Special Report


By Andrew Trotter — May 06, 2004 6 min read
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Australia has taken major strides to put computers in its schools and connect them to the Internet, says John Ainley, the research director for national and international surveys at the Australian Council for Educational Research.

But not all of Australia’s six states have invested in educational technology to the same degree, Ainley points out, noting that the continent-spanning nation is a federal system that places direction of public schools in the hands of state governments.

Technology in education is “a priority in some states” but not others, he says.

Bob Johnstone, a journalist based in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, paints a more critical picture.

“The situation is completely different in each state,” says the author of the 2003 book Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Education, which recounts the links between educational technology pioneers in Australia and the United States. “The state of Victoria is far and away the most advanced of the six states; New South Wales, where Sydney is, is a very different kettle of fish.”

In New South Wales, the education bureaucracy is much more centralized than in most states, Johnstone says. “The [educational technology] situation is very, very much behind,” he says, “but you’re beginning to see a bit of activity in private schools.”

That’s not to say that Australia’s states operate alone. Collaboration among states and with the federal government has evolved through the country’s Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training, and Youth.

In 1999, the council approved national objectives for teaching and learning, and it now has a task force on performance monitoring on a wide range of educational issues. A current project of the task force is to commission a national study of “information and communications technology” literacies, or ICT skills, Ainley says. That study is to be built around a framework of “higher-order skills that might arise from the use of ICT,” he says.

The framework describes new skills and knowledge that students will need in order to communicate with others, such as the ability to access and manage information, construct information, and understand how information and communications technology is used in a socially and ethically responsible manner. For each of those areas, the framework describes “what we’d expect from someone who is just beginning and someone who is quite proficient,” Ainley says.

Meanwhile, education.au limited, a national agency formed by the states and the federal government to support ICT in education, has developed EdNA Online, a Web service organized around the Australian curriculum that provides a directory of online education and training resources, discussion forums, and other tools for educators.Another government-affiliated entity, the Curriculum Corp., develops curriculum materials on a commercial basis.

Ainley says Australia also is investing in new research on educational technology—such as its impact on student learning—similar to research under way in the United States.

Private Schools Spur Change

With almost universal adult literacy, Australia’s population has easily adopted the Internet, cellphones, and other communications technologies. In different ways, communications technologies help tie together a population of fewer than 20 million people who are spread across a landmass of nearly 3 million square miles.

This affinity for technology has helped Australia’s private schools become conspicuous pioneers in the uses of technology, most notably by providing students with individual laptop computers, usually purchased by parents, and using them to introduce new teaching and learning techniques. In the middle to late 1990s, Australian laptop programs inspired some schools in the United States to develop schoolbased laptop programs, which eventually led to more recent district and statewide laptop initiatives.

It’s important to note that nearly one-third of Australia’s primary and secondary students attend private schools. With a good supply of wealthy parents, the private schools made fertile ground for laptop initiatives. Many of the schools have required parents to purchase laptops for their children, much like pencils and composition books.

“You couldn’t see an advertisement for a private school without having the girl in the garden, outside, using a laptop,” says Johnstone. “That was the image that was presented—it became so common, because no self-respecting private school, at some point, could afford not to say they had a laptop program.”

That private school technological push has spurred many public schools in Australia to acquire more technologies, if not necessarily laptops, says Ainley. In the late 1990s, the research council conducted two small studies of the effects of using laptops in an Australian public high school. Studies of private schools by other researchers have examined both educational and ergonomic issues of using laptops.

Equally important, says Johnstone, is that the private school laptop projects demonstrated to all schools in the nation that computers could be used outside a computer lab.

Steady as She Goes’

More recently, though, the trend in Australian schools to use technology to teach in novel ways has slowed, because the public apparently is satisfied with seeing computers in the hands of students, without deeper changes, Johnstone says. “People say, ‘[Technology] is a done deal, so why are we still talking about it?’” he says.

In addition, some of the pioneering schools “sat on their laurels,” the journalist says, and are not trying new teaching methods, as they had done in the past.

What’s missing, Johnstone argues, is sustained leadership. “The big-picture leadership that was there in schools has either burnt out, been retired, or moved on,” he says.

Plus, Johnstone suggests that the states have not spent enough on teachers’ professional development in the use of technology.

Basically, he says, Australia is in a “state of steady as she goes”—what he characterizes as undramatic consolidation of educational practices.

He concedes, though, that technology does seem to have a solid foothold in Australian schools.

Classrooms routinely use the Internet for research and communication. Australia’s extensive correspondence schools have made the transition to delivering their curricula over the Web instead of by mail.

And each winter, high school students in many states receive their official university entrance-exam results over their cellphones, via text messaging. Or they can look up their scores on the Web.

Beyond Australia

Outside Australia—in New Zealand and the hundreds of South Pacific islands in the region—efforts are under way to use technology in schools or simply use it more effectively.

For instance, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Seoul, South Korea, gives grants to countries in the region to conduct research on educational technology, with the greater goal of bridging the digital divide between nations such as Australia and their poorer neighbors.

In New Zealand, which has accelerated its spending on educational technology in recent years, the education leaders decided to focus on providing technology and training to support classroom teaching.

“This policy is reaping rewards” for the country of 4 million people, says Ross Whitcher, the director of Communities Online Trust, an educational charity based in Wellington, New Zealand.

He says emphasizing teaching has produced classroom-based technology projects that have “a very high value, leading to a process of transformation of the way teaching is being done.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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