Students from Anna Bay Public School in NSW use an interactive whiteboard in their classroom.
Students from Anna Bay Public School in NSW using an interactive whiteboard in their classroom.

Keeli Cambourne

Forget the chalk dust, the dog eared textbooks, even the more modern DVD player.

Today's school students are downloading homework on iTunes, listening to lessons via podcasts, communicating with other students all over the world through social networking sites, and even video conferencing with leaders of business and industry.

And it's not just high-school kids who are making good use of the fast-moving technology; Australia's primary school students are now being equipped with the skills needed for the digital age.

Digital revolution

Public schools throughout Australia are benefiting from the Federal Government's $2.2 billion Digital Education Revolution initiative, which aims to prepare students for further education and training, jobs of the future and to live and work in a digital world.

School students are now being switched on to some of the most up-to-date technology available, from laptop computers for students in years 9-12 to interactive whiteboards, video-conferencing equipment and even virtual classrooms.

And, although they sound space-aged and technical, most of the technologies that students are using are the same as those in most homes; the main difference is that, in schools, their educational potential is being explored.

Educational entertainment

Outside school, students constantly interact with technologies such as iPods, mobile phones, the internet and social networking sites, so it is little wonder there's an expectation that these technologies will also support their learning in the classroom.

The West Australian Education Department recently trialled a program that allowed students and teachers to download free information and resources through iTunes U - an area of the iTunes store offering free education content from top institutions around the world.

The department's assistant executive director curriculum support Andrew Thompson says that, by providing online content in alternative formats, the department hopes to make the information more accessible and appealing to people in the education community.

“This program will also test the practicality of using alternative electronic formats to distribute the department's information,” he says.

The iTunes project also means that students can better communicate with their peers and access different perspectives on their subjects by sharing audio files to discuss their school work.

Electronic whiteboards

Children in kindergarten may not be accessing their lessons via the iPod just yet, but they will be able to log on to the worldwide web via a Connected Classroom program.

Schools throughout Australia will be using the technology of interactive whiteboards, which have the capabilities of connecting immediately to the internet so students and teachers can access information immediately.

By connecting the whiteboards to a laptop computer and projector, teachers can also convert freehand writing on the whiteboard into text, then print it for students.

“All classrooms in Western Australia are connected classrooms, which enable them to support interactive facilities, and many use video conferencing and multimedia teaching strategies to further learning opportunities,” Thompson says.

Queensland has been rolling out its Smart Classroom project since 2005 and new state schools are fitted with a fully managed fibre-optic and high-speed wireless-based network and smart classroom technologies, including interactive whiteboards, digital media projectors, cameras and Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony systems.

The roll-out of the interactive whiteboards started in NSW at the end of last year, and the Government is hoping to have at least one dedicated connected classroom in every state school by the end of this year.

Victoria is also in the process of rolling out its interactive whiteboards.

Video conferencing

An integral part of the connected or smart classrooms is video-conferencing technology, which allows students to talk to experts and other schools and students around the world in real time via a video link-up. The facility is linked to the connected classroom package and uses electronic whiteboard technology so a teacher in Sydney can interact with a class in Brisbane for example, using the same whiteboard.

Virtual classrooms

The Victorian education department is now also trialling virtual classrooms - a computer accessible, online learning environment intended to fulfil many of the learning facilitation roles of a physical classroom.

Instead of going to specific classes in person, teachers and students could communicate at a time they choose by exchanging printed or electronic media such as emails, message boards or blogs, or through technology that allows them to communicate in real time such as telephones, web conferencing or video conferencing.

“The end of September this year will see the arrival of the Ultranet - a 21st-century online learning platform that will connect students, teachers and parents in every Victorian government school,” a department spokesperson says.

“Students will access personalised learning activities and an ongoing record of achievement, from year to year and school to school. Teachers will use the Ultranet to create curriculum plans, collaborate with other teachers, monitor student progress and provide assessment online.

"The Ultranet will allow parents to see up-to-date information about their child, including their timetable, attendance, tasks, teacher feedback and learning progress.”

The Queensland Education Department has a similar concept in the Learning Place - a comprehensive online eLearning environment available to all staff and students with anywhere, anytime access through a dedicated portal.

The Learning Place provides provides materials and resources such as digital images, sound files, video, online courses and lessons as well as hosting events such as online chats, festivals and collaborative projects.

Learn the language

Parents need not fear the new technologies, NSW Parents and Citizen Association president Dianne Giblin says.

“These technologies also offer greater opportunities for families to learn together. I urge parents to learn the technology as well so they can teach their kids the appropriate use of them including mobile phone and social networking sites," she says.

“The new technologies offer a more engaging way to learn and it's important to remember that it doesn't take away from learning. Kids are still going to learn the basics, but textbooks stagnate.”