How the NBN will change education

When I grew up in Canada, there was a famous painting on the wall in nearly every primary school classroom. It was called The Last Spike, and it depicted the final railway track connection being hammered in to create a true east-west transport corridor. In a real sense, it was the making of Canada; a nation-building project.

Much like the development of the railway in the 19th century, the National Broadband Network (NBN) will transform our society.
(Last Spike of the CPR image by Ross, Alexander, Best & Co., Winnipeg, public domain)

The same can be said of the National Broadband Network (NBN) today. Once completed, it will connect all Australians as never before — in communications, healthcare, news, media, science, invention and, particularly, in education. And it will do so at all levels.

In fact, its importance for the future of primary and secondary education is only just beginning to be appreciated. Remember the ethos of that famous Australian invention, the outback School of the Air. For students in regional Australia, it meant connection and access to educational opportunities, unbound by geography.

What pedal-powered short-wave radio was to remote stations of the 1950s — a direct link to the world of learning — the NBN will be to the children of the next decade. But the difference is profound. It will be multi-point and immersive, "many way" instead of two-way. It will make a baseline of high-quality learning, available to every individual, every class — while teachers will be able to collaborate with each other across state and territory boundaries as never before.

They will be able to work across states to assess new forms of curriculum and to give them "local engagement". They will be able to develop their own pedagogical skills through peer-to-peer communities. And when students from Alligator River want to enter a science fair with young people in Deloraine, they will be able to share a "digital project", enabling Year 8 students from the Northern Territory and Tasmania to work together in a whole new way.

Imagine the open-access impulse of EdX or Coursera, blend it (literally) with the National Curriculum project in Australia, and then one has an inkling of what is possible. But between "possible" and "actual" lies the challenge.

Some call it access, others the "digital gap". But it is not a simple matter of urban versus rural opportunities or outback versus city access; this misreads the situation.

In fact, there is already a huge "digital divide" in this country. It starts right outside our university campus gates — not hundreds of kilometres from them. Serious inequities already exist. The NBN will address them head-on — and it will solve them.

Every day, citizens travel past tertiary campuses without realising just how fortunate those inside are: university staff and students have access to super-broadband, unlike anything most Australians have ever seen or experienced. For most people, AARNET3 (Australia's Academic and Research Network) is a mysterious acronym; for those who have access, it is an essential engine for education and research. It is so customary that its enormous benefits are almost taken for granted.

But, it is well worth remembering what these benefits are. For example, Monash University has special, purpose-designed secondary schools on three of its six Victorian campuses. Those schools are public-purpose, taxpayer-funded institutions.

At the John Monash Science School on the Clayton campus, all of its 600 students have a student card, just like the undergraduates. They have access to the university library, to the Web of Science, to Elsevier and to Humanities Online. They can share their homework assignments through Google Docs; they can collaborate via videochat. They can connect with more than 100 television news channels from around the world — including Al Jazeera in both Arabic and English; BBC World and CNN — at no cost. They can download at 100 megabits per second — the gold standard for academic work.

The learning opportunities are superb. Consequently (and by design), innovative curriculum invention happens all the time — with school and university staff working together to mint new forms of pedagogy.

But a school located just down the road — even one with students who are equally motivated and talented — has very few of these privileges. This has to change.

The genius of the NBN is that it will break down that divide, all across Australia. Instead of a digital "rain shadow", the whole nation will have equitable access. Instead of the frustration of strangled speeds, poor image clarity and slow (or no) service, an NBN society will be fundamentally more fair and productive.

But this will not happen without careful planning, and without a major series of moves to prioritise access to educational projects during the NBN roll-out. The way forward is for universities to partner with secondary schools, with TAFE institutions and with the private sector, to model the new face of learning.

Ultimately, then, the NBN is all about people; not about technology. It is about being able to train, inspire and educate students of whatever age, to work together as never before. And it is about devising solutions to real challenges in an interdisciplinary way.

The role of public and educational libraries will be crucial, too. If the word "portal" means anything, it means democratic access to that wider digital world; libraries are placed centre-stage in that process.

Meanwhile, every university and TAFE in the nation should be considering the establishment of digitally-enabled secondary schools on their campuses.

The NBN project is one which is beyond politics, and it deserves bipartisan support in every state and territory. The "last spike" moment is now.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect official policies of Monash University.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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rrvau posted a comment   

NBN for all? Not if you are outside the major population areas. Then you'll have to get connected via satellite after the copper is sold to China.

Nobody mentions the battery backup, such as how long it will last? How will it operate after flooding? Who pays for the replacement battery packs?

Has anyone investigated the toxic fumes given off by the intended Optical fibres? How degraded will the performance be if you only have Optical Fibre to the building?

I wonder how much the Chinese will pay for the Copper scrap and who is getting the benefit of forcing this on the Australian public. It is not like it is optional, is it?


psychomonkey posted a comment   

This is a ridiculous Labor Party Puff Piece! With technology moving at the rate it is, committing to running cables to every house in Australia is madness! I would have thought Cnet would understand this better than most!

I work less than 1km from Monash University, we moved into the new offices almost two years ago, and since moving in, we can not get an internet connection beyone ADSL1. The reason we are told.... the NBN. Because sometime in the next 5 years the connections in the area will be improved, they won't spend money on it now!! Seriously!


ehermo posted a reply   

How is running cables to peoples houses madness? Instead of cables they should just run fibre optic cables to peoples houses. Once the fibre optic cables are laid, you don't have to lay any other cable ever.

The information sent down a fibre optic line is at the speed of light. That isn't what makes a internet connection slow. It's the transmitting and receiving the information that is the problem. Software is now being developed that can send information down a fibre optic cable in the gigabit range per second..

Same cable, but just better, efficient, software for transmitting and receiving.


Will1505 posted a reply   

Fibre optic still has a maximum speed and capacity, so its not like its all they will need, it will need upgrading in the future.

I think the point that "psychomonkey" was making was, whats the point? ADSL 2 is generally all anyone will need and its old technology.

Why spend a crap load of money on something Telstra would have done in 5-10 years anyway? Their cable network is already cheaper and at the same maximum speed of the NBN.

And not everyone is getting the NBN either. I live closish to to the coast in victoria. The NBN will be supplied to ever suburb around me but not mind. The only reason i can think of is the ADSL infrustructure is actually really good and cable is available.


GlenB3 posted a reply   

The maximum speed is limited to how many wavelengths of light are sent down the fibre simultaneously. The actual fibre medium is not so much of a limiting factor. As technology gets better, we only upgrade the end-points of the fibre medium. (The same way we went from 9600baud, to 14.4kbps, 28.8kbps, 56kbps, DSL 1.5mbps, DSL 8mbps, DSL2 12mbps, DSL2 24mbps, etc)

A private Australian company (PIPE) laid a 7000km long submarine fibre cable that transmits 2.56tbps of data per second. That's 2,560,000mbps. - By the time we'd ever need that kind of speed at home, these speeds will be much higher. Simply through guiding more wavelengths of light down the fibre.

The life expectancy of fibre has rapidly exceeded the lifetime of copper, and the cost per metre is lower than copper, especially for runs of cable that support large areas.

Telstra may not have done the upgrade depending on how far they look into the future. They could just pack up and leave, bring private and all.

"DSL2 being all everyone needs" is only proportionate to what kind of experience you want delivered to your house. People used to think 512MB of RAM was too much, but now an Operating System will use all of that, and then some. As hardware get's better, and the 'bottom line' (the slowest hardware found in some houses) catches up, then developers can enrich their products with better content. Nobody likes to spend millions making software that only the enthusiast with the best hardware can use.

I remember loading pages in 56kbps after upgrading from 28.8kbps, it was so fast and consistent I always wondered why we'd need faster. Keep in mind I was loading (back then) pretty bland, boring pages, no embedded flash, nothing moves, no sound, no visual experience.

Here we are years later, and the net feels the same as it did with the 56kbps connection, only the pages are alive with content.

Back then, nobody could envision the content we'd transmit over the internet, and the same things were said when DSL1, and DSL2 infrastructure was rolled out.

Even when electricity was rolled out to every house, there was a group of people saying "Oh just another government plan to get into our houses, anyway they can."

Not to mention, quantum computing leans on theories around processing light directly. If there is ever a direct correlation between quantum computing and the internet, fibre/laser will be the way to do it.

1 NBN, even if I totally dislike Labor.

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