Whether you seek answers to the meaning of life or hourly updates on Angelina Jolie’s weight, the right information in this digital age is never more than a few clicks away. Until very recently, most of us had to settle for an education within reach – a local school, a municipal library, perhaps a fortunate year abroad. Now, technology companies are delivering education to the masses, efficiently and at low cost. Paul Ryan profiles four Australian companies planting the seeds of knowledge as far as the eye can see.
HOTWIRING EDUCATION IN AUSTRALIA
|Greg Black, CEO, Education.au|
Generally speaking, traditional educators are not renowned for being eager adopters of technological innovation. In fact, teaching and learning hasn’t really changed much since the days of Plato and Aristotle – a pedant stands in front of a group of students and delivers knowledge, students have the opportunity to enquire further before digesting and resubmitting this knowledge to the teacher for assessment.
According to Greg Black, CEO of education.au, a not-for-profit collaboration between Federal, State and Territory governments to promote the use of ICT innovations to Australia’s educational institutions, conservatism of educators and lack of bandwidth are the two biggest factors inhibiting the adoption of new technologies that could revolutionise teaching and learning in Australia.
“The average age of teachers in Australia is approaching 50, creating a situation where the students are generally far more adept and comfortable with technology than their teachers. That makes for a very challenging dynamic,” says Black. “Everyone in the community has a view about education and there are very high expectations of it. Schools and universities are always under a lot of pressure, so they tend to be reasonably cautious in their approach. We do find it a challenge to get them to inculcate the latest technology. This is a western phenomenon. It’s not unique to Australia.”
Education.au, which launched in 1996, is doing its bit to coax Australia’s schools, universities and TAFEs into the 21st Century. Black and his team have deployed the latest technologies – many of them open source – to build tools and resources that encourage teachers and students to improve learning outcomes by collaborating across cyberspace.
A good example is the popular edna (Education Network Australia) website – dubbed ‘Google for Teachers’ – which allows teachers to search quality-assured resources from all over the word. In recent years, web 2.0 components have been introduced and edna now has about 30,000 teachers discussing relevant professional issues in various groups. Education.au has even launched a professional facebook for teachers – me.edu.au – off the back of this interest.
Another seminal education.au initiative is www.MyFuture.edu.au, an online careers planning and search website. Originally developed to target year nine and ten students, their teachers and parents, MyFuture is now also popular with adult users and has grown to become one of the most visited websites in Australia. It has expanded to New Zealand and will soon debut in Canada.
“We’re in a period of time that is unique in the history of education,” says Black. “The traditional paradigm of teaching and learning… can potentially be completely changed by the use of technology. Cognitive science has proven that we all have different learning styles, and those styles change over time. Technology can now provide the capability for the teacher to be able to personalise learning for the individual. Secondly, it provides the opportunity for learners to take much more responsibility for their own learning.”
According to Black, the education sector with the best grasp of new technology is Vocational Education and Training (VET). He attributes this to the sector’s close association with industry, which demands technology-savvy staff.
“I just turned 56. I’m a bloody dinosaur,” says Black. “Even though it’s my job to look at all of these new technologies, I can’t possibly keep up. The message I’ve always given to principals and teachers is you don’t have to know it all and understand it all. You have to have a grasp of what it can do and give the kids some room to do it. There is a need for more support for teachers in actually applying technology in a classroom or lecture theatre context. That’s probably the single biggest investment that’s needed in the country.”