Reflecting on revolutions this week I was struck by the scale of the challenges facing the new Labor Federal Government – and the federal bureaucracy – in delivering the Digital Education Revolution (Digital Revolution Policy)
First some context...
Federal Government and Education
We all know the Federal Government does not operate a single secondary school anywhere in the nation. It does not employ one secondary school teacher or conduct a single school exam. Despite this, education constantly registers as one of the top 5 concerns of voters at Federal elections – and every political party produces education policies to seduce voters.
If the Federal Government can’t run schools, employ teachers or conduct exams why is education policy so important at a Federal level? Are voters conned into believing that Federal politicians can do what State politicians cannot? Has our federal system become so dysfunctional that politicians can assert a capacity to change outcomes knowing they will never have responsibility for delivering those outcomes?
The reality is that as individuals and as a society we expect and demand of our political representatives that the taxes we are compelled to pay to the state be used for purposes that are beneficial to us as individuals, to us as members of a society, and to us as human beings. The funding of an education system in this context is not merely an outlay on goods and services it is more accurately an investment by today’s generation in the future of our society. Funding of that system in Australia depends on tax allocations from the Federal Government.
So when Kevin Rudd recently committed $1bn to giving Australian students “greater access to, and more sophisticated use of, information and communications technology”, he spoke about both a commitment to education resources and an investment in our society’s future. Bookended by Labor’s call to ‘New Leadership’ and the generational delineation that is digital technology this investment commitment resonated through the Australian media with the general public.
Labor’s Digital Education Revolution Policy
It is important to note that the policy committed 10% of the $1bn to providing schools with FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) broadband as a condition of the competitive assessment process for the construction of a National Broadband Network. Consequently it is worth noting that fulfilment of the policy’s objectives will require the successful completion of the Broadband Network roll-out. While this will take some years it is reasonable to expect the benefits of connected schools – for most students - to be apparent sooner rather than later.
The bulk of the funding allocated by Labor is for capital grants to Government, Catholic and Independent Secondary Schools and systems. Funding allocations will be determined on the basis of a school’s need (determined by school enrolment and existing technology capacity). This will require an assessment process of applications and a benchmark for judging what constitutes appropriate technology.
Purpose & Objectives
In terms of purpose and objectives, the policy document in one part speaks of the aim of providing “a computer on the desk of every [year 9 to 12] student”. In another it is more general in aspiring for “world class information and communications technology” for those students.
A broader definition is probably more appropriate for two reasons. Firstly secondary students are mobile. They learn in multiple classrooms and their ICT support needs to be mobile also. Secondly limiting spending to the hardware infrastructure would ignore the substantial costs and issues associated with providing information technology.
An Administrative Challenge
Thinking about these non-hardware issues, the scale of the challenge facing those responsible for implementing this policy becomes clear. The policy must be delivered in schools that in the main (though by no means universally) have some information technology assets in place already - albeit not constructed to operate in a digital world.
With the sunk investment already substantial and State and private school systems already committed to further investment the best solution will probably be to accelerate deployment. Investment money will be needed for:
· Wireless and/or cabled networks, additional power supplies and heat management remediation;
· Computer accessories – printers, printing supplies, scanners, digital cameras, data projectors, interactive whiteboards, videoconferencing equipment, headphones, computer mice and pads, keyboards, docking stations, additional display and presentation screens;
· PC and server software, including operating systems, productivity applications, internet browsers, communication technologies e.g. Instant Messaging, Email, Social Networks, online workspaces, security software and curriculum or subject-specific applications – whether hosted in school, in centralised locations or out of the school system altogether;
· Physical infrastructure – ergonomic desks, chairs, security tools (for storage and classroom protection), lighting, power boards and batteries; and
· Network and infrastructure management and maintenance.
Furthermore students with physical or learning disabilities will need additional support to cater for their specific circumstances and challenges.
The Greatest Challenge of All
All of this before any teaching or learning is undertaken. Herein will lie the policy’s greatest challenge.
Labor has identified and committed to ensuring that teachers have the skills to use digital technology, that a national online curriculum and resources are developed and that web portals are built to enable parents to participate in their child’s education.
The greatest challenge, and potentially the greatest achievement of the Education Revolution, will be giving those who teach our children the skills to use technology that is more familiar to their students than to them. Empowering teachers in a 21st century learning environment by giving them the skills, knowledge, equipment and confidence to engage, connect and teach their students must be the highest priority of this Education Revolution.
With this education policy impacting most directly those who will vote at the next election, Labor is staking a political claim to a generation. More importantly, successful fulfilment of this policy will contribute to national productivity and competitiveness, national image and reputation and perhaps even social harmony.
This is critical policy that deserves critical analysis.
Get it right and it will deserve critical acclaim. Get it wrong and it will just get criticised.
I wish it well.
Simon Edwards, Manager, Government & Industry Affairs