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Sowing seeds of knowledge

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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.”

www.educationau.edu.au

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Virtually everyone knows someone with dyslexia. But what would you do if your once-effervescent child grew sullen and introverted as a consequence of learning difficulties?
Perth-based Jane and Phil Mangano discovered that daughter Hannah was dyslexic after she fell behind at school and lost much of her confidence. Phil (an IT professional) and Jane (a special needs teacher) decided to develop a simple software program that would help Hannah overcome her reading difficulties. The software that was built solely for Hannah’s use has now evolved into ReadOn, an internationally acclaimed learning aid for dyslexic people of all ages.

“We developed ReadOn with no commercial intent whatsoever,” says Jane Mangano. “Hannah was a normal baby and we were really gobsmacked when she started school and we realised that she was really struggling with reading and writing. We lost the bright, bubbly, confident girl that we sent off to school.” The Manganos worked with Hannah, her teachers and external therapists to try to overcome her dyslexia, but found that Hannah only became more withdrawn.

Jane and Phil Mangano, ReadOn

After noticing that the strategies outlined in the book “The Gift of Dyslexia” by Ron Davis were actually working for Hannah, Phil Mangano wrote a computer program that automated a lot of the exercises and allowed Hannah to practice without relying on parents, teachers and therapists. The Manganos kept enhancing the software according to what Hannah needed and in December 2004, Ron Davis endorsed the software. In August 2005, ReadOn was launched in Perth.

ReadOn assists a person in accessing any electronically-stored information. There are two modes: read and write. In read mode, each word or phrase of text copied into ReadOn can be highlighted as you read. If you need any assistance with a word, the software can read the word, phrase or whole paragraph back to you. Any words that you need help with are collected in a word bank. Images can also be associated with words and definitions, because people with learning difficulties tend to be very visual with their thinking and learning styles. You can listen to each letter and word as you’re typing. And it has a talking spellchecker.

“I think the beauty of ReadOn is that, because Hannah has been so intimately involved in the practical development process, the interface is very simple, visual and easy to use,” says Mangano. “Because we built ReadOn just for our own use, we didn’t really look in detail at what other people were doing, which was to our advantage. We weren’t influenced by anything else that was out there.”

Hannah and her ‘Daggy Daywear’

The Manganos were careful not to market ReadOn as exclusively a child’s package. Jane Mangano notes that once ReadOn has been purchased for a child, an adult family member often makes use of it as well. William May, creator of the popular television series Walking with Dinosaurs, is a proud ReadOn user.

ReadOn is now being distributed in Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe. The company has been recognised with several ICT innovation awards and late in 2007 ReadOn won the Education and Training category of the Asia Pacific ICT Alliance Awards in Singapore. ReadOn has also been sold to all Juvenile detention centres in Western Australia, helping to redress the over-representation of people with learning difficulties in the justice system.

And what of Hannah? Now in her first year of secondary school, she is less reliant on ReadOn and usually writes in a standard word processor. “She’s not afraid of reading now, whereas she used to be petrified of print and avoid it like the plague,” says Mangano. “Everyone wants to be able to read. I always say to teachers that no child chooses not to be able to read. Once they start having success, it provides the right environment for them to take off.”

And with new-found confidence, Hannah’s inner-entrepreneur is starting to bloom. Earlier this year, she presented her parents with a business plan for her ‘doggy daywear’, a range of doggy jackets that she intends to sell at local Sunday markets.
www.readonsoftware.com

TOP OF THE CLASS

Geoff Elwood, CEO, Etech Group

Geoff Elwood makes the wry observation that his Hobart-based company, Etech Group, is a “15-year overnight success”.

Etech Group’s flagship product Studywiz, an internet-based dynamic learning platform for teachers and students, has enjoyed phenomenal global success. It was originally developed in Chinese for Hong Kong schools back in 2000, but quickly gained popularity in the UK and US thanks to its simplicity and adaptability.

“Schools wanted a quick, easy way for teachers to engage with students and parents via a web browser-based interface,” says Elwood. “This was a pretty radical idea back in 2000. They basically wanted to prevent teachers from queuing at the photocopier on a Monday morning. They wanted a quick way to distribute homework to the students, be able to track who had completed work, and for parents to follow progress.”

One of the keys to Studywiz’s success was its open-architecture design, which has enabled developers to incorporate the diverse feedback from educators all over the world. “It’s of great benefit that the innovative feedback from, say, a primary school in Scotland turns out to be super-relevant for the Malaysia Navy,” says Elwood.

In 2005, Studywiz launched in the US signing Apple as global distributor. In 2006, the company tightened its grip on the US market, securing a deal that put Studywiz in every middle school in the state of Maine. That same year, Etech Group pulled off another coup when Studywiz was named one of just 10 software platforms accredited by the British Education Communications Technology Agency, placing it in 29,000 UK schools. Earlier this year, Etech Group received a $1.8 million grant from the Tasmanian government to further expand development work on mobile interfaces. And to cap it off, Studywiz was recognised with the Inspiration iAward for the ‘best of the best’ ICT innovation at the 2008 AIIA Awards.
“When you have a child who can essentially Google everything online, no longer is the teacher the font of all knowledge. You need to be able to interact with them in different ways,” says Elwood.

Studywiz is now in 22 countries around the world, with over 1.2 million student users. The company employs over 80 people in eight offices (each in different time zones). Oh, and Geoff Elwood travelled around the world 14 times last year.
www.etechgroup.com

GETTING OUT THE VOTE

Everyone Counts technology making absentee ballots count

There is perhaps no more profound moment of education than when people determine, through popular vote, who shall lead them. You only have recall those hanging and pregnant Floridian chads from the 2000 US presidential election to realise that a significant market opportunity exists for technology companies to improve conventional ballot solutions.

After years of promise, digital democracy is finally beginning to bloom thanks to an Australian-developed electronic voting technology. Everyone Counts (E1C) was established by Melburnian Craig Burton in 1997. Fast forward a decade and Burton, still majority shareholder, has relocated E1C headquarters to San Diego, hired an American CEO and attracted US investment for what is widely regarded as the premier e-voting technology solution around.

After initially targeting the private sector as a strategy to refine and prove the security and robustness of E1C’s e-ballot solution, Burton (who leads the development team still based in Melbourne) and new CEO Lori Steele are now focused almost exclusively on their true passion: government elections around the world.

E1C ran online voting for local elections in British cities in 2003 and 2007 and handled the “postal votes” of Australian Defence Force personnel stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign locations during the 2007 Australian Federal election. And in its most high profile project to date, the US Democratic Party entrusted E1C to handle absentee ballots during this year’s protracted Primary campaign, attracting tens of thousands of votes from 164 countries (even Antarctica).

“Our target is not to replace e-voting machines in poll stations,” says Craig Burton. “We really are looking at effectively replacing postal voting because it really isn’t very good or safe and our technology is such that you can collect a remote vote from someone quite safely now.”

According to Lori Steele, E1C’s main competitive advantage is its transparency. “We are the only voting company in the world – whether it’s internet, telephone or voting machines – that actually opens its source code to the public for audit. We think that’s critical for elections,” says Steele.
E1C has also been running a campaign with US not-for-profit organisations to educate underage voters about democracy by allowing them to vote in mock version of the elections in which their parents are voting.
www.everyonecounts.com

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