More than 100 schools across New Zealand are now connected to ultra-fast fibre broadband networks in what is being touted as a major boost for the spread of e-learning.
In fact, it is more than half the number Education Minister Anne Tolley would like in a separate high-speed internet trial by the end of next year. The government wants 97 per cent of New Zealand schools and 99.7 per cent of New Zealand students to have access to broadband speeds of 100Mbps or greater within the next six years.
The New Zealand Regional Fibre Group (NZRFG), whose members have been responsible for the milestone, see this as a challenge it believes it can help meet.
The group, a collective of regional lines and fibre companies from around the country, now wants to fast-track connections to dozens more schools over the next 12 months. A number of other NZRFG members have put fibre connections into and past schools, in areas like Whangarei, Christchurch, Pukekohe, Hamilton and Nelson.
Fibre connected schools can take part in high definition and real time video-conferencing which allows students to take subjects not offered at their own schools, putting a new twist on e-learning. Fibre connections also drive efficiencies, boost productivity and can lower operating costs.
Network Tasman CEO and NZRFG member Wayne Mackey says the first Nelson school was connected to fibre in 2005, thanks to a forward thinking initiative by the company. “We have 28 schools now connected to the fibre loop and we hope to have up to 30 more connected within 18 months. We initially sponsored seven core schools and from there more have joined forces to lay their own fibre, so they actually own the network,” he says.
Network Tasman has one of the highest strike rates in the country for school fibre connections and Mackey says the more that schools utilise the benefits of fibre networks, the greater the educational benefits will be.
Fellow NZRFG founding member, Vector, has more than 60 schools, libraries and community buildings on Auckland’s North Shore connected to its Auckland fibre network – Kristin School, Rangitoto College and Wairau Valley Special School among them.
The company has a further 227 schools in its sights over the next three years and has highlighted Kristin is a great example of a school making maximum use of the network through internet, security, phone and video conferencing capabilities.
Kristin School director of ICT services and chairperson of the North Shore Education Access Loop (NEAL), Jason MacDonald, says the network provides global connectivity and has allowed Kristin students to work on projects with schools from abroad. The network speed allows instant uploading and downloading of large files. “Students can post comments on blogs and we are also able to upload video files quickly and easily. From a staff development perspective it means teachers can take part in conferences without leaving the school because of high definition, remote video conferencing. That is a big cost and time saver for schools,” he says. Students are also able to complete distance learning by being part of a virtual projects at other schools.
MacDonald says fibre connectivity is also opening up the use of interactive whiteboards and multi-touch screens. “Fibre is the technology foundation that brings alive the potential of learning devices like interactive whiteboards because you can share the whiteboards with other schools on the NEAL network. But it is really up to the school leaders within schools to decide how they can best utilise the technology,” says MacDonald.
Meanwhile, a collective of Hamilton firms is progressing fibre deployment to a number of educational facilities.
Velocity Networks has partnered with Hamilton Fibre Network in a project led by Hamilton City Council and Wintec, and with support from Environment Waikato and the University of Waikato, to provide fibre across the city. The move has prompted the formation of the Hedon Trust (Hamilton Education Open Network), under which a group of local educators plan to ensure the fibre loop becomes a collaborative learning asset.
Hedon member and Southwell School headmaster, Royce Helm, says the Trust will encourage the sharing of resources and teachers across the network. “As fibre spreads through Hamilton and reaches all 55 schools, it will mean new opportunities for collaborative learning leading to improved educational outcomes and cost savings achieved through shared use of network servers between schools,” he says. Velocity business development manager Shane Hobson says he is looking forward to connecting more schools to the Hamilton fibre network.
“We have a mix of public, private and integrated schools on the network who are currently enjoying faster internet access and are beginning to explore new ways of using this to enhance their schools. It is good to see.”