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Building the world’s largest student laptop scheme

Ten thousand new computers are introduced into NSW schools each week under the Australian state’s Digital Education Revolution plan to offer 1:1 laptop support in schools. Lee Suckling finds out more.

The Digital Education Revolution policy in New South Wales is developing the world’s largest full 1:1 student laptop programme.
Aiming to transform teaching and learning experiences with technology, it’s a free programme that gives hundreds of thousands of students access to laptops without charge. The pioneering initiative also provides professional learning and curriculum support, onsite technical support, and wireless networks.

What NSW has done
The Digital Education Revolution NSW policy is based on the provision that by June 2012 every student in Years 9 to 12 will have a wirelessly-enabled specialist educational laptop, connected within the school via a managed wireless infrastructure.
“Every single student in NSW, no matter how much money they have – or more importantly, how much money they don’t have – gets a laptop,” said Stephen Wilson, chief information officer, NSW Department of Education and Training.
Each student has sole use of their laptop and therefore becomes fully accountable for it. All school-related data must be saved on the NSW Department of Education and Training’s online storage facility, and all personal data, including photos and music, saved on an external storage device.
Total cost of ownership is a key focus for the policy.
“The target over four years per device is A$2,240,” he said.
While this may seem high in comparison to standard laptop purchase costs “it includes all on-site support and software, plus covers all professional development for teachers, and the centrally managed wireless network access points (22,000 across the entire state),” explains Wilson. Each of the 200,000 NSW school students to receive a laptop will formally have ownership of the hardware and software transferred to them upon successful completion of Year 12, their final year of school.

Reasoning the policy
The Digital Education Revolution began an initiative to make ICT central to the processes of teaching in Australian schools. Evan Arthur, group manager of the Australian Government’s Digital Education and Youth Transitions Group, noted the underprovided ability to connect teachers and students with each other (and with all of the people and resources they need) as a key motivation for the policy’s execution.
“ICT has not been central to the process of education in [Australian] schools. It supports administration and private study for individual students, but it is often peripheral to classroom instruction,” he said.
Government-led implementation of the Digital Education Revolution in NSW is the beginning of a process of ensuring all schools have an ICT infrastructure that functions without administration at school level, meaning “teachers and school administrators can move from trying to be bad managers of ICT infrastructure to innovators in the use of ICT,” added Arthur.

Laying the foundations
Before the policy was first put into place, the implementation of a A$100 million plan for fibre connections for schools was a key starting point in the Digital Education Revolution. As part of the roll out of the National Broadband Network, the aim of access to fibre connectivity is to provide all schools with a symmetrical, scalable network connection priced so it can be used to its potential.
“The majority of Australian schools do not have connections that will allow them to do things like run classroom to classroom videoconferences or live demonstrations of how a telescope works,” said Arthur. “Even where schools do have fibre, they pay for their connections in a way which makes it impossible to afford to use the connections to the full.”
Across Australia, 47 per cent of schools currently have access to fibre connections; however, NSW’s implementation as the foundation for its pilot scheme has now given 98.6 per cent of state schools scalable fibre broadband (a total of 2,411 locations).

Rolling out the revolution
In March 2009, Lenovo was chosen as the supplier of the laptops (IdeaPad S10e), and Adobe and Microsoft chosen as suppliers of the software. With IBM selected as the wireless network supplier, professional learning and curriculum support materials were
launched and the successful test drive of the laptop programme took place in three schools.
In June 2009, the full wireless network installation began. August 2009 saw the first roll out of laptops into schools commence and the first digital learning resources developed and published. By November last year, 66,063 students in 537 schools had laptops delivered, with 463 schools in the final stages of phase one of the wireless network installation. Phase two of the wireless network installation began in December 2009, and by July 2010, the NSW schools network will be the largest centrally controlled Wi-Fi network in the world. Currently, 85,000 laptops had been delivered and the roll out of the next 60,000 had commenced, with a further 55,000 to be delivered before mid-2012.

Helping teachers teach
Hundreds of digital learning resources are now available on the NSW Teaching and Learning Exchange (TaLe) website.
“Teachers need tools which make it easy to carry out their core educational role using technology,” said Arthur.
Run by the Centre of Learning Innovation (CLI), TaLe enables teachers to search and retrieve relevant, quality-assured digital resources, quickly and easily. CLI’s resources include ‘Laptop wraps’ – collections of learning resources that are laptop friendly and are mapped to NSW secondary curriculum areas.
“Laptop wraps are pages with supporting information, links and resources to help teachers put together lessons on everything from creating a small website for a classroom to completing chemical equations,” added Wilson.
A full suite of videos on using the laptops is also available, plus ‘Tools4U’ – a series of single page guides to using the Adobe and Microsoft products installed, and ‘UCreate’ podcasts, a series of audio and video guides to help teachers create learning resources using a range of media and tools.

Challenges and solutions
A core challenge with giving students valuable laptops is caring for them, however the NSW’s laptop charter has effectively ensured this issue is minimised.
“The Digital Education Revolution is not just about being digitally literate, it’s about being responsible,” said Wilson.
Students and parents must sign the laptop user charter in order to receive the laptop, which states that the laptop must be brought to school fully charged each day and while accidental loss, damage and technical malfunction is covered, malicious damage may result in forfeiture of the laptop or loss of permission to take it home. In March 2010, just 30 laptops had been reported stolen, with only a small proportion of units wilfully damaged.
Teachers are embracing the programme. “Education has progressed from ‘tell’ to ‘discover, create and share’,” said Wilson. “We’ve started a cultural change; teachers have accepted that they don’t have to know everything. Now we’ve got students teaching the teachers.”
With the online training resources available teachers are learning the basics, with the students becoming the mentors to further utilise the technology and discover its capabilities.
“Students often don’t need to be told how to use computer software,” continued Wilson, noting their ability to teach themselves. “Students are ready to be engaged in their learning, are prepared for higher order thinking and learning beyond the classroom, and are taking education to a level that transforms beyond the 19th/20th century view of ‘chalk and talk’”.
Furthermore, while onsite technical assistance provides aid whenever needed, teachers can get help simply by “ringing the school next door,” said Wilson. “They’ve got the same laptops, the same network, the same software and the same system infrastructure. It makes it so easy for teachers.”
Management is a continual effort at the state administration end.
“Knowing where every computer is, how many computers need repairs and how many access points are down is something that’s continually on us,” noted Wilson, adding that these responsibilities are not held with the individual schools. “It’s all centralised, and we have hundreds of full-time staff constantly monitoring everything. It’s a matter of planning and scheduling; the only way to control a fleet of 200,000 laptops is if it’s done flawlessly.”

Looking to the future
At the end of the rollout in 2012, the Digital Education Revolution will have a “momentum that is unstoppable,” said Wilson. “We’ve got 280,000 PCs in schools this week, and we’ll have 290,000 next week. Within the next four years, the goal is to have half a million.”
Under the Digital Education Revolution wireless access points are also added frequently, currently totalling 22,000 in NSW high schools and growing every day. “We’re neck-and-neck with the US Air Force,” he added. “One week they’re ahead, the next week NSW schools are.”
When asked about the programme’s sustainability, he replied: “At the end of the commitment in two years time, we hope that we’ve paved the way for the future of state schools. It’s Commonwealth supported, and the voters of NSW won’t stop this continuing. Within a short time this should be standard [across the globe], and we’re just doing things a little early.”

Lee Suckling writes for INTERFACE Magazine.

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Categories: Article, Issue 24

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