School of the Air
In Australia, the concept of virtual schooling started with radio schools, using the facilities of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The schools are gathered under the umbrella term School of the Air (SOA/SOTA). Most of them are primary schools, however there are some that provide education up to year 10 or year 12.
What are Virtual Schools in the Australian Context?
Virtual school initiatives in Australia, mainly at the primary and secondary level are known by the name “School of the Air” (SOA or SOTA). All the various SOAs now operating in Australia, with the exception of Katherine School of the Air, started by using the Royal Flying Doctor facilities. Alice Springs School of the Air and Katherine Primary School of the Air in the Northern Territory started operating from their own buildings using their own broadcasting equipments. Schools of the Air in Australia are a success for a manifold of reasons, but one of the most important is the fact that there are great distances between several settlements and that many smaller settlements with very few inhabitants are scattered all over the country. As a result, children in these areas lack the possibility of attending mainstream educational institutions. Therefore, the creation of Schools of the Air was necessary to provide educational services to children living in remote and isolated locations.
How Does It Work?
Schools of the Air seek to gather remote and isolated family groups into a school-based unit that aims to develop a sense of closeness and belonging by being part of a group classroom. For the teacher to be able to talk to the students and for the students to be able to hear responses from other students is an important part in breaking down the isolation that children who live on remote properties experience. Teachers conduct regular meetings on air for an important member of the distance education triangle, the ‘home tutor’. Being able to provide access to clubs and facilities, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, normally available to children who live in towns and cities, is an important part that radio inexpensively provides to isolated children. Club activities such as fishing, reading, poetry, cooking and music are available to enable children to participate with their peers. Radio provided P&C groups the medium over which they conduct meetings. Other parent groups, concerned with the well-being of their children, also conduct meetings over the air. The Support Teacher Learning Programme provides educational support services to Teachers of Learning and to students with learning difficulties.
In the late 1990s a decision was made to investigate telephone network instead of radio, to provide the connection for students enrolled with the Charleville SOA and a telephony bridge to provide the facility to gather the students in classes for their lessons. The trial was deemed to be a success with Telstra incorporating significant upgrades to the rural telephone network to improve performance particularly in connection with line congestion and call dropout. The telephones used now are modified to suit School of the Air requirements, a variation of handsfree technology. The telephone includes a ‘press to talk switch’ to reduce the amount of background noise normally picked up by the telephone microphone.
There are a number of characteristics of teleconference lessons that are beneficial to the students (compared to high frequency radio or HF radio): The students will normally experience lessons free of the ‘burps’ and ‘crackles’ that often plague HF radio. The absence of crackles and pops reduces the distractions and enables better student concentration and participation. Apart from hearing their teacher, students can hear other class participants clearly. Better communication does however come at a price. Whilst the teleconferencing system is less expensive than a radio network to set up, the recurring cost of telephone calls is considerable, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
The telephones are only part of the requirement. Telstra has provided 90 incoming lines to the specialised equipment used to connect the students to their respective classes. The core of the system is a computer controlled ‘bridge’. The ‘bridge’ consists of a number of ‘pigeon holes’ into which the students can dial to join their nominated class. To do this, after the students have accessed the ‘bridge’, they dial in a PIN which comprises a 4 digit family identifier and a 2 digit class identifier. The computer recognises the family identifier and uses the 2 digit class identifier to allow same class students to be assembled.
The teacher has access to the computer that controls the ‘bridge’ and the teacher can select the assembled class group, knows which students have dialed in and join the group. This assembling of class groups is similar to ‘teleconferencing’ where a number of people can dial into a conference and speak to each other. The main difference is that the teacher has full control of the conference including the ability to ‘mute’ or cut off a student and indeed cancel the conference if necessary, should problems such as interference arise.
With the Internet, Schools of the Air are also/instead using virtual learning environments and online teaching resources.
Schedule/Timing of Lessons
For the case of Mount Isa School of the Air, each lesson normally lasts for 30 minutes (with some 45 minutes and different starting times) and start on the hour and on the half hour. There are 5 studios and 5 studio lessons can be conducted simultaneously. Should a teacher be absent from the school building it is possible for the teacher to conduct a lesson remotely. Under these circumstances the teacher would dial into the bridge and join her students with reduced control. Up to approximately 5 minutes before the scheduled lesson start time the students will dial into their class. During the minutes before the teacher takes control the students are able to have a ‘chat’. When the lesson time has ticked over, the teacher recognises the assembled group and joins the students. There is a well established protocol that has developed over the years and students adhere to the protocol. Students only talk to the teacher when invited to do so. Therefore, every School of the Air is normally free to set its own schedule.
List of SOTAs by territory (unless mentioned otherwise they are only primary)
- Northern Territory
- Katherine School of the Air (primary to highschool)
- Alice Springs School of the Air Alice Springs School of the Air (primary school)
- Western Australia
- South Australia
- Port Augusta School of the Air (http://www.openaccess.edu.au/about_us/port_augusta.html?)
- Cairns School of Distance Education (previously called Cairns School of the Air) (prep to secondary school)
- Mount Isa School of the Air
- Charters Towers School of Distance Education (previously called Charters Towers School of the Air) (prep to Year 12 and adults)
- Longreach School of Distance Education (previously called Longreach School of the Air]] (prep to high school)
- Charleville School of Distance Education (previously called Charleville School of the Air]] (prep to high school)
- New South Wales
For more information as well as articles and papers on SOAs and other virtual school initiatives in Australia, visit the following link http://cunningham.acer.edu.au/
STL – Support Teacher Learning
The Support Teacher Learning program is a support programme established by Schools of the Air in Australia to support students and teachers in difficulties of various sorts under The Schools of the Air Learning Difficulties Team. This team has at least one Support Teacher of Learning located in each of the Schools of the Air (Kalgoorlie, Meekatharra, Carnarvon, Derby and Port Hedland). The team provides support services to the Schools of the Air throughout Australia.
The Support Teacher of Learning works hand-in-gloves with teachers, home tutors, students and other inter-agencies to determine a process for establishing educational outcomes for all students. This support journey involves realistic planning that is uncomplicated and easily understood by everyone involved.
This planning process and open communication forms the basis of the teaching and learning program for each individual child. The needs of everyone are considered and addressed. By working as a collaborative team, the Schools of the Air Learning Difficulties Team allow for different starting points and pathways to learning and adopt strategies to accommodate learning styles of individuals. The team aims to determine the achievement of outcomes by:
- Determining the individual child’s stage of development
- Recognising that learning is a developmental continuum and each child will achieve identified outcomes in different but equally meaningful ways.
They work using the Collaborative Problem-Solving Process, Building Inclusive Schools Strategy and Whole School Approach to devise a plan to suit the needs of each child. This involves a plan which:
- Focusses on early intervention.
- Uses a wide range of assessment tools
- Devises practical strategies based on best teaching practice
- Implementation of program
- Monitoring and evaluation
- School of the Air, Wikipedia, May 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_of_the_Air, May 2012