Nice view from the classroom… but does it have broadband?

(Last Updated On: March 6, 2014)

First-time Principal Ally Gibbs moved to Great Barrier Island for all the usual reasons – peace and quiet, the way of life, unspoilt scenery … and the view. But what about the technology, asks Greg Adams.

“We don’t have cellphone coverage at school and we have to generate our own power,” said Ally Gibbs. “It’s certainly challenging but there are challenges with every job.”

Ally took up the reins at Mulberry School on Great Barrier last term. She loves the setting and the lifestyle, but admits she’s had to get up to speed quickly with providing ICT for an island school – including a crash course on Diesel Generator Mechanics 101.

“I’ve learned how to bleed the generator, put diesel in, and generally keep things running smoothly.”

In actual fact, the generator is the back-up supply. The school’s solar panels provide just enough power most days. However, if you thought this all meant staff and students miss out on the tech stuff, you’d be wrong. The school has a 54MBPS broadband wire link and a wireless network covering the classrooms. The 29 students (Years 1-8) share 11 laptops – some leased, some owned – and five digital cameras. There’s a data projector in the junior room, Polycom videoconferencing equipment, and large-screen TVs in both classrooms.

The most reliable connection

“We don’t do too badly,” admitted Ally. “We used to have a satellite link but we changed when a wire became available – our provider is SmartNet. Of the three schools on the island we probably now have the most reliable connection. ”

The school’s also part of an ICTPD cluster, along with the other two island schools, the local PlayCentre, and the Correspondence School (although that does not currently have a student on the island).

“We’ve had teacher-only days and we have just started up a blog ( that covers all three schools.

Of course, there are still obstacles.

“There’s always the power issue. We did have the batteries drain during the holidays during a flood that kept a pump working. Except for the fridge, freezer and server, nothing is left on overnight. Not on standby, not even plugged into the wall.”

But this is not the biggest headache.

“I think the hardest thing I’ve come up against is not having immediate access to tech help.  Another is effective PD.”

Technology to the rescue

The trouble with being on an island is, well, it’s an island. Auckland’s five hours away on a ferry or $200 by plane – a fact that also limits school excursions. And that’s where Ally hopes technology can come to the rescue.

“We can go to the beach easily enough but a trip off the island is a major. Things that many people take for granted, like being able to pop to a museum or art gallery, just aren’t possible. So we need to improvise. It’s really important to be able to go on virtual fieldtrips, for example.”

Ally’s keen to establish links to schools on the Chatham Islands and Stewart Island, and share stories and experiences.

“People here often think they’re hard done by,” she said. “We have only one Year 7 student. Life can get a bit boring and team sports can be tricky. So it would be great to compare notes on how others cope with being on an island,” she said.

Develop an online community

“We’re very much a community school – we provide a lot of photocopying and faxing services, and parents can hire out laptops. What I would like to do is build and develop an online community. About 60 per cent of parents have internet access, so this should be possible.”

With her ICT experience and knowhow – previously she was ICT Manager at Churchill Park School in Auckland – Ally’s keen to make the most of what information technology can offer.

“The Board is very committed to ICT and see it as something very important to our children.

“From what I’ve seen, they’re competent at creating things for themselves, but I’d like to move more towards sharing and conversing with others. We’ve already started the blog; Skype is another obvious way to link up.  I’d love to have a TV station … but that may take a while!”

If a TV station is a bit beyond the budget, there are a few less expensive items on her wish list.

“I’d like a data projector for the senior classroom. Something like a Flip Camera would be good, to easily capture video. We do have an old video camera but it’s a hassle to use. We often see whales in the bay, there were marlin the other day – it would be great to upload footage to our blog and show others what it’s like on Great Barrier.

“I’m currently investigating if all the software works, so I’ll have to wait on see on that front. However, I am interested in getting some portable microphones, ones with s USB plug-in, to record students’ voices.

“It’s all go – I’m loving it.”


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Categories: Article, Issue 30

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