Technology Overcomes Australian Distances

by MS. ELIZABETH STACEY, Lecturer Deakin University Burwood, Victoria, Australia Australia is a country of vast distances between widespread settled areas. In an area over 7 million square kilometers, 90% of the 17 million populace is concentrated on the coastal fringe. However, the school children that are widely scattered throughout the hinterland or are remote from the major city centres have a long history of using available technologies to access educational opportunities. From two-way radio to using the postal services for distance education by correspondence, Australians have always conquered the distances by whatever means are available. Current computer and telecommunication technologies have opened up this access to allow students to participate in "virtual" real-time classrooms to ensure that distance d'esn't have to be a disadvantage. This article discusses how audiographic technologies have provided more access to education in the Australian school system. It shows how the state of Victoria, driven by a need to offer equitable curricula to all school students, adopted a combination of technologies to deliver instruction over a distance. Their lead was followed by other state education systems in Australia. The article further explores how schools have adapted cost-effective technologies and developed effective teaching and learning strategies for their "virtual" classrooms. The implications this has had on teacher education are also discussed. A Need for Technology In 1987 the school system in the state of Victoria first tackled the problem of retaining rural students past the compulsory level of year 10 by investigating how technology could provide a wider array of curriculum choices. Schools were combined into clusters, mainly by their geography, which enabled them to share their teachers' offerings with all the students. This broader curricula helped encourage students to complete their secondary education. A combination of technologies was adopted to provide a communication link between school sites -- a teacher could then teach students in his or her own classroom and at remote sites simultaneously. The schools sought cost-effective, easy-to-use technology that tried to simulate, as closely as possible, the interaction of a real classroom.l The term "telematics" was used to describe both thetechnology and the strategies for teaching geographically distant students interactively. The simplest link was a telephone conference between the teacher and students at all sites using speaker phones or audioconferencing units with microphones and speakers. When more than two callers were linked, an audioconferencing bridge was used. Any documents needed for the lesson could be immediately transferred by fax machines. This was an easy technology to use and has become an important tool within the school system. To provide a visual focus for the lesson -- for explaining pictures, diagrams or maps; working out mathematical problems with students; or analysing text together -- a range of computer technologies and applications were investigated. Eventually a Macintosh software program was developed, called Electronic Classroom. It provides a shared "electronic chalkboard" that is visible in up to six locations simultaneously when Macs are linked by modems. Electronic Classroom was developed to telematic teachers' specifications. It has a text tool that offers a mixture of fonts and styles for copy. It sports MacPaint-style tools for drawing straight lines, rectangles or ovals plus free-hand drawing and writing; it also can cut, copy, move and erase previously painted graphics. Whatever is drawn or typed on one computer is rapidly transferred to the other linked Macs. Finally, the latest versions of this software enable the transfer of full-colour images from a scanner or video camera as well as simultaneous access to CD-ROMs and compressed video clips. Teachers can prepare screens prior to a lesson and download them at any time before or during the lesson, or use a series of empty screens to develop material interactively with students. One aspect teachers found particularly necessary was the ability to sign on as "teacher" and control use of the screen -- a form of "classroom" management that ensures that no site takes over the screen and disrupts a lesson. In Victoria, 250 schools have been linked on a cluster basis via this telematic technology. Studies offered this way have initially and most widely been in the senior years of secondary school in a broad range of curriculum areas -- from accounting and Australian history to chemistry, physics and psychology. At other year levels, languages other than English (LOTE) have often dominated the use of the telematic network since the medium has proven very effective for learning of languages. Languages Other Than English Primary schools have particularly used this technology to provide programs in Languages other than English (LOTE). If one LOTE teacher is shared between a cluster of schools, additional classes in the language are enabled if the teacher uses telematics. As a variety of languages are being introduced into the primary system, telematics is seen as a viable means of increased access. However, telematically taught languages are not seen as replacing face-to-face teaching, but as a supplement only where not enough face-to-face language teaching can be provided. Telematics can also be used for additional oral-practice work for small groups, providing children with an authentic purpose for using their language. It helps students improve their conversational skills as well as being a very accountable medium and a very motivating learning environment where children see the technology as fun. Development and Support Professional development and ongoing support of all staff -- the teachers and the technical personnel -- is vital to the success of the program. Inservice conferences provide a good beginning, particularly if teachers immediately practise the skills learned. The model of professional development that research considers successful2 is one of collaboration and ongoing support from expert advice after the initial inservice. Practising telematic teachers can form a support group to help teachers just learning to teach that way. Time for collaborative planning, problem solving and peer support has to be considered, as preparation is greater than for normal classroom lessons. Teachers should feel they control the change process rather than having it forced upon them. For success, it is vital that the telematics teacher has support from the principal, from staff with technological expertise, and particularly from the teacher supervising the remote class. Planning must be collaborative and the teacher at the remote site must be informed of lesson content and any necessary preparation to be done by students. Telematics must be supported by the whole school if it is to be considered a valid part of the educational program. Use of the equipment should also be encouraged outside of telematic lessons; this furthers everyone's understanding about its potential. Telematic linkups between schools, access to online databases, e-mail projects and use of inter-school electronic bulletin boards should be considered as potential whole-school resources. Widely Used in Australia This combination of hardware and software has been adopted in every Australian state. Where state education departments are not actively involved in coordinating its use, individual schools have taken the initiative in setting up their own programs.3 Though this particular software was designed for the school sector, other education sectors have also begun to use this combination of audiographic technology. It is used in some rural community learning centres for adult and further (continuing) education as well as to deliver some elements of courses in the Technical and Further Education sector. Impact on Teacher Education The need for introducing technical and pedagogical training into teacher education became apparent as schools began to use this technology more widely. Education faculties in universities have responded with courses to provide familiarity with the hardware and software and some understanding of the pedagogy involved in good telematic teaching. One example of this response has been that of the Faculty of Education at Deakin University in Melbourne, Victoria, which introduced a unit of telematic teaching into the Curriculum and Methodology course for LOTE teachers in the final year of their degree. Two pilot projects were run to determine the feasibility and potential of this course; the outcomes of these studies had significant implications for the course and its practicum element. Objectives of the projects were to study: How students developed the technical expertise to reach an independent level of competence in handling telematic technology; Students' ability to problem solve when problems arose during telematic linkups or when software or hardware functioned incorrectly; and How students acquired a knowledge of effective teaching, learning and management strategies for teaching telematically while practising effective LOTE methodology. Pilot Projects Four teams of final-year student teachers were linked to remote classrooms in a rural district. Each week they taught Indonesian to small groups of children in different classes and schools. During their practicum experience, the student teachers went to live in the area and taught children they had known before only by telematics. During this time they linked telematically to other schools in the cluster and taught lessons to those students simultaneously. Upon returning to their campus, the student teachers were responsible for teaching a four-week sequence of lessons to groups of children at their practicum schools. In a different pilot, a telematic link was established between a metropolitan primary school with an established exemplary Italian language program and Deakin University Italian LOTE students who taught two groups of seven children at that school each week by telematics. From these projects a model of successful telematic teaching was developed and introduced to all LOTE Curriculum and Methodology students during the telematics component of their course. Students were linked to classrooms all over the state in which children were learning their particular language; student teachers were responsible for planning a lesson and teaching these classes telematically. Effective Teaching Strategies Important practical teaching strategies learned from the pilot projects were incorporated into the Telematics course. These are summarized below. It is important to speak the non-English language as much as possible, even during the technical phases of the linkup. Recognizing the supervising teacher at the remote location as a partner is vital. They are told of lesson content and of any necessary preparation prior to a lesson. They, in turn, tell the students, which gives them time to get ready. Often this material is needed by students during a linkup. The telematic classroom environment is important at both ends of the linkup. Charts and pictures are displayed around students' computers to provide context clues, as in face-to-face language lessons. Trainee teachers will refer to named photographs of their students at the remote site to help establish a real rapport and relationship, despite the distance. Its is important to facilitate interactive lessons by involving the computer screen, which replaces the usual visual focus of a classroom. Lessons are deliberately designed to ensure that all children are speaking, drawing, writing and actively listening. Evaluation of the course has revealed an enthusiasm for this medium of learning and teaching. Attitudes of all student teachers have been positive despite initial expressions of concern about teaching LOTE without face-to-face visual cues and concerns about competence with computers. All commented on their increased confidence in using telematic technology and in their abilities to cope with technical problems. Student teachers suggested that telematics is a successful medium for learning because it provides an authentic purpose for practising LOTE plus children enjoy it. Children's interest is aroused by use of the computers and so, the student teachers noted, they were more motivated to become involved in the lesson. The children tended to participate, interact and act more cooperatively in telematics lessons. Student teachers concentrated on using their LOTE more and the children responded by using their language more. This medium demands good articulation of language for communication and so listening skills also improved. Finally the visual anonymity of the medium encouraged children to "have a go," to feel freer to ask questions. One commented that "you don't get embarrassed." They also admitted to feeling less likely to "get into trouble" when the teacher couldn't see them. New Type of Teaching Practicum Teacher-education students saw a positive effect on their teaching. They had to plan, send material to the classroom teacher well before a lesson, and be organised. They integrated all curriculum areas and their teaching and learning became more collaborative. As student teachers were paired, they helped one another with words or technical skills; children did the same. Classroom management was minimal. The children knew that if they missed what was said they could lose their place in the lesson because the student teachers kept on talking. Children became more responsible; they knew they only had a half-hour lesson so they rarely wasted time. The classroom teacher was usually nearby to supervise any misconduct. Student teachers commented, "It [telematics] allows you to practise all your skills, not just classroom management." Students felt they had control over the teaching process in a way that other practicums don't allow. For example, instead of being on "their (the classroom teacher's) territory," student teachers felt they were in their own environment. Also, continually teaching throughout the semester meant that student teachers could immediately translate theory into practice. If they learned a new idea,they could experiment immediately instead of waiting till practicum and, perhaps, losing something in the delay. New Type of Classroom American studies have provided research that shows a very positive acceptance of this technology in education. Fredrickson reviews research that found "student motivational levels, attitudes levels and the quality of the experience were all positively affected by audiographics."4 Moore and Thompson, in analysing a wide range of studies, concluded that "teaching and studying at a distance, especially that which uses interactive electronic telecommunications media, is effective, when effectiveness is measured by the achievement of learning, by the attitudes of students and teachers, and by cost effectiveness."5 The strength of this medium can be its interactivity and, as Moore and Thompson contend, "Facilitating interaction by telecommunications in education is an art that is different from the art of broadcasting… The key to the art is that the teacher actively USES the interactive nature of the media, resisting the temptation to lecture… and bringing learners frequently, indeed almost continuously, into action by asking questions, encouraging presentations, getting students to talk to each other, and in other ways involving them fully in the teaching/learning process. …an emphasis in the training of teachers is needed concerning the techniques of facilitating interaction."5 The Australian experience has shown that with teacher involvement in the introduction and development of a technological innovation, good teaching and learning can be enhanced, not disadvantaged, in distance education. Introducing telematics into teacher education can ensure that teachers have a better understanding of effective teaching, learning and management strategies as well as the technical competence to teach with this technology. It can further be used to provide an effective "virtual" classroom that spans vast distances. Elizabeth Stacy has researched and introduced telematic teaching into preservice and inservice teacher education in Victoria. A lecturer in the Education faculty at Deakin University, she teaches computer applications in education. Stacey has also produced videos explaining the use of telematics in schools and teacher education. E-mail: Electronic Classroom is available from Robert Crago of Revelation Computing Pty Ltd, PO. Box 356, Zillmere, Queensland, Australia 4034; phone: (617) 263-8891; fax (617) 263-8871. References: l. Elliott, N., The Telematics Manual Victoria, Victorian Department of School Education: Melbourne (1991). 2. Stacey, E., "Working in Partnerships: Are We the New Consultants?," Paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association Conference, Fremantle, Australia, July, 1993. 3. Crago, R., "Electronic Classroom: Australian Technology for Distance Education," Paper presented at Information Technology in Tertiary Education-92 Conference, Brisbane, Australia, September, 1992. 4. Fredrickson, S., "Audiographics for Distance Education: An Alternative Technology," Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Alaska Association for Computers in Education, March, 1990, p. 4. 5. Moore, M., Thompson, M. et. al. The Effects of Distance Learning: A Summary of Literature, Research Monograph Number 2, The American Journal of Distance Education: The Pennsylvania State University (1990), p. 34, and pp. 39, 40.


This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.

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