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Tuesday, 18 September 2012 11:54

Digital Education Revolution grinds to finish

By

This Friday tens of thousands of Lenovo notebooks walk out of NSW public schools forever thanks to the Federal Government’s $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution which has paid for almost 1 million new computers in the nation’s high schools.

Because of the way the scheme was administered in NSW, current Year 12 students who leave public schools this week will take their Lenovo notebook with them. The machines are unlocked from the Department of Education and Training’s communications network, and students are able to transfer ownership of some of the software loaded onto those devices from the Department and to themselves.

The Federal Government’s $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution was intended to drive a 1:1 computer to student ratio in schools and this was pretty much achieved at the beginning of this year for years 9-12. The heart of the DER was the National Secondary Schools Computer Fund with a $1.4 billion budget for computers for secondary schools, plus a further $807 million earmarked for the costs of implementing the computers.

According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations more than 957,000 computers have been installed in more than 2,900 secondary schools across Australia – considerably more than the original target of 786, 000.

“The Government has now provided funding to all education authorities to move schools with students in Years 9 to 12 to a 1:1 ratio,” according to a spokesperson for the Department. The funding agreements with the State and Territory Governments are now winding down and end next June.

“Future arrangements are subject to the negotiation of new agreements with state and territories and the non-government sector” added the spokesperson.

NSW and Queensland took the most prescriptive approach to the DER, with computer selection determined at State education department level and imposed on schools. Other States and Territories had a more liberal approach allowing individual schools to select the most appropriate devices (including iPads in some cases) from pools of suppliers including Apple, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Toshiba, CDM and HP.

The architect of the NSW scheme was Stephen Wilson, formerly chief information officer at the NSW Department of Education and Training and now in charge of computing at Sydney Water. Back in 2010 iTWire asked Mr Wilson about the sustainability of his approach.

At the time he acknowledged further Federal Government support would be needed to sustain the NSW programme long term. “I don’t think the Commonwealth Government can announce a programme if this importance, then say ‘that’s it’,” said Mr Wilson.

But with Federal and State Governments under fierce pressure to fund either some or all of the Gonski report’s proposed reforms, it is unclear what might be left over for future computer investment. Earlier this month the NSW Government announced plans to in fact slash $1.7 billion from education funding.


A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education and Training said that funding cut would not necessarily impact spending on computers, but acknowledged that the NSW Government was “still in the planning stage” about how to spend the allocated funding leftover from the DER.

Dr Sarah Howard, a lecturer at the University of Wollongong, is now conducting the third of three investigations into the NSW DER initiative. She said that one of the clear findings from the research was that the 1:1 laptop programme had helped to narrow the gap between students who already had technology and internet access at home, and those who had not.

In 2011 7 per cent of NSW high school students said that they did not have access to a computer at home, other than their school issued devices.

Dr Gerald White, a principal research fellow at ACER, the Australian Council for Education Research, said that the question of equity was important. He said that that OECD analysis had demonstrated that children with access to technology and the internet both at home and in the classroom benefitted most. There was a slight negative effect for students who had access to technology only in the classroom he said.

But he noted that since the DER was announced there had been a significant improvement in general access to technology, pointing to statistics released last week by Swinburne University which showed that 86 per cent of Australian households now had internet access.

He said that to some extent “time has overtaken the DER” given the pace of technological innovation across the board – but he remained scathing of the focus on devices taken by some States. He said that the focus on devices was flawed and that the arrival of iPads and Android tablets since the launch of the DER initiative had shown that there were superior platforms available for lower cost than the notebooks provided in NSW.

“This is not about devices, it’s about how people learn,” he said. “The focus on devices has been folly all over the world.”

Mr Wilson disagreed saying that there have been real benefits for NSW in terms of having a single machine for students and teachers to get to grips with and provide content for. He added that he had also been impressed by the durability of the Lenovo devices which had improved over the years.

"Tablets are great but there is room for them to harden up for everyday usage in education," said Mr Wilson. In terms of the programme overall Mr Wilson said; "I think it was fantastic - it made a huge difference to so many students and teachers."

According to Dr White though, many teachers are still left floundering with regard to how technology could be integrated successfully with pedagogy. While the legacy of the programme was a “stimulus” it had not proven an educational game changer he said.

Dr Howard’s research has explored how NSW DER computers are being used , which reveals this differs from school to school and class to class, with maths teachers seemingly quite recalcitrant about using the technology. According to Dr Howard’s 2011 study teachers on average reported they were using the NSW DER laptops two to four times a week – although most only used them once a week for actual teaching. They also reported communicating with students and/or parents via email or online once a month.

Meanwhile two in three students last year reported using their DER NSW laptop once a day in 2011.

DEEWR has organised its own mid-programme review of the national initiative. According to a spokesperson; “This is currently underway and once a report has been finalised, its contents - detailing the relevant findings - will be released within three months of its completion.”

Measuring the educational outcomes of the programme may still be very challenging. While Dr Howard said that there was evidence of greater engagement among students, an impact on the pedagogy and a narrowing of the digital divide as a result of the DER initiative, she acknowledged that it wasn’t possible to equate technology introduction with Naplan style outcomes acknowledging; “We don’t have the tools to measure the benefit of technology yet.”

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