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The School of the Air and remote learning

Australia is a huge continent and is home to some of the most geographically isolated and remote communities in the world. How do children living in these communities go to school? The answer is Community Government schooling and the School of the Air.

School of the Air is one of the means by which children in remote communities can access schools. Alternatively, community schools provide an opportunity for children to attend schools and to grow up in their communities. Teaching and learning in both types of schools has benefited greatly from radio communication and more recently, electronic facilities.

History of remote schooling

A student of Katherine School of the Air in the early 1960s

A student of Katherine School of the Air in the early 1960s. Image courtesy of Katherine School of the Air.

The Reverend John Flynn had established the Royal Flying Doctor Service after recognising that there was an urgent need for medical and health care to people living in remote communities. In response to this need the RFDS, under the guidance of Flynn, had established a radio network across the vast centre of the country. This network was powered by another great Australian innovation Alfred Traeger's pedal-powered radio.

In 1946, Miss Adelaide Miethke was the vice-president of the South Australian wing of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and a former inspector of girl's schools. The idea for the School of the Air was born when she noticed how outback children were all taught to use the RFDS radio service. She saw that there were other ways this network could be used.

Until the 1950s, children living in remote communities would either have to attend a boarding school, or complete their lessons by mail. This meant that students were either separated from their families or they had no interaction with their teacher and other students. Due to the delays in mail delivery, it also meant that many of these students would fall behind in their lessons. Something had to be done, but what?

In 1948, the Alice Springs RFDS base, was used to broadcast the first school lessons to outback children. Just a few years later, the School of the Air (SOA) was officially established. In 1956, the SOA program spread to New South Wales with other states and territories following soon after. In the late 1960s, the SOA gained international fame when featured on the popular Australian television program Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

In 2005, there were more than sixteen schools of the air located around Australia, a network covering more than 1.5 million square kilometres. In fact, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory are the only states who do not have a SOA. As well as teaching children who live in geographically isolated areas, these schools also teach children who are travelling around Australia or who can't, for medical or other reasons, attend a regular school.

The SOA program has now extended to teach secondary students and adult education courses, meaning that all members of a family can now complete studies, no matter where they are living. The Australian SOA has also helped many other countries with similar problems to establish their own SOA.

How does the SOA work?

The mailroom at the Alice Springs School of the Air

The mailroom at the Alice Springs School of the Air. Image courtesy of Alice Springs School of the Air.

Luckily, today's SOA students no longer have to use the old pedal-powered radios. Instead, they use high frequency (HF) radio transceivers to receive their lessons. A transceiver is a special type of radio that allows the user to both send and receive messages. This means that students can talk to each other as well as the teacher during classes.

SOA teachers also try to visit as many students as possible at least once a year. In fact, many schools of the air also try to organise an annual sports carnival and activity so students and their families can get together and participate in activities.

A SOA covers all the same curriculum as any other school in the state, so SOA students are not disadvantaged. In fact, teachers try to tailor each package to the individual needs of the student so gifted students or those with learning difficulties are specially catered for and given individual learning programs

A home tutor working with children on a school project

A home tutor working with children on a school project. Image courtesy of Katherine School of the Air.

Mt Isa SOA (Queensland) was established in 1964. Today, the school is located in the campus of Kalkadoon State High School and has students from Preschool to Year 10. Every student is provided with a mail delivered printed program with accompanying resources. This material is then supplemented by on-air lessons. Each preschool student receives one half-hour lesson per week. Years 17 students receive one half-hour on air lesson each day and secondary students receive at least one half-hour lesson per week for each subject in which they are enrolled.

Students also receive a HF radio for daily contact with their teacher and their classmates, and a program of field activities. These field activities include a week-long minischool and give SOA students the opportunity to participate in excursions and camps with other students both SOA and regular. Students in Years 410 also have the opportunity to attend a school camp with their classmates each year.

Most of the families attending Mt Isa SOA live within 200400 km of the school, although some live more than 800 km away. There are also some students attending the school who live in the Northern Territory. But no matter how far they live from the school, the annual sports day and graduation is attended by almost all students.

How is technology changing the SOA?

Students watching their lessons via their computer at home

Students watching their lessons via computer at home. Image courtesy of Broken Hill School of the Air.

Just like HF radios replaced pedal radios, new technology is constantly being incorporated into the schools of the air. The Optus Interactive Distance eLearning Initiative had brought the SOA into the digital age. This initiative saw lessons being delivered via an interactive two-way broadband satellite network and covers some of the most remote areas of Australia, including all of the Northern Territory and parts of New South Wales.

The network comprises a satellite hub in Sydney and five teaching studios in Alice Springs, Darwin, Broken Hill, Dubbo and Port Macquarie. Satellite dishes and computers complete the network with 547 sites across New South Wales and the Northern Territory, including remote homesteads and properties, isolated schools and Indigenous settlements.

Using a video camera and an electronic whiteboard, teachers at the studio sites give lessons by satellite to students on the network who can watch and respond in real-time via a web camera attached to their computer. This provides for much more interaction between students and teachers. As well as providing two-way audio and video, students can email teachers and each other, interact with the whiteboard and answer pop-up questions. They can also hear their classmates and participate in group discussions.

This innovative use of new technology shows the way the SOA will operate in the future. Who knows, maybe one day we will 'see' students sitting in a classroom when they are really hundreds of kilometres away!

Useful links

Information about remote learning

Schools of the Air

Schools of Distance Education

Community schools

Last updated: 18 January 2016
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.

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