A flying visit to the School of the Air

The history of distance and open learning in Australia is replete with institutions that have led the way, raising standards and providing impetus for fellow educators. Examples include the University of New England (especially in the 1950s to the 1970s), Deakin University (the 1970s and 1980s), the University of Southern Queensland, Monash University and others. Throughout the decades sinceĀ the 1950s there has, however, one constant contributor that has builtĀ a world-wide reputation for its endeavours: the School of the Air.

Established in 1951, the Alice Springs School of the Air has the largest classroom in the world, with students scattered throughout an area of 1,300,000 square kilometres. Given the geographical challenges, it is not surprising that the School has always looked to the appropriate use of technology to ensure effective communication between teachers and students. The latest, introduced in 2006 and under regular updating and improvement, is REACT (Remote Education and Conferencing Tool), a purpose developed IT application. The award-winning tool:

demonstrates excellence in the application of technology to provide a fully engaged communications experience. REACT demonstrated clear innovation in applying multicast and satellite technology to create a fully interactive remote classroom. The control for teachers and presenters to control the focus and full classroom interaction provide a complete remote classroom experience. The application of this core technology to other collaboration modes ensures a great potential for REACT.

My opportunity to visit the School of the Air arose recently during a holiday in the outback. Alice Springs is well worth a visit, and provides opportunities to visit nearby outstanding sites, especially the Western McDonnell Ranges (a day trip is highly recommended). Don’t plan on swimming in the Todd River though, not because of hazards, but because it’s dry for all but a few days each year.

The School itself is a little out of the centre of town, and required a 40-minute walk to get there. My plan was to walk there and bus back – unfortunately when I came to return, the wait for the next bus was over an hour so I gritted my teeth and struggled back (it was hot and sunny, the middle of the day). But it was well worth it – the staff are helpful and engaging, and the tour informative. There’s an explanatory talk with video, as well as examples of student materials and their submitted work.

You also get the opportunity to see the electronic classroom in action, and the two lessons I witnessed were very nicely handled. In addition, it was made all the more interesting by the presence of a group of student teachers from Illinois (USA) who participated in the teaching.

So if you’re visiting Alice Springs, don’t miss the opportunity to drop in – you might even leave with the souvenir t-shirt (or cap or some other of the paraphernalia) – I just bought a fridge magnet.

And if you’re that close, I assume you’ll also go to the iconic Uluru. It’s a great experience, one which I certainly enjoyed and wished I’d managed it years earlier. As a final bonus, here’s one of my better pics of Uluru.