Teaching in remote areas

Chris and Victoria visited the Australian Schools for Isolated and Distance Education, to find out about how children receive remote lessons
21 August 2013

Interview with 

SIDE, Schools for Isolated and Distance Education


Although not really a problem in the UK, in Australia many children live in extremely remote areas, making it difficult for them to attend school. To make sure they get an education, SIDE, Schools for Isolated and Distance Education, provide lessons over the airwaves and the internet.

Victoria Gill and Chris Smith were asked to deliver a science lesson to a thousand children over thousands of square miles.

Angela - I'm Angela Signorile and I work at the Schools of Isolated and Distance Education in Perth and we're a fully distance ed school.  I'm one of the online teaching learning coordinators here.

Victoria - And for people that don't live in a country as vast as Australia, can you explain just briefly what distance learning actually is and what you do here?

Angela - Yeah, absolutely.  So, we are an online school and so, we teach to students who live in western Australia which is the biggest state in Australia.  So, they can be in all sorts of situations.  They can be in the country out in the bush as you might imagine on stations or they can be on small regional towns where they don't have access to the subject matter that they want to do.  They can be metropolitan schools because they can't do a particular subject or they might be at SIDE for a whole lot of socio, emotional, medical reasons as well.  So basically, any kid that can't access a regular face-to-face, bricks and mortar school can qualify to come to SIDE from kindergarten through to year 12.

Victoria - And that's what Chris and I are here to help you out with today.  So, whereabouts are we going and what are we going to do?

Angela - We're going everywhere.  We're going definitely all over WA, possibly, overseas. It just depends who's registered. We've invited all the children who come to SIDE and we've invited all the primary schools and the lower secondary schools, so we've got quite a lot of people enrolled in our event. It's an online event, so we do - it's a bit like Skype on speed I suppose. It can do a lot more things than Skype can, but it's similar.  A lot of people know Skype and yeah, we don't know where we'll go, but we'll see when we go into the event. We've got a map of Australia where the children will plot where they are at the moment.

Victoria - That's exciting!  Let's go and have a look at where we are.  Let's go.

Angela - Fantastic! We're just going into this main building and we'll get to meet all the other folk in here.

Victoria -   Hello.

Angela -   Everybody, this is Victoria Gill and Chris Smith.

Victoria - Hi.

Chris - Hi.

Angela - This is Ross Manson.  He's Head of Online Teaching and Learning.

Ross - Hello.

Angela - Jonathan Bromage, one of our Deputy Principals.  We've got lots of Deputy here.

Robyn - I'm Roby Verboon, Deputy Principal of the Schools of Isolated and Distance Education in Western Australia.

Chris - So, how many people are on the roll here?  Who are we going to be speaking to?

Robyn - On the enrolment basis, we have 2,500 students and possibly more from the ages of kindergarten - 4-year old, 5-year olds - right through to year 12 which are 17 and 18-year olds.  And some small categories of adults - young mums...

Chris - What are the school rules?

Robyn - We have an attendance policy. The same as any traditional face-to-face school, but we don't physically have students on site.

Chris - How do you actually know that they're doing their classes?

Robyn - What we do every week is we actually have live lessons. So, we use teleconferencing. We call it Skype with a whiteboard and so, we can see each other's screen. We schedule lessons with the students, they're required to attend the scheduled lesson once a week.  If they don't attend then we'll report them as absent.

Chris - So, the learning experience, the sort of engagement experience must have been totally revolutionised by the web and presumably, all these people in remote places are using satellite connections, aren't they, to get to you.

Robyn - They are and some of them are based on home, in their own family home, some of those actually in schools. So therefore, we may have a situation where there's a student want to do a specialist type of course or subject and a small country school may not have the staffing requirements to deliver. So there, we might have just one enrolment from that school, wanting to access especially physics or chemistry, teach any of those sort of things we run the normal, the same curriculum as a standard high school or primary school.

Chris - That's neat, isn't it? So, you can actually deliver quite specialist stuff to remote areas that wouldn't be able otherwise to field that particular aspect of learning.

Robyn - That's correct.

Chris - What about doing the exams though because if someone lives in the middle of nowhere and you're sending them all their information through the internet, you can't really fairly send an exam that way though can you? Or can you?

Robyn - No.  Exams have to be paper-based still.  We have situations where each student who's enrolled has to nominate a supervisor even if they're overseas and that supervisor has some criteria attached to it. So, it can't be mum or dad sitting down and supervising and helping with the exam.

Chris - What are the results like? How do people find this pattern of learning?

Robyn - This style of learning require students to be quite committed and dedicated and yet, when we get our results based on our year 12 results at the end of the year, we're comparable with schools across western Australia who are sitting exactly the same exam.  In some of our subjects, we've actually been above state average.

Chris - What about peer support though? When children go to school, part of school isn't just what you learn in the classroom. It's what you learn about the people in the classroom with you and how to get on and relate to them.  If you are in the middle of nowhere, you're not missing out a bit on that?

Robyn - A lot of our students form connections through their interaction online.  So, for example at the moment, one of the year 12 history teachers has put up a forum where they actually go in and help each other. So, you don't have that sitting next to each other in a chair, but quite often, they then email each other from their own personal accounts and have a discussion or meet up.

Noel - I'm Noel Chamberlain.  I'm the Principal at the Schools of Isolated and Distance Education.

Chris - Okay, now where are we going?

Noel - You are going to our torture chamber.  It's called a multimedia studio.  [laughter]

Chris - Lead the way.  This is almost like a radio studio.  So, there we are on the screen.  The Naked Scientists, lots of exciting coloured solutions.

[background noise of teachers]

Victoria - They've taken my picture off Twitter.

Angela - Alright, so the way it works is, as I said, it's a bit like a Skype where we're sharing in this case, we're sharing voice, we're sharing vision, and I've taken the liberty of putting together some slides based on some questions that some of the children sent.

Chris - Brilliant!

Angela - And then I guess you guys are used to the adlib and whatever happens.  So, children can say questions through text chat which is what I'll be monitoring.  As Jonathan said, they could be sitting in front of an interactive whiteboard. A whole school could be sitting watching, so there could be 300 kids watching and try and gain some figures, just to get an idea of how many kids are there. These ones, it's pretty obvious that there's 20 sitting at a computer all over WA.

Chris - So, can they speak to us?

Angela - Yes, they can speak.  No, they can speak.

Chris - Or they can just type that so we could get anything coming in.

Angela - In this smaller group, we'll get them to speak because we know that these are all SIDE kids.  I know that their audio works.  Okay, so let's go.  Now, I'd like to welcome along our special visitors all the way from the UK, from England.  We have Dr. Chris Smith and you should be seeing him there.  There he is.  Now, I'll give the video camera to another one of our guests and her name is Victoria Gill, and both Dr. Chris Smith and Victoria Gill, they work on this BBC programme.  It is all things to do with science and that's what we're all about today because it's Science Week.  We've got lots of questions coming through.  Paul Tyler has got a question and Paul wanted to know what's the difference between a bacteria and a virus.

Chris - Hello to Paul and perhaps the crowd with you. The difference between a bacterium which is one single of a group of bacteria, one bacterium.

Angela - We've got so many questions coming in, so we're just going to keep ploughing through them.  Here's one from Grace at Midlands Primary School and her question is, a pretty big one, "How much hotter can it get in the centre of the Earth?"

Chris - Okay, well the core of the Earth is about 6,000 degrees Centigrade and that's about as hot as it's going to get. Why is it hot? Well, there are several reasons why it's hot down there. One of them is what we call...

Angela - Okay, so pretty hot then, to say the least. Okay, great question there Grace from Midlands. There's a question here from Donna and Donna wants to know, why does salt melt ice? That's a great question.

Victoria - I don't know about you Chris, but I'm exhausted.  How do you reckon that went?

Chris - I'm really amazed.  It was good fun, wasn't it?

Victoria - It was good fun. Those were amazing questions.

Chris - Really good actually and from the middle of nowhere.  But they're asking really insightful things, weren't they?

Victoria - Yeah, it's amazing to think that some of that was going out in classrooms all around western Australia.

Chris - But also abroad as well because there were people overseas.  I don't know why we don't do this more in Britain really because I think that would be really popular wouldn't it or in other countries. Not just people who are remote.

Victoria -   Yeah, it's a great idea.  That was a lot of fun.  I'm exhausted.

Chris -   We really were exhausted after that, but it was amazing fun.


Add a comment