School of the Air and Remote Learning

Australia has a large number of remote communities which makes it impossible for children living in this area to go to a school – there simply isn’t one.

In 1946, Adelaide Miethke was vice-president of the South Australian wing of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and a former inspector of girl’s schools. Adelaide noticed that the outback children were taught to use the Royal Flying Doctor Service radio service and decided that there were other ways to use this facility.

Until 1950 these children were either sent to boarding school, to live in remote communities or have these lessons mailed.  Apart from the isolation of living away from their parents they had no interaction with their teacher or other students.  Mail was not the most efficient and the delays in receiving it meant that the students would fall behind.

In 1948 the RFDS base in Alice Springs was used to broadcast the first school lessons to outback children.  A few years later the School of the Air (SOA) was officially established.  In 1956 the SOA programmed spread to New South Wales and later followed to other states and territories.  Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (the Australian Bush television series) brought the School of the Air to International fame.

In 2005, there was more than sixteen School of the Air and Remote Learning located around Australia, a network covering more than 1.5 million square kilometers. In fact, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory are the only states who do not have an SOA. As well as teaching children who live in geographically isolated areas, these schools also teach children who are traveling 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.

Luckily, today’s School of the Air and Remote Learning 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 organize 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.

Mt Isa (SOA Queensland) was established in 1964. Today, the school is located on the campus of Kalkadoon State High School and has students from Preschool to Year 10. Every student is provided with a mail delivered a printed program with accompanying resources. This material is then supplemented by on-air lessons. Each preschool student receives one half-hour lesson per week. Year’s 1–7 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 mini school and give SOA students the opportunity to participate in excursions and camps with other students – both SOA and regular. Students in Years 4–10 also have the opportunity to attend a school camp with their classmates each year.

Just like HF radios replaced pedal radios, new technology is constantly being incorporated into the schools of the air. The Optus Interactive Distance e-Learning has 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.

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