Instant Connections, Far off the Beaten Path ; Newly Hooked Up to the Web, Teachers and Kids in This Sheepfarming Town Work to Make the Most of a Suddenly Wider Academic World

By Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

Instant Connections, Far off the Beaten Path ; Newly Hooked Up to the Web, Teachers and Kids in This Sheepfarming Town Work to Make the Most of a Suddenly Wider Academic World


Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the hamlet of Binalong, population 250, sheep are often the nearest neighbors. Nobody worries when kids ride their bikes around the center of town - a cluster of pub, post office, and general store. With only 36 children, the primary school feels like an extended family.

But living in a rural area of the state of New South Wales has its disadvantages. The school qualifies as economically disadvantaged and receives some federal aid. It can afford a field trip to Sydney or Canberra only every other year, despite the fact that the cities are within a few hours' drive.

So getting hooked up to the Internet earlier this year - and instantly having access to the kinds of resources that city kids take for granted - was no small thing.

Up to one-third of Australian children live in rural or remote settings - areas that have seen a persistent academic achievement gap when compared with more-urban schools.

Hopes are high that computer technology can help rural schools narrow that chasm. But in addition to playing catch-up, some of these small-town schools have the flexibility and leadership to be innovators - reshaping teaching methods to best tap technology's potential.

"There's nothing intrinsically valuable about the Internet or computers ... but what makes them valuable is how they are taken up by teachers," says Debra Hayes, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney. That's why efforts are under way across Australia to boost training and technical support.

"All schools are undergoing a battle of change at the moment," says David Nosworthy, principal of the Binalong Public School. With a master's degree combining computer science and education, Mr. Nosworthy has been keen to integrate new technology into his classrooms.

Through a combination of government funding and community decisions to make technology a priority, the school has 1 computer for every 5 students (compared with a statewide goal of 1 to 11). Nosworthy has also helped other schools get wired, build Web pages, and make the most of the new technologies.

A tradition of long-distance schooling

These initiatives are especially important in rural and remote areas. Concerns about access to quality education there are strong enough to have prompted an inquiry by the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In the report, issued last March, students said they didn't have a wide enough range of subjects to study. And teachers complained that the lack of technical support translates into slow connections to the Internet or long delays when systems need repair.

In 1998, 67 percent of urban students finished high school, compared with 63 percent of rural students and 54 percent of remote. Among other things, the report recommends that school systems review availability of videoconferencing and other interactive technologies and that regional education offices provide IT support.

Australia has long tapped communications technology for "distance education." In 1951, the first School of the Air started offering classes over two-way radios to kids on outback cattle stations. While the radio is still the primary source of these classes, it's slowly giving way to online courses and satellite videoconferencing.

The vast majority of nonurban children, though, do get to see teachers face to face. But because their schools often aren't big enough to have more than two teachers, some of their needs fall under the distance-education umbrella.

In New South Wales, for instance, a group of consultants come together periodically at the distance-education headquarters near Sydney to discuss problems and "best practices" in the small rural schools in their regions.

Through this Country Area Program (CAP), teachers get help with everything from joining online discussion groups with colleagues to overseeing students' work on Web-based learning modules. …

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