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Monday, 15 March 2010 14:20

School students may win social networking reprieve


The NSW Government is considering relaxing its block on government high school students using social networking sites.

Speaking to Year 9 students from Kogarah High School this morning the Minister for Education and Training, Verity Firth was quizzed about the extent of the blocks. Ms Firth told the students 'We are working with students and parents to give you more access. But we have to be careful; we want you to learn.'

At present year 9 and 10 students who have Government issued netbooks access the internet through the NSW DET portal, which blocks access to social networking sites such as Facebook.

Ms Firth later said that a series of stakeholder round tables had been held involving parents, students and school P&C representatives to discuss the current blocking policy. 'One suggestion is that we could relax social networking at home. We are not interesting in you social networking at school,' she said.

The Minister added that access to social networking sites would be a privilege to be earned, rather than a right - and would probably initially only be available for senior students.

This morning's launch of the 2010 rollout of Government issued netbooks was also attended by Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing. Lenovo, the Chinese company which bought IBM's personal computer business in 2005, is supplying the Windows 7 based netbooks to the NSW DET.

The programme is funded by the Rudd Government's $442 million Digital Education Revolution initiative. Unlike other States and Territories, which have largely left schools to decide how to spend their share of the $442 million pot, NSW has been prescriptive - providing a Lenovo netbook, running Windows 7, and equipped with a range of Adobe software to all year 9 students in government schools.

Speaking to students Ms Firth acknowledged that this year's model was better than the initial machine. Coloured blue to distinguish it from last year's claret coloured model, the computers have the latest Intel Atom processor, a higher resolution screen, 'airbag' technology to protect data on the hard drive, a larger keyboard, and improved battery life.

According to Ms Firth more than 66,000 of the claret coloured machines were rolled out in 2009, with 60,000 plus blue netbooks to follow this year. The government has also pledged to continue the rollout through 2011 and 2012.

As students complete year 12 the netbook will be unlocked form the DET portal through which it currently communicates and be gifted to students. NSW's approach consequently means that each year the government has to find the funds for tens of thousands of new netbooks for the incoming crop of Year 9 students.

Speaking to iTWire at this morning's rollout the chief information officer of the NSW Department of Education and Training, Stephen Wilson 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 Wilson. Acknowledging that the government had not yet announced any plans to extend the funding for the Digital Education Revolution, Wilson said; 'I would say that is an election issue.'

Asked about evidence of abuse of the machines, or the circulation of pirated material held on netbooks, Ms Firth said only a small number of incidents had been observed and mostly involved 'a tech savvy 15 year old trying to beat the system.'

She said that any abuse could be tracked by DET and reported to school principals who could then act on the problem. 'They know they are being watched and we know what they are doing,' said Ms Firth.

Wilson said only about 300-400 units had been compromised during the first year, and in those situations the machines were recalled to DET and re-imaged. He said that improvements had been made to this year's model including the introduction of a tamper evident sticker on the hard drive.

Ms Firth said that the NSW Government had also employed more than 400 technology support officers, spent $16 million buying 20,000 laptops for secondary teachers, and invested $10 million in professional development programmes to underpin the use of the technology in schools.

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