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.
The introduction of IDL brought about a technological transformation of the iconic Schools of the Air (SOTA). Lessons delivered via high frequency (HF) radio for primary and secondary education (from which the SOTA name derived) have been superseded by a satellite-supported twoway broadband voice, internet and one-way video communication system. Teachers can hear their students while students are able to see and hear their teacher and each other. Using a shared application server controlled by their teacher, students can share applications that are not installed on their own computer. This technology enables students to actively participate and work collaboratively on a variety of tasks. The technology also supports an internal mail feature, the ability to share web links, PowerPoint presentations and other documents, as well as a quiz feature.
Expanding the IDL service so as to deliver VET to parents of SOTA students and remote Aboriginal communities was considered an important element in addressing inequities faced by rural and remote communities in NSW. By its very nature IDL provides a means of addressing the 'digital divide' confronting rural and remote communities by increasing their capacity to access and utilise information and communication technologies - such as email and the internet. …