Page last updated at 00:14 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Australia's 50-year-old virtual classroom

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

School of air principal Tim Moes
Tim Moes says teachers are in regular contact with students

The Australian school that boasts one of the world's biggest classrooms is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The School of the Air, based in the mining town of Mount Isa in Queensland, was set up to provide distance learning to children in remote areas.

It is the second oldest school of its type in Australia and teaches pupils spread across a vast swath of rugged country from Burketown near the Gulf of Carpentaria to the tiny settlement of Birdsville that lies on the edge of the Simpson Desert.

"Australia is one of the few countries that has distance education, but we are the only country that has regular contact with all of our students on a daily basis right down to pre-school. It is unique to Australia," principal Tim Moes told the BBC.

"Children are hooked up through a teleconference facility and we also have a virtual classroom, so if we need to illustrate something or show them how to do long division we have got a screen that can do that," he added.

Family focus

The bedrock of the system is the patience and dedication of parents, who coach and coax their offspring through the challenges of this most remote form of studying.

Bridget O'Sullivan
"Bid" was awarded an MBE for her work with the school

With the support of the School of the Air, which employs 20 teachers, Naomi Douglas has helped tutor her four children from a cattle property nestled in the rusty Selwyn Ranges in western Queensland.

"We chose School of the Air because we would be spending the time with the children instead of driving for hours.

"We would contribute to their education and it has just proved to be so fantastic. It is great," Mrs Douglas told the BBC News website.

"It can be hard that you are the loving mum and then you've got to get your child to do things they sometimes don't want to do, so that can be stressful. The school helps with dealing with situations like that."

"I've loved it every minute of it. I've had four great kids who have sat down and done their work. Once school is finished we go back to being mum and children," she said.

"We haven't had a problem. It's been lovely. We've been privileged to be able to do school this way."

Despite the home-grown regimentation and discipline, Mrs Douglas's daughter, Sharona, 17, is equally enthusiastic.

"I've absolutely loved it. I wouldn't want to do school any other way," she said.

'Well above average'

The institution's first teacher was Bridget "Bid" O'Sullivan, who delivered her inaugural lesson to a dozen boys and girls using a two-way radio from the town of Cloncurry at a time when Robert Menzies was Australian Prime Minister.


Ms O'Sullivan retired a few years later and was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her sterling work in education.

Her legacy is a quintessential Australian method of teaching that helps some of the continent's most isolated families prosper in the harsh outback.

"Our kids actually did really well in comparison with other schools and in nearly every measure we are well above average and that is because we've got a quality curriculum," Mr Moes said.

"It's mum and her kids learning together and it's one-on-one instruction in the main, so our kids don't get lost in amongst 25 or 30 other children. Our kids get a terrific education because they can't escape it."

For many pupils, the highlight of the year is the annual sports day in Mount Isa.

The event gives them the rare chance to meet face-to-face their teachers and classmates, who are dispersed across the school's 800,000 sq km (309,000 sq mile) catchment area.

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