There’s a great deal of talk around the country now that the government has finally announced the providers for the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) in New Zealand. In the wake of this announcement there have been all sorts of speculation about what this will mean, from those who believe it is a waste of tax payers money at one end, to those who make bolder claims about revolutionising education and enhancing learning outcomes at the other.
Now while I believe strongly that we could do with a revolution in our education system, and that in 20 years I hope we can look back and see that the roll out of UFB played a significant role in that, I am unconvinced that laying a bit of fibre in the ground will achieve that on its own.
We need to get things in perspective. A week ago I was in Sydney for the official launch of the first mainland connection to the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) at which Prime Minister, Julia Gillard announced, “This is a transformative infrastructure for our nation’s future!” – a sentiment similar to those expressed by our own Steven Joyce at a conference I attended late last year.
When people ask me what will UFB deliver, I have a pragmatic response. I say that it will provide us with connectivity that provides for greater:
Now, if we have those things, we can really begin to ‘cook with gas’ on the many things we’re currently trying to do on the (very limited) commodity internet connections that we have in our schools. Things like video conferencing, accessing multi-media resources, having multiple classes at a time accessing sites like Google Earth, utlising off-site storage and backup etc.
It’s important to understand that the UFB itself is simply a part of the picture – an important and expensive part at that – but it only lays a foundation upon which a range of other things are required. I’ve put together the diagram at the top of this post in an effort to show this relationship very simply (click on it for a larger image). I’m hopeful that it might be useful to others as we engage in the process of explaining what sort of benefit we hope to achieve from getting ourselves connected to fibre – and there are a great many advantages in my view!
However, as to making a direct, causal link between being connected to fibre and improved outcomes for learners, particularly those currently under-served in our system, I simply can’t buy it. Sure – the fibre will assist, but it will only assist where we have educators who are taking risks, exploring new pedagogical approaches, letting go of their traditional roles and engaging meaningfully with the sorts of imperatives outlined in the NZ Curriculum Framework.