NBN 101: A broadband-driven education revolution?

At the mainland Australia launch of the National Broadband Network (NBN) earlier this month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, pushed the ceremonial button alongside smiling school children. Gillard spoke to us of the potential the NBN had to “overcome the tyranny of time and distance” that traditionally held education back, while Debra Kelliher, principal at Armidale PLC where the festivities were held, asked that as we forged fibre connections to the school, that we also forged “connections of the heart”.

[This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at aspects of Australia's fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates surrounding the National Broadband Network (NBN).]

As the yellow button was pushed and the taiko drums played, the NBN was used to link Armidale PLC with Circular Head Christian School in Smithton, Tasmania, for a rendition of Waltzing Matilda spanning thousands of kilometres. Children also engaged in a virtual art gallery tour, a maze of panoramas that gave students a look at famous artworks they might not otherwise have been able to see in such detail.

Education played a large part in the official launch of the fibre network on the mainland.

However, does the NBN really possess the ability to render meaningless the geographic “tyranny” of Australia's vast landscape? And is the NBN the key to a new education revolution? Computerworld Australia set to out to answer some of these questions.

One educational institution that has come to rely on broadband in recent years is Open Universities Australia (OUA). The organisation, which provides 43,000 students with access to university courses across Australia through correspondence, is now focussed on what the NBN can do for education.

“Students get courses from the universities and it is more and more online,” OUA's chief executive, Stuart Hamilton told Computerworld Australia. “Traditionally it was through CD-ROMs, but now the delivery mode is very much based on the internet.”

In a submission to the parliamentary inquiry around the role and potential benefits of the NBN, Hamilton wrote that the NBN could have a tremendous impact on education once the rollout is completed across Australia.

Hamilton's submission rejected the idea that the "NBN will mainly provide access to entertainment and other purely private benefits”. “Recent communications and infrastructure changes have shown that innovations that may have originally focussed on private entertainment are quickly found to have wider social and economic uses," the submission argued.

"The recent widening use in business and education of Facebook and YouTube on the applications side and the iPad on the hardware side are not going to be the last examples of that phenomenon. ”

Hamilton's submission identified four areas where the services of a national broadband network are relevant to OUA's students:

#8226; Access to learning materials in relevant media;

#8226; Equal educational opportunities for students regardless of where they live;

#8226; Access to 'virtual classrooms', including real time collaboration with classmates and teachers; and,

#8226; The chance "to take part in practical classes through simulations and online demonstrations".

Hamilton's submission highlighted aspects of the NBN that would affect his institution, including speed; the widespread coverage that would be provided through the NBN, as well as equity of access; and the potential to deliver high quality multimedia, "including symmetric services such as high definition video-conferencing". It also noted one of the inherent strengths of a fibre-based network: No signal degradation over distance.

One of the first educational institutions given the opportunity to take advantage of the NBN is Circular Head Christian School in Smithton, Tasmania.

The location of the school #8212; in the far north-west of Tasmania, some 380 kilometres from Hobart #8212; meant principal Patrick Bakes could see the value in being involved in the NBN trials and approached NBN Co and the government about taking part in them.

Bates said the NBN rollout has already changed the way the schools’ teachers are able to educate students, with access to online teaching information becoming more readily available.

“Our teachers can now use online programs to teach the students. The school has subscribed to Intrepica, an online-based learning platform, and our students use this daily,” Bakes told Computerworld Australia. “The teachers also use other Web-based resources on our interactive whiteboards and projectors within all the home rooms of the school.”

Schools across New South Wales were recently promised that some 4300 interactive whiteboards will be rolled out across the state, and Bakes said that this technology needs to be backed up by adequate access to broadband services. An increase in the number of educational institutions connected to the NBN would also be beneficial for those schools that have already been connected.

“Once the NBN is completed, it will allow us as a school to connect to a great number of resources that we weren’t able to access due to speed issues with previous connections,” Bakes said.

“The NBN will show its true value once there are more schools to collaborate with, as at the moment we are limited by the lack of other schools on the network.”

IDC verticals analyst, Emilie Ditton, said that the NBN will have a slow and gradual impact on education. Ditton said that it won't immediately affect the type of technology used in education, "but rather the way it can be used through the greater bandwidth available”.

Part of the appeal of the NBN is near-ubiquitous connectivity, but Ditton said the network won't completely eliminate the digital divide between urban centres and regional Australia.

“The NBN is not promising to reach all students in regional Australia, but it certainly will deliver better Internet connectivity to more students in regional Australia, and a much higher quality service to those students in regional Australia who already have it,” she said. "I don’t think it will end the digital divide, but it will improve it.”

Can the NBN revolutionise education?

The NBN is about providing a platform that will enable wider delivery of high bandwidth applications than is currently possible over internet connection technologies like copper or hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC). Exactly what shape many of these applications will take is open to speculation. However, already there are examples of bandwidth-hungry applications that can revolutionise the classroom.

In December, the University of Melbourne trialled technology that allowed medical students to observe virtual reality surgery demonstrations in 3D. The Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) platform used in the trial was developed by partnership between Ericsson and the university's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES).

"The University of Melbourne has shown that early surgical training is improved by the addition of virtual reality to the training program, and it is becoming clear that 3D TV is a way of getting the message across to young surgeons from around the county," the university's Professor Steven O'Leary, William Gibson Chair in Otolaryngology, said in a statement at the time.

"Suddenly people understand how the NBN will help deliver academic and continuing education across Australia," said broadband strategy manager for Ericsson, Colin Goodwin. "It's exciting!"

In March, IBES executive director, Kate Cornick, told a House of Representatives committee hearing into the NBN that the Uni TV service used in the virtual surgery trial may be able to boost the number of international students studying at the university.

The potential impact of high quality IPTV-based services is not the only way in which the increased bandwidth offered by the NBN is likely to alter the Australian educational landscape. Another example of possible fibre-fuelled changes to education is AARNet's recent negotiations with universities to offer “always-on access” to uni resources for students and researchers at their homes at NBN mainland sites in Armidale and Townsville. Macquarie University is looking to , and offer remote access to students and staff. While Macquarie's own attempts are independent of the NBN, proper use of the architecture and Web development applications envisaged under the program require significant bandwidth on both ends for a seamless experience.

Another possibility for both researchers and students is quick access to large datasets. For example, under one proposal the massive data expected be produced by the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope may be made available to anyone to study #8212; if they have the bandwidth.

As with health and entertainment, it is likely that many of the uses to which Australia's FTTH network will be put in the education sector are yet to be thought of. Universities can be notoriously bandwidth-hungry, and just what kind of impact smaller institutions and individual homes getting their hands on gigabit bandwidth will have on how Australians teach and learn is yet to be seen.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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