-And twelve months later, we are still waiting-:
Insights into teaching and use of ICT in rural and remote Australian schools
In this article Neil Anderson, Carolyn Timms and Lyn Courtney of James Cook University, Australia, address the rural/urban distinction in a complex project, investigated in several aspects. There is evidence for claiming that students in rural areas take up ICT to a lesser degree than in metropolitan areas. They found that Rural/ Remote Takers were more likely to perceive ICT subjects as boring than their metropolitan counterparts. They also found that Rural/Remote Non takers were more likely to report that they did not have access to a home computer. This is a significant set of findings that should alarm policymakers and educational administrators. There are good reasons to believe this will be the case in many other countries.
From the left: Ms Lyn Courtney, Professor Neil Anderson, Professor Colin Lankshear (key researcher in the ARC study) and Ms Carolyn Timms.
James Cook University
This paper presents an analysis of the combined data sets from a large ARC (Australian Research Council) funded study on the declining enrolments of female students in high school information technology subjects, and a SiMERR (Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia) study of 9 rural or remote schools in the state of Queensland. The aim of examining the combined data set was to investigate any apparent differences between girls’ perceptions of studying higher level ICT subjects in rural areas compared to metropolitan areas. The findings of the study highlighted some problems experienced by female students studying outside of metropolitan areas. They perceived the subject offerings to be ‘more boring’ than their city counterparts and reported a lower level of home ownership. The paper offers possible explanations for the findings and strongly recommends that strategies need to be implemented to overcome these problems.
The current focus on rural and remote Queensland
It is noted that the Girls and ICT project was targeted specifically at girls, whereas the SiMERR project was directed towards the needs of schools in rural and regional communities. The current paper has, however, used findings from the Girls and ICT project to tease out some differences between students attending high schools in rural and remote areas and those attending high schools in more metropolitan centres. It is noted that the SiMERR research included regional centres; however, in the present study larger regional centres were treated as metropolitan as they typically are well serviced in regard to technological support and backup. Therefore the current focus is on rural and remote areas of the state of Queensland as defined by Education Queensland’s ‘zone system’.
Queensland is a state characterized by the vast distances between its major towns and by its tropical climate. The bulk of its total population of 3,980,778 estimated population reported by the Queensland Government Office of Economic and Statistical Research, ([OESR], 2005) is concentrated in the southeast corner within several large metropolitan centres. Consequently, substantial areas of the state are far from major urban centres and sparsely populated. A Ministerial Committee of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (2003) report noted that rural and remote Australia has similar educational issues to those encountered in comparable regions in the United Kingdom (UK), New Zealand (NZ), United States of America (USA) and Canada.
Intuitively, it would appear that those students who attend rural and remote schools would have increased incentive to develop skills in communication technology as these are particularly suited to the needs of people experiencing isolation. However, it is evident that providing the means of the technology without provision for support or training of teachers is short-sighted, piecemeal and exacerbates the problem by ignoring the social context (Victoria State Government, 2001). Focus groups were conducted by members of the present research team under the auspices of SiMERR (2006). The SiMERR National Survey was conducted with the aim of identifying key issues affecting educational outcomes in science, ICT and mathematics education in different parts of Australia, with particular focus on regional and rural Australia, including very remote schools. Members of the present team met students, ICT coordinators, teachers and parents/caregivers in Queensland and their findings have informed the current investigation. One recurrent positive theme in the SiMERR research was the confirmation that many rural and remote schools have ICT resources that are equal to or better than city schools. Schools generally reported a good computer to student ratio and highly satisfactory levels of peripheral and associated ICT devices. On the negative side, the most commonly reported challenge in the SiMERR research was the distance from technical assistance and repair agents. Breakdown of critical servers and associated networks was reported as a major issue compounded by the long wait for repairs to be completed and machines returned by post or courier.
These findings are supported by Lennie (2002), who found that, in spite of the enthusiastic support of rural women when they were provided with the opportunity to learn from, and participate in, ICT projects, the cost of installation and maintenance of computers and peripherals constituted a significant barrier to its uptake in western Queensland. Anderson (2005), in a discussion of Internet access within developing countries, referred to “mere access” (p. 33) as only one part of the complicated social configuration of the digital divide. It is one thing to provide access; another thing to provide skills to use technology; and yet another thing again to provide adequate and cost-effective ways to maintain the technology. Therefore, when people within rural and remote communities consider the potential benefits of ICT, they must consider all of these factors which may be exacerbated by severe financial constraints. Lloyd, Harding and Hellwig (2000) found that incomes of people living in rural and remote areas of Queensland are considerably lower than those of people living in metropolitan areas, suggesting a potential for inequality of opportunity. Moreover “the data suggests that the income gap between those living in cities and those living in regional and rural towns is increasing” (p. 7).
In 2001, the Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity (OCED, 2001) pointed to the central role played by schools within the community in providing it with a source of expertise, information and provision for networking. Consequently, schools can contribute to the social cohesion (social and human capital), the viability of the community and the lifelong learning of its citizens. It is this extension of economic realities to implications for schools within the whole community which is important for governments to address through policy and initiatives. A key aspect of these economic realities is the disinclination of qualified teachers to be situated in rural and remote areas where they might well be required to teach outside their main area of expertise (MCEETYA, 2003). Another important factor is that the teaching profession is 68% female, an increase of 9.6% from 1985 to 2005 (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2005) and, based on current teacher training estimates, it would appear that the profession is likely to become even more feminised (MCEETYA).
Teacher interests and trainingUnfortunately, in the high school arena, women teachers tend to specialise in subject areas such as English, Humanities, Business, Arts and Languages other than English (LOTE) leaving areas such as Mathematics, Science, Technical Studies and Computer Studies difficult to staff (MCEETYA, 2003). This leaves school administrations with the difficult decision to staff such subjects with personnel who are lacking expertise and familiarity with the subject and who may well be disengaged from it. In 2001, the Victoria State Government found that there was “almost universal concern among all stakeholders that IT teachers were not adequately trained or resourced” (p. 43). Granger, Morbey, Lotherington, Owston and Widman (2002) suggested that successful ICT implementation within schools requires individual characteristics of teacher comfort (familiarity) and confidence with the subjects. A previous paper from the current ARC project (Timms et al., 2006) observed, in the light of comments from students on their experience of ICT subjects in schools, that “supportive teaching, therefore, requires social as well as computer fluency, and awareness on the part of educators of how important it is to attract diversity to the ICT industry” (p. 8). This problem would be compounded in rural schools which are generally hard to staff and regarded as less desirable locations by some teachers (Preston, 2000), as “those teachers judged by school authorities to be most competent and having the highest professional standards will also most readily find positions in desirable schools” (p. 12).
Other issuesIn order to provide a more relevant picture of this complex problem, Batchelor (2002) suggested that it is simplistic and unrealistic to assume that once access to ICT is provided, it will be readily taken up by people. “There is a need for content that is grounded in the reality of the local context and the best way to generate this content is to get members of the same community to create it” (p. 4). It is only by involvement of the community that the potential of ICT to empower people within that community can possibly be realised. This was supported by Anderson (2005) who suggested that ICT must be provided to communities “in response to community needs and consultation rather than being large projects imposed from afar” (p. 40). Kent and Facer (2004) suggested that an important factor in the development of skills in ICT involved the ability to use computers at home for recreational use and that this then enabled students to generate confidence and familiarity with technology.
AimThe focus of the current paper is on differences drawn between “Takers” and “Non Takers” of advanced ICT subjects in high school who fell into two groups derived from the Education Queensland’s zone system. The system uses four zones (Metropolitan, Provincial City, Rural and Remote) to describe schools within its jurisdiction. These categories have been adapted from the ‘Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) Plus Scores’ which are widely used in Australia to determine economic advantage (MCEETYA, 2001). The aim of this paper is to explore specific issues, in regard to teaching and learning using ICT, faced by students and teachers in schools in rural and remote areas of Queensland.
For purposes of parsimony the EQ zone system was collapsed from four groups into two groups. The first group included participants from metropolitan or provincial cities and the second group integrated the rural and remote groupings; these are described in Table 1.
|Metropolitan or Provincial City||Rural or Remote||Total|
Table 1. Participant distribution by geographical area.
Table 2. Takers’ responses to “The subjects are interesting” by geographical distribution.
Table 3. Non Takers’ responses to “I don’t have a computer at home, or have limited access to a home computer” by geographical distribution.
Qualitative Results and Discussion
The focus group research highlighted a perception within rural communities that specialist teachers capable of taking higher level ICT subjects were not as readily available in regional and remote areas and that this meant that higher level ICT subjects were not offered. One parent from a small sugar cane farming community explained:
Parents also expressed the view that teachers did not have access to adequate professional development “You know the teachers aren’t getting the training and like many teachers at the school, you know, like they’re not getting the updated training”.
This is indeed an accurate reflection of reality in light of findings from a national report (MCEETYA, 2003) that, like comparable areas in other countries, rural schools are hard to staff and that, out of necessity, many rural teachers teach outside their own particular subject areas. Adya and Kaiser (2005) highlighted the importance of technological training for both veteran teachers and those at the undergraduate level,
Over 93 percent of teachers report that their main source of technological training is independent learning or support from colleagues. K-12 systems need to provide an environment where teachers can become comfortable with their technology preparedness and convey enthusiasm about it to students (p. 252).
The issue of training and providing teachers with necessary confidence with, and access to, technology is, however, only one part of a much bigger picture. Moreover, it would appear from the focus groups that rural and remote schools actually fare quite well in acquiring the technology by which students and teachers can develop technological fluency. One recurrent positive theme in the focus groups was the confirmation that many rural and remote schools have ICT resources that are equal to or better than their city peers. Schools generally reported a good computer to student ratio and highly satisfactory levels of peripheral and associated ICT devices in quantities which surpassed previous teacher experience in metropolitan schools.
On the negative side, the focus group research found that the most commonly reported challenge was the distance from technical assistance and maintenance. Breakdown of critical servers and associated networks was reported as a major issue compounded by the long wait for repairs to be completed and machines returned. One example cited spanned a 12 month period:
We weren’t getting the support that we needed to get it [the network] up and running. When it worked…it was great but then we’ve got other issues where different computers within the school would break down and you could get the part replaced easily enough but we can’t get the person to reconfigure it so it created a problem.
Another commonly cited problem was the slowness of Internet connections resulting in frustration and wastage of time. One parent expressed the problems caused by many students logging on to share a fairly slim, older style ISDN broadband connection: “But once you get onto the Internet, it is really slow because of the server, and while everyone is on you have got to wait to log on because a lot of kids are on it.”
When the spotlight was turned to a comparison between Metropolitan/Provincial City and Rural/Remote Non Takers on survey statements, the only statement in which a significant difference was found was “I don’t have a computer at home or have limited access to a home computer”, with the Rural/Remote respondents agreeing with the statement more than their city counterparts. Hence schools may well provide students’ only access to computers in rural areas. Kent and Facer (2004) noted that those students who had developed computer fluency at home were “more likely to experience particular computer activities at school and to use school computers more frequently” (p. 447). Therefore, a link is suggested between home and school use of computers and confidence in using technology. Lennie (2002) found that the cost of technology was a concern in rural areas. Lloyd and colleagues (2000) reported that rural households in Australia were more likely to suffer financial hardship and the focus group research indicated that rural schools were more likely to experience technological unreliability and difficulty in repairing broken-down machinery and connections. Another factor involves lack of access to fast, affordable internet connections in rural and remote households in Australia. Ono and Zavondy (2007) studied computer use and access in five countries including the United States, Sweden, South Korea and Singapore and found internet access to be less available and more expensive away from the major centres. It is therefore hardly surprising that some rural households choose not to provide computers for their children’s use.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2005). Schools, Australia, 2005. ABS Cat. No. 4442.0. Canberra, ACT, Australia.
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