Distance learning in the Australian bush

Distance learning in the Australian bush

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Sitting on a chair, Ben Ranacher patiently waits his turn, devouring a sandwich. With a headset fitted with a microphone on his head, he pressed the mouse on his computer to let his teacher know that he wanted to speak. Ben is not a student like the others. This nine-year-old boy lives in Australia, on a remote farm in the west of the Northern Territory. The superb family property, called “Bullo River”, covers a whopping 202,000 hectares, nearly three times the area of ​​Singapore. During the wet season, which lasts at least four months, flooding isolates this ranch from the rest of the world. The only way to get to the first village, 200 kilometers away, Kununurra, is by plane.

Despite all these obstacles, Ben enjoys an almost normal education. Since last year, he has been following a brand new program, called Interactive Distance Learning (IDL). Forty-two isolated farms, encompassed within a 700-kilometer radius, are connected to the Katherine Town School through high-speed satellite Internet access. The computer, webcam, scanner, microphone and printer are provided free of charge to families by this public establishment.
In Australia, web-based training for primary schools began in 2002. The installation of satellite dishes allowed students to access their lessons at all times. Getting in touch with your teacher was also getting easier thanks to email and instant messaging. The IDL, however, allows us to go even further. Three times a week, Ben takes 45-minute lessons given live by a teacher located 580 kilometers from his home. His 4-year-old brother, Franzie, enjoys two weekly sessions of thirty minutes each.

Break the isolation

The beauty of this system lies in its interactivity. The screen the student is looking at is separated into three parts. On the left, the child can see his teacher. On the right is a whiteboard on which the teacher writes with an electronic pen. At the bottom, several buttons on which the schoolboy can click with his mouse allow him to speak, to call his master or to warn that he will be absent for a few minutes. This initiative, which was launched in November 2002 for a period of three years, is the result of a collaboration between the Ministries of Education of the Northern Territory and New South Wales, the Australian Federal Government and the group of Optus telephony. The computer programs were developed by Janison Solution,

The IDL helps to break a little the isolation suffered by children living in the heart of the bush. Many schoolchildren “exiled” in the outback try to follow a more or less normal school course thanks to the school of the airs. But teaching by VHF radio, which was inaugurated in 1966, does not allow teachers to show anything to their students. And in more remote properties, like Bullo River, the range of VHF waves is too limited to contact the nearest school . “The only way to ask a teacher for advice was to call him on the phone ,” recalls Linda, Ben and Franzie’s housekeeper.The IDL and all the computer training programs that the school sends us help me a lot in educating the two boys. “

However, new technologies do not replace the daily presence of a nanny at home. “We have set up a real small class in one of the rooms on the farm where I teach six days a week, from 9 am to noon then from 2 pm to 4 or 5 pm, a little all the subjects for the two brothers , explains Linda. who chose to live in the middle of nowhere after raising their five children. Computing will never be as beneficial as the help of a private tutor. But IDL has the huge advantage of connecting children who live hundreds of miles apart. It also shows them a bit of what life will be like in a traditional classroom. At twelve or thirteen, students must leave the family fold to enter boarding school.

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