Opinion: Bridging the education equality gap in Australia

by Elaine Shuck02 Sep 2015
Elaine Shuck, director of education at Polycom, explains why – from shrinking budgets to fewer resources – the Australian education sector faces a multitude of challenges that are placing increasing pressures on already strained teachers. 

As the need to prepare students for today’s digital world and global economy becomes all the more critical, it will also be more vital than ever for institutions to promptly tackle the ensuing challenges to bridge the education divide.
While there are similarities between the challenges faced locally and globally, a country as vast as Australia does present its own set of unique challenges. For one, the geographic spread of the population and the subsequent access to resources has inadvertently created a two-tiered education system. Remote and regional students – while only making up a third of Australia’s population – have become the most underserved learner population in the country today. Yet, resources continue to remain limited, and attracting and retaining quality teachers continues to be a struggle. Despite technology such as the high-speed Internet making inroads to bridge the digital divide, there is still a significant way to go in ensuring education equality for all Australians.
Technology in the Classroom
Technology continues to transform the way we live. However, while tools like the Internet and mobile devices have become an integral part of the 21st century, adoption within regional classrooms has lagged behind.
This is alarming given the critical role education plays in creating a competitive advantage for Australia on a global scale. Further, as educators are increasingly tasked with preparing students to be ‘global citizens’, they must be able to widen their reach and open up new education channels for students to explore and embrace from an early age. This is often difficult when the next school is hundreds of kilometers away.
Technology such as high-definition video and content sharing, video-on-demand (lecture capture) and mobile devices with visual collaboration capabilities, however, is making it easier for schools to extend their reach beyond borders. In turn, this has also improved students’ access to knowledge and expertise, as well as created new educational offerings.
Virtual excursions in particular, are becoming commonplace in schools across Australia and around the world today. This is where schools essentially leverage collaboration tools like video conferencing solutions to virtually travel and interact with peers and subject-matter experts locally and globally. In doing so, students are offered the highly engaging and interactive experience that comes with a traditional excursion, without the associated travel costs – a factor that is especially important for regional and remote schools.
So what is holding educators back?
Educating the Educators
A key barrier when it comes to the adoption of technology in classrooms has often been the lack of funding and resources. Nevertheless, as technology advances and more services move to the cloud, solutions are also being introduced at a lower cost point, making it more readily available for all.
With the cost barrier removed, the real issue now lies in the need to educate the educators. While teachers are subject to a number of mandatory technology training sessions each year, rapid technological advancements has rendered the current level of training insufficient. Evidently, there is a growing need to educate educators on ways they can effectively harness various technologies in the classroom to enrich learning and create borderless education. This is even more critical for teachers in regional and remote areas, who are often detached from the wider society and left to work with very limited resources.
Take for example a school located in Alice Springs, which is hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean. Teachers often solely rely on textbooks or online videos to educate students on marine life and endangered species. However, what if the school could connect over video with experts based in the Great Barrier Reef? Students could then enjoy live, interactive sessions with scuba divers to learn, see demonstrations and pose questions to experts in real time. Not only does this create a deeper learning experience, it also makes education more engaging and stimulating for students.
Nonetheless, in order to perform an activity like this, teachers need to firstly be aware of such programs and have a basic understanding of how to set up a video collaboration session. This can only be done with adequate training and professional development programmes for educators. Nevertheless, the good news is – as a result of rapid technological advancements, collaboration has today evolved from traditionally “clunky” video systems to intuitive, easy-to-use, plug-and-play solutions.
Education Key to Prosperity
Ultimately, the key to successfully bridging the education equality gap is to provide educators with the right resources and training. This is particularly true for regional and remote teachers, who have the most to benefit from leveraging technology in the classroom.
Today more than ever, education is the key to future prosperity for both individuals and Australia as a country. Considering this, a focus on professional development is in urgent need.
Polycom is a multinational corporation that develops video, voice and content collaboration and communication technology.