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STANDING COMMITTEE ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND COMMUNICATIONS
11/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —Welcome. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Abell —The Hutchins School is a K-12 independent school in Hobart.

CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have a written submission to the inquiry. Would you like to address that submission fairly briefly, and then we will go to a question and answer session.

Dr Abell —I would like to enlarge on a section of it, specifically new media literacy. Everyday I see kids building competencies and the capacity for personally learning a critical skill set for our families in Australian society. The role the national government plays in delivering a national digital strategy for services and programs is really critical for education, for online teaching and lifelong e-learning. High-speed bandwidth brings access to wireless saturation, cloud computing, social media and networking benefits, roaming and mobile devices, which are important to our domestic and residential use and our community education and health as much as it is to commerce, small to medium business enterprises and large corporations and organisations.

We would like to see the NBN groups explicitly address the benefits of the creation of a high-performance, high speed national education network by government for nation building. It is imperative to address the needs of schools to meet the digital education revolution and the national push for a one-to-one computing environment, digital citizenship, a world-class standard of national curriculum for economic prosperity and productivity. Having national networks linking schools, TAFEs and universities has been a national strategy since the 1990s. We have been concerned for education and technology convergence. I think a truly national research and education network across all systems and sectors, supported by both federal and state governments, will be the enabler of the innovative digital economy.

CHAIR —Thank you. I take the point you are making in your submission about a nationally integrated network for education between sectors and how that has been an ongoing issue beyond the NBN itself that has been looked at. We are engaged in a conversation about fibre to premises such as schools and so forth, which I suspect is largely not contentious. The more challenging aspect for us is the fibre to the home.

Could you give us some insight from your experience with your students and their varying capacities to engage online at home to support or extend their studies, and any experience the school has had in engaging with parents remotely, and whether you have delivered training and development programs to parents or any of those sorts of things?

Dr Abell —The capacity of the school to be a high-performance organisation with the fibre-end-to-end performance was the most important critical thing to our students’ personalised learning in the last couple of years. Hutchins School has had the affordance of high-speed bandwidth now for 18 months. We have been able to demonstrate the benefits of that to students at home. Whether the students are using wireless, ADSL2 or whatever, it is the capacity to access the high-speed bandwidth at the school. Naturally, school-to-home learning, the seamless learning, for students is the ability to access the school’s virtual learning environment after hours and the services provided by the school. Many applications do not themselves require high-speed broadband, but when you are putting hundreds of students together to get to these schools it is very important that that is a network, a relationship, a partnership between the home and the school.

CHAIR —What about the parents’ participation? Do you have any particular programs?

Dr Abell —Yes, we do. Typically of independent schools, we place great importance on a parent portal, so the parents are able at any time to connect to the school to see their children’s timetable, their children’s performance, ongoing formative assessment, the celebration of their work through their e-portfolios, or just to make a time with the teachers to go to a parent-teacher meeting, et cetera. It is the ability of the school to have fast, secure, reliable communications to allow the home to connect.

CHAIR —To extend that, from what you are describing to me, I would not have thought that, to do that, homes would need fibre-fast broadband. Or am I wrong? Are there particular things that you are offering where the nature of the home’s connection is an issue, or new areas you want to go into?

Dr Abell —I am really not qualified to talk about fibre versus wireless saturation in our communities and I would not like to begin to do that. But, as long as there is wireless saturation in our communities, as long as the connectivity is there for that seamless connection—

CHAIR —I am not asking you to give a technical explanation. I am asking: do you have feedback from parents or students about frustrations or issues that they might have?

Dr Abell —Yes, we do. Increasingly students are using more media rich applications, and they do find that their wireless is slow. We always used to joke about students powering down to come to school. Our students tell us now they are powering up to come to school, as a strategic imperative with the digital education revolution going one-to-one. But our students laugh at us and say: ‘We’re three to one. We’ve got our iPods in our pocket and our phone in our other pocket, and our netbook, and we need that high-speed bandwidth.’

CHAIR —Has the school done a survey about what the home based internet support for the students is?

Dr Abell —We have only surveyed their connectivity and whether they have got broadband. We have not surveyed whether they are using wireless or other forms.

CHAIR —Are you able to tell us what the broadband penetration is of the student body?

Dr Abell —Yes. Because of the socioeconomic level it is distinctively midway. It is half and half, I think. We have all our students connected. It is policy for the school to say to the parents, ‘Your child must be connected in order to benefit from home learning.’ Most parents would have ADSL2 connection.

Mr NEVILLE —Do all the students have laptops? Do certain classes all have laptops?

Dr Abell —Certain classes. It is our policy for students to have a home desktop computer, at least. Some students do bring their personal laptops and netbooks to school. Some years in our school—especially the senior school, where we have been assisted by the Digital Education Revolution—do have a personal laptop. For instance, we have given our school netbooks to all year 9s because they spend a lot of their time off campus, not actually on the school site, on outdoor challenges et cetera, and they need to work wherever they go.

Mr NEVILLE —You said in your evidence that you have had high-speed broadband for 18 months. What form does that take?

Dr Abell —We have a membership subscription to AARNet 3. As we reside next door to the University of Tasmania, we approached AARNet and the university to allow us to lay dark fibre to be connected through the university.

Mr NEVILLE —So the whole school is fibred up?

Dr Abell —Yes.

Mr NEVILLE —Do you know what speed you get there?

Dr Abell —We are capable of getting up to a gigabit per second at the moment. We regularly test our speed. It does vary. What we look for is synchronous communications, upload and download being equal, because we are sending up as much information to the cloud services as we are downloading. That equal speed is more critical to us than the actual speed we are getting. We are sitting between 40 and 60, typically, on an average day with synchronous connections, when we have five labs online in senior school, hundreds of netbooks, phones, iPods or whatever around the school.

Mr NEVILLE —Do the secondary students, for example, have homework supervised through a computer by teachers, or is it just that the school is used merely as a resource?

Dr Abell —Could you please detail your question.

Mr NEVILLE —Obviously everyone has a computer or access to a computer. Do you use the internet in any form to supervise homework or after-hours activity by the teachers engaging with the students at particular times in the late afternoon or evening, or is the internet used in those hours merely as a resource?

CHAIR —Accessing the school.

Mr NEVILLE —Yes, accessing the school resource.

Dr Abell —The students are very much working in teacher directed learning environments after school as well. There would be a lot of direct teacher-student activity with maths or English.

Mr NEVILLE —For what sorts of hours would the teachers be available?

Dr Abell —After school?

Mr NEVILLE —Say, after 3.30 or four o’clock.

Dr Abell —If they are not doing co-curricular sport activities, most of our teachers would still be at school, perhaps working with students on maths help or whatever, until five o’clock at least.

Mr NEVILLE —So if any student does not go to sport but goes home early after school and starts their homework they can still engage with a teacher until about five o’clock or so.

Dr Abell —Definitely. The teachers all use communication aspects of their virtual learning environments to connect with the students and work with them.

Mr NEVILLE —Do you think the school has had an effect on educating the parents as well by insisting that everyone has to have access to a computer?

Dr Abell —Yes, definitely. We very much have an open invitation to parents to come and see the way we teach and work, so that we can encourage the parents to promote that working environment and good online behaviour at home as well. We do have sessions where we invite parents to come and talk with us about managing students’ online behaviour in their home, teaching parents about social networking and good practice. We have a school motto: what you do matters. Now we say to the parents and the students: what you do online matters. So that good digital citizenship is very much at the forefront of everything we do.

Mr SYMON —I would like to ask a couple of questions, going back to your submission, about e-education, especially outside the school—the greater role of adult learning. Digital education is something that, if you are of a certain age, you may well have missed, and I see that as a big problem to take-up. Is there a role for the education systems as it stands—for students, children—to extend out into the wider community area to get that understanding put out there in language that people can take in and therefore increase take-up of what is happening in the digital area?

Dr Abell —Yes, there is. I think those values of lifelong e-learning are very much prevalent in our community. In Tasmania we have a very strong flexible learning network. We often talk about our services from the cradle to the grave. We are trying to provide that value of lifelong learning—opportunities are afforded by being a member of a local public library because of the access to broadband. I am sure you have had a submission from the Executive Director of the Australian Library and Information Association in which she talks about the benefits of a national digital strategy in terms of the way libraries and online access centres in our community are used. Our students in Tasmania certainly enjoy the benefits of that with services such as the Wireless Waterfront. I know that our students enjoy being down in central Hobart knowing that they can get wireless connection—say, for email contact with family. And, in the case of backpackers, they can make the next part of their travel plans.

Access to community education is so critical now and it is dependent on digital services. I think that is the same everywhere. I always think back to being in Dublin 12 months ago and getting off the plane and realising as I got onto the airport bus that it was wireless as well. So I did not stop being connected until I got into the city, to the motel, and actually turned my devices off. That is seamlessness in the community—that ability to be online in urban metropolitan areas as well as when travelling.

Mr SYMON —I take it that that is not the current situation in a city like Hobart?

Dr Abell —No. I think Hobart still has a way to go before it puts WiFi in metropolitan buses! But that connection, that value for lifelong learning and that ability to promote e-learning through the ages is very important. Tasmania demonstrates it with some of its cultural activities and access to wireless. You only have to look at Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island or whatever to know that we value the ability to be connected and online.

Mr SYMON —You mentioned that students at the school are required to have a desktop computer at home. My question is: are there any criteria for the speed of their connection or around the types of applications they are required to use?

Dr Abell —Our policy, as advertised on our website to our parents, refers to a desktop and a broadband connection. Possibly we need to review that now and refer at least to a portable device and good broadband. The desktop is not so important any more. Mobile learning is more of an issue. The personal, portable mobile device which facilitates mobility and personalised learning anywhere and anytime is probably more important now than the desktop. I probably have to qualify that because we really would want to change that—we would welcome the ability to give parents the advice that laptops, netbooks and portable devices are much better for students now.

Mr SYMON —Are you planning to introduce educational resources online that would require greater bandwidth or capacity than is currently available? Is that in the pipeline?

Dr Abell —Yes. Having been a member of AARNet now for 18 months, we are well down the track of providing rich media resources to students. For instance, we have gone to a third-party solution to provide e-books. Our students are increasingly asking us to give them their set English textbooks as e-books or audio-books that they can use on their iPod, so that they can use them anywhere at anytime. We are certainly building that in wherever we can and talking with the parents about that capacity. For the student to be able to have a set of their subject curriculum textbooks and their English novels et cetera on their iPod, and be connected, is quite important. It is a time-saving, as well as a cost-saving, device for parents.

CHAIR —Not to mention a help for those backbone and spinal issues.

Dr Abell —That is right. And an average maths, science or English textbook is $60 or $70, school diaries are another $10 and English novels are $20 to $30 each. When you think that they can carry all those on their iPod for nothing—if we can provide them through the school to download—then that is an important development. Mobile learning is narrowing the digital divide.

Mr SYMON —You have lead me to a question I was thinking about asking. I have a school in my electorate—Ringwood Secondary—and every one of their year 7 students this year does not have textbooks; they have it all loaded onto iPads. There are over 200 students, and the cost of the iPad is slightly more than the cost of the textbooks but, after the first year, of course, next year’s books will also be available. It is great to hear that that is happening at other schools. I suspect that take-up will be very quick because of all sorts of issues, even if it is as simple as the kids carrying the books to school every day. Once every child in a year has an iPad, there is no longer that competition between them either.

Dr Abell —That is right. Whether it is an iPad or a netbook provided by the Digital Education Revolution funding to the schools, the ability to take away, work around the clock and be connected and in touch with teachers is so critical. I think all schools are tending to bring those into to their curriculum resource management through support from the federal government. It is really important. It is not so much the device. The iPad is instant. The netbook has a much greater capacity for connection with the school network. Whatever: it is facilitating that connection and that seamlessness between the home and school learning, and the ability to be learning anywhere anytime 24/7 and to be engaged.

Mr SYMON —Thank you.

Mr FLETCHER —You have talked to us about getting connected to AARNet. Am I hearing you correctly that you were saying that was a critical step in being able to develop your e-learning offering?

Dr Abell —Yes, on two aspects. We realised that to have some strategic imperatives regarding e-learning we had to look at our network infrastructure and ensure that our infrastructure facilitated that high-speed connection. We also had to look at the learning environment and learn how we would deliver the resources and the tools to meet those curriculum standards. AARNet gave us the ability to be a high-performance organisation where we were able to unify our communications, our internet services, our IP, our voice-over-IP telephone services and our delivery of learning environments to our students. We set as a strategic vision that we wanted fast, secure, reliable communications.

We did not want any downtime; we wanted to know that what we were saying to parents we could deliver on and we wanted to have strategic partnerships with collaborative classrooms around the world. The global classroom is very important to us as well. There is so much to learn having a global perspective and striving for a world-class curriculum. The AARNet afforded the access to remote experts and researchers in museums, galleries and cultural institutions around the world. The ability of AARNet to deliver those world experts, scientists and researchers in Australian and international organisations face to face through videoconferencing has been a huge bonus to the school, and the students are very, very engaged in it. They love to use the high-definition television videoconferencing to connect with classrooms around the world.

After all, if Australia is siding with China, with productivity and we have professionals around the nation saying ‘okay’, in order to continue our relationship with China we need to have more students learning Mandarin. We need to have more people in our community able to speak with our Chinese partners. We are all not going to reinvent the wheel and all write a Mandarin curriculum ourselves. We are going to have collaborative classrooms and we are going to use video conferencing to share the learning with those Mandarin teachers in Beijing.

Mr FLETCHER —You talked in your submission about the importance of an education network connecting schools and other institutions. I presume you would use your experience of being connected to AARNet as an example of the benefits of that?

Dr Abell —Yes, definitely. We have the capacity now for our school to be connected with other independent schools around Australia to share and have those collaborative classrooms. High definition video conferencing has been due to that education network. So there is already group of schools around the nation—with increasingly more systems, such as the Catholic Education Office—looking at connecting their schools to provide that network. We already know that that network works, whether it is through flexible learning around Australia through the TAFEs, polytechnics and universities, or through the collaborations with the research centres in the universities. The networks have existed in the tertiary education sector for a long time and have had great benefits for economics and commerce in Australia. That is what schools are now asking for. Schools want to be connected.

Mr FLETCHER —I am interested in the strategy of connecting schools, as opposed to the strategy of connecting homes. I think what I am hearing from you—correct me if I have it wrong—is that for your school the important thing was getting the very high speed connection to the school. The existing infrastructure that connects homes, where students and parents are, has been adequate because what you have been focused on has been the school connection. Is that a fair summary?

Dr Abell —Yes, it is. The end-to-end performance between the school and the other organisations—other cultural research institutions around the nation and the world—facilitates the connectivity for the home.

Mr FLETCHER —Is it also a fair summary of what you have been saying that as you think about your strategy for e-learning and serving students, the issue of greatest interest to you about the connection they will have at home is knowing that there is a uniform connection? In other words, you know that every student is going to have a particular connection and you can make that assumption as you do your planning. Is that a fair statement?

Dr Abell —Yes, that is. In practice, a student needs the ability to download an e-book at good speed from the school network, and possibly 30 students will need to download that e-book in their homes. They will then have the capacity to send information back to the school network to go back to the cloud services. I say that because we have the ability now, with our intranet security and filtering solutions, to provide that firewall and protection for our students connecting to the internet. Our new internet filtering solutions for schools allow us to extend that protection to the home. If a student has a school laptop it carries appropriate software. The school provides appropriate filters and we are affording more protection to the home for online security.

Mr FLETCHER —It sounds like you are also saying that the feedback you are getting from students and parents is that their use of wireless growing.

Dr Abell —Yes, I think the seamlessness between the wireless connection in their community as they walk out their door and go down to their community centre or public library—or hopefully, in the future, on the bus—is important to them. They are working everywhere. Yes, some telepresence, some e-health and some high speed web streaming are increasingly important, and although the students’ choice of search engine now from home or school is YouTube, they are learning because they value the visual aspect of the learning and the interactivity, the multimedia, rather than just the printed word, the onscreen word. We know that they are valuing not so much that ability to be streaming but that ability to be mobile.

It is the same with the adoption of mobile portable devices—apps on the go. They are more concerned at the moment with engaging with their learning with their apps on the go and knowing that they can get whatever app they need to do—science data logging, the chemistry periodic table or just some text-to-speech software on the iPod as an appropriate—than they are about the actual speed of the download of that video. So much so that we are moving to provide that connection to the home with apps.

Mrs PRENTICE —We keep moving more and more into the digital age facilitated by fibre. There is a school in Incheon in South Korea that does parent-teacher meetings remotely. You do that too?

Dr Abell —Yes, we do. With high-definition videoconferencing at Hutchins, we have got the capacity to even have parent-teacher consultations with our parents in their offices overseas. If we have international students, they can certainly skype their parents—

Mrs PRENTICE —So you are already doing that.

Dr Abell —with desktop and high-definition TV videoconferencing; yes, we are.

Mrs PRENTICE —So, NBN coming on is not really going to provide anything more for your school—you are ahead of NBN, aren’t you?

Dr Abell —Yes, but it is providing that network to the other schools that we want to work with.

Mrs PRENTICE —Helping them to come up to your level.

Mr NEVILLE —On that point, would you go so far with these links to all these other private schools that if there was a particular teacher—for example, an expert in Shakespeare or the English romantic poets—on a given day at a given time, could  they give a lesson to the whole network?

Dr Abell —Yes, we do.

Mr NEVILLE —You do that, do you?

Dr Abell —We now have a situation with some of the independent and Catholic schools around Australia where we share a lesson. We will get the IT integrators that you are talking about teaching one to one, and ICT skills and competencies in the curriculum together on a videoconference to talk about their practice.

Mr NEVILLE —You would engage the best mind on that subject for your kids.

Dr Abell —Yes. Last year I can recount—

Mr NEVILLE —Give me an example.

Dr Abell —several episodes where our students, our classes, sat with a teacher, facilitator or researcher from Questacon in Canberra. We had the Questacon scientific experts coming face-to-face with the students teaching them. We had one on illusion perception. We had extreme weather heroes. We had NASA and science. I can keep on giving you examples of classrooms that we have online with those experts face to face through videoconferencing on a weekly basis. We share those lessons with the independent schools that are also AARNet members around Australia. We have a manager who looks at each education outreach for those schools on AARNet and gives us a heads-up on any cultural or research organisation around Australia like CSIRO, the museums, the universities who are willing to put their experts face to face with our students.

Mr NEVILLE —You have quoted a lot of the scientific type things; what about the humanities?

Dr Abell —Yes, that is equally available to us through the cultural institutions. They are only too ready to share their expertise with our students. They have education officers that do that.

CHAIR —Museums and art galleries and places like that.

Dr Abell —Yes. New Zealand also has a very good model. I must say publicly I spelt Derek Wenmoth’s name wrong in my submission: it is Wenmoth, not Wenmouth. He is doing that with the schools in New Zealand.

Mrs PRENTICE —I think we all say congratulations. I think you have done an outstanding job with your school. It stands out.

CHAIR —Speaking of which, one of the things we have had a lot of evidence about is the fact that Tasmania has a very low retention rate. You are dealing with one demographic through your school. It is fantastic to hear, but the divide is worrying me. Increasingly, when you have schools that are well connected and well resourced that are able to take up those opportunities, the divide is becoming greater and greater.

I am really interested in a lot of the evidence you have given about online classrooms and collaborative classrooms. While I appreciate that kids want to be mobile, if you have got a kid in a farming community in a rural area who wants to pick up their year 11 and year 12, do you have what universities would regard as remote students or online students at the moment? Do you utilise it to allow your students to spend more time in their home base if they are doing that rather than moving? What is your view as an educator on the equity issue around that educational digital divide?

Dr Abell —I wanted to present a submission because I feel very strongly about that as an educator who has spent most of my 35-year career in government schools where that retention and that digital divide is a big problem. That is why I quoted that report where I gave evidence back in the mid-nineties about socially disadvantaged groups in our education system. That is the key and that is important. I cannot cite too many examples at Hutchins where we are looking at that flexible learning and distance education, but as an educator with my professional association allegiances in Tasmania I am working with colleagues who are dealing with those distance education students in those intergenerational poverty areas where there is no connectivity. I feel very strongly about the need to have that online connection for those students in those communities and know very well that those communities depend on their school for connection.

We have very good examples in Tasmania where that community connection has been severed and the interest in school has been lost. As a teacher librarian by occupation I also know that many of those school leavers or students who have dropped out of school need to go to the public library for help on doing that Centrelink application online. Sue Hutley’s submission on the national digital strategy is so important because we have to rely at the moment on places like our public libraries and online access centres and sometimes they are not in those disadvantaged communities; they are in the distinctively middle class communities. The NBN rollout at this point in time has stopped opposite the public library and not quite got to the public library door.

CHAIR —I was conscious that that was in your submission, so I just wanted to give you the chance to make those points on the record to us. It is a very useful and valuable submission for us in the education component that we are looking at. It is very exciting. I must say, as a former history teacher, the classic example that stood out to me was when my own son was doing a study on Tiananmen Square and was able to go online and read the English-language newspapers put out in Beijing on the day. As a history teacher I would have killed for those sorts of resources. It is a very exciting area.

Dr Abell —That reminds me that in government schools today you could not put a class on YouTube to be investigating Tiananmen Square history as it happened because they could only really manage one student on YouTube at a time. What high-speed broadband did for our school was allow five labs of students to be on at the same time. That is history as it happened. It is not in the textbooks. The students need to see the video to answer their questions authentically about knowing through good primary sources—through the video captured of that event.

CHAIR —That is why the humanities is such an important question. I am a great advocate for that. Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, please forward it to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Once again, Jill, thank you very much. It was a very useful submission.

Proceedings suspended from 12.14 pm to 1.35 pm