved provision of education services to isolated homesteads and remote Aboriginal communities. …