Home Science Everywhere Distant Friends – visiting the School of the Air in Australia

Distant Friends – visiting the School of the Air in Australia

by Eva Amsen

Completely unable to spend an entire month away from a work or education environment, I visited a school during my recent trip to Australia. But even though the school year was in full swing, and the teacher was in front of the class, there weren’t any students at the School of the Air.

The school was founded in 1951, to provide education to the children that lived in remote communities in the outback. Families were supplied with radio equipment and mailbags, and their children connected with teachers and classmates who lived up to a thousand kilometers away. Fifty years later, the school started using the Internet, and now the kids log in to special school software and see their teacher on webcam.


School of the Air, and the rental bike

When I arrived at the school’s headquarters in Alice Springs, a teacher was just in the middle of a math lesson. She was at a large desk in what looked like a radio studio. A screen displayed the lesson in progress, with a handful of spritely six-year-olds chirping answers to the teacher’s questions. “How many groups of animals are there?” “Two groups!” “And how many in each group?” “Three!”


Two groups of three

A guide from the visitor centre then showed a video about the school and told us a bit more about the system. 171 students in an area the size of central Europe log on to their classes at their assigned times, but they don’t have more than four hours of online classes per week. The rest of the time they study at home with their tutor – usually a parent, but some families hire a “govvie” (governess), who is often a recent high school grad spending a year doing something else before they head off to university.

For things like science experiments, which are often very interactive, the teacher will usually show the experiment on the screen, and the students will do it at home, with their tutor. A notebook on display showed notes from a girl who built a sun dial, and in the main area of the visitor centre was a grade eight science project: a model of an energy- efficient house.


Science project by a School of the Air student

After grade nine, the kids leave for boarding school to finish their education. Before that time, they have only met their classmates in the flesh a few times a year, at “school weeks”, when they travel hundreds of kilometers to the school.

“How are their social skills?” asked a worried visitor. “Great!” The guide’s face lit up when she described the students. “They have no inhibitions. They spend their days with adults, and are very good at interacting with a range of different people, maybe better than kids who only ever see their classmates.” And when they meet their classmates at the end of the school year, they continue conversations they had been having online only until that moment.

That reminded me of something. “Do they often make friends who live very far away?” I knew the answer before I asked the question, but I just wanted to hear it. “Oh yes, definitely!” And she related some tales of kids talking for hours online after class ends, parents dealing with outrageous phone bills, good friends who never met in person.

It’s still a unique situation for elementary school students, but the concept of having friends you have never met should not be so strange anymore in the digital age. It’s just that many people only hear the horror stories of abducted children and murdered dates.
When Shelley came to visit me from New Zealand a few years ago, her dad was worried that I might be a scary serial killer or something. I’m not, and Shelley is still alive and well.

When I told people that I would be staying in London with a friend I’d only ever talked to online, they weren’t really worried about my life so much as about me being bored. “What if you don’t get along?” And that would be coming from people who I had talked to far less in the past months than I had talked to Richard.

Needless to say, we did get along, and here is a photo to prove it:


This is pretty much like the conversations we have online. (Notice the props: iPod and wine glass)

Victor took the photo, and said “It looks like a superhero fight!”. Yes, it does, and I am clearly winning! There is also a photo in which we look like normal, well-behaved people, but we’re actually getting a toy tortoise drunk just out of frame, which only goes to show that you can’t believe everything you see online. Although I guess that’s the opposite of what I was trying to say…

What it comes down is this: The world is a big, big place. Not just kids in the Australian outback live miles apart, but we all do. Scientists collaborate with people all over the world, and at conferences finally put a face to the author of the manuscripts they’ve read. The web is a wonderful way to keep in touch with people you have met in person before, but also to meet new people. And unlike the “Real World”, where you are forced to deal with people in your vicinity (neighbours, coworkers, fellow commuters) whether you like them or not, you actually have a choice in the virtual world. You can virtually hang out with whomever you want. If you don’t like them, you stop talking. If you do like them, they might one day let you stay in their homes.

And that is how, for the second time this summer, I watched someone teach math:

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14 comments

Cath Ennis August 31, 2009 - 5:23 PM

Great post Eva! It’s hard to explain to a non-blogger (such as my husband, who is mystified by all these “friends” I keep talking about), but you really can get a good sense of what someone’s like from their blog and comments. The three blogger meet-ups I’ve managed so far felt like a bizarre cross between a blind date and a catch-up with an old friend, and I hope there will be many more in my future!
That’s assuming that the next blog buddy I meet isn’t an axe murderer, of course.

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Eva Amsen August 31, 2009 - 6:01 PM

Oh, phew! I knew it was the weekend and all, but I was afraid the sentence “If you don’t like them, you stop talking” was a little foreshadowing with the lack of comments. =P
Anyway, yes. I’ve met tons of bloggy folk offline, and the majority were like I thought they would be, _or_ more fun than advertised. I should also add that I’ve talked off-blog to Richard a lot, and he has had to listen to excessive amounts of whining about stuff that I cautiously never blogged, so I was probably (hopefully) more fun in person than by e-mail/chat.
“More fun than advertised” should probably be my new blog tagline.

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Cath Ennis August 31, 2009 - 7:39 PM

Heh! Nah, it’s just the summer slow-down – NN has been full of tumbleweeds for ages. And it’s also a long weekend in the UK.

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Richard P. Grant September 1, 2009 - 8:30 AM

Fantastic post, Eva. It was fun having you you to stay (and yeah, I’ve read no blogs at all for about 3 days, so don’t be worried.)

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Stephen Curry September 1, 2009 - 10:10 AM

Beautifully constructed, Eva – very much enjoyed that.
So what was the point that Richard was trying to get across? Looks like he’s off on another one of his tangents…

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Eva Amsen September 1, 2009 - 3:30 PM

Stephen: yes, that’s exactly it.

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Heather Etchevers September 1, 2009 - 4:59 PM

That was a fantastic post, Eva. Sorry I did not comment earlier – I’ve been one of those tumbleweeds, what with back-to-school and new jobs and so forth.
Your discussion of the School of the Air mirrored (far more elegantly) a couple of conversations I had with friends in the U.S. about the merits and drawbacks of “homeschooling”:http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Homeschooling. A couple of acquaintances of mine are or have homeschooled their children, pretty successfully, but it’s not quite my cup of tea for a few reasons. However, it’s a great option for highly isolated children with the technological resources, and you’re right – the Internet not only enables children scattered far and wide to come together in a virtual classroom, but their teacher-parents to organize “school” outings to the museum, joint classes in areas more of interest to one or another teacher, and to share all sorts of resources for lesson planning.
Hmm. Seems like we might be able to adopt some of these measures for future Science Online conferences.
I completely agree, of course, with your conclusion that “you can choose your online colleagues but not your real ones” (along the lines of friends/family). Well, that’s not quite true. But conferences help a lot with confirming the choice.

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Sabbi Lall September 2, 2009 - 11:59 PM

It’s been nice meeting NN people in reality (I’ve only met a few though, all New Yorkers, one Bostonian). One odd thing is that nobody looks how you expect. It is an interesting post- I just needed time to sit down properly with it! I missed something- are you following the progress/people at School of the Air still?

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Eva Amsen September 3, 2009 - 1:19 AM

Nope, just when I was there.
By the way, I’ll be in NYC in a few weeks! I’m speaking “here”:http://scholcomm.columbia.edu/blog-ones-own-scholarly-women-web
I should probably announce that on the NYC hub forum thingamajig, maybe…

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Richard P. Grant September 3, 2009 - 6:10 AM

Eva looked exactly how I expected.
Blue and conical.

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Richard Wintle September 3, 2009 - 2:16 PM

That really was a nicely-framed post, Eva, bringing your parallel thoughts about online learning and online friendship full circle to the “second” math lesson.
How was _that_ for a horrible set of deliciously mixed metaphors?
I’ve met a total of six people from “another online forum”:http://www.scienceboard.net in person, and a couple I’ve encounted via “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricardipus, all of which have been good experiences. And Eva, of course, who despite working in the same building as me for a few years, I first encountered here on _Nature Network_.
RPG, on the other hand, I’ve spoken with on the phone. A digital phone to be sure, but with an analogue speaker in the handset.
And like Cath, I have problems describing these online friends… “people I interact with online”, “guy from Flickr”, “colleagues that I haven’t actually met”… none of these descriptions are terribly elegant.

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Sabbi Lall September 3, 2009 - 11:32 PM

_Eva looked exactly how I expected._
Okey dokey, I’ll look out for the blue conical person with an ipod and wine at the New York event, which I will try to be at (sans axe of course). Have they set up a fancy hotel for you? Guess who’s going to be in Toronto in November?!

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Eva Amsen September 3, 2009 - 11:56 PM

They would only give me 1 night in a hotel, but I wanted 2, so I booked my own, and it’s not very fancy (seeing as how I don’t want to pay for even 1 night of fanciness). But they _wanted_ to, and that’s what matters =)
Ooh, Toronto in November..! We (the people of Toronto) should arrange a pub night or something.

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Richard Wintle September 4, 2009 - 4:18 PM

Toronto in November… not exactly Paris in the Spring, but I’ll be here. I’m always here.

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