Australia's image as a sport-obsessed nation will only be reinforced by the Olympic Games being held in Sydney later this month. However, the nation has also come up with many good ideas, and in the sphere of educational information communications and technology (ICT) the state of Victoria is undoubtedly a world leader.
Three years ago the government of the country's second most populous state decided to implement a forward-thinking policy for its 1,600-plus schools (in addition Victoria has nearly 700 Catholic and independent schools). It is a policy that has seen the state's government-funded education sector become the biggest user of ICT in Australia, with twice as much demand as Telstra (the nation's BTequivalent) and six times that of mining giant BHP.
There are more than 150,000 computers in Victoria's schools - about one for every 4.6 pupils, one of the best ratios in the world according to Paul Doherty, general manager of the Victorian Department of Education, Employment and Training's IT division. All are networked with Internet access and the more than half a million pupils are clearly making good use of the facility, as more than 16 million Web page requests are made every day.
The state's ground-breaking decision, however, was to provide all 37,000 teachers in government schools with their own laptop. Doherty says the Aus$100m (pound;41m) programme was the result of research indicating the main obstacle to getting ICT used in schools was lack of teacher access to computers. The average age of Victorian teachers is 45 and, for many, technology has not been a part of their lives.
He explains that the laptop programme was the solution to teachers' understandable reluctance to familiarise themselves with the hardware and software in front of their pupils. "Nothing moves forward in this area unless the teachers come on board," says Doherty.
The rollout began in October 1998 and has been brought forward from five to three years. "It's been a massive outlay, but by Christmas this year 80 per cent of our teachers will have a notebook computer," he adds.
Research on the first 10,000 to get a laptop reveals gains of between 20 and 30 per cent in their computer skills and use of ICT in the classroom. Doherty says it is one of the most successful programmes the department has ever run, quite possibly because there has been more carrot than stick.
To get the computer, teachers are required to complete 40 hours of professional development and pay a nominal $6 a fortnight (pound;2.30 or pound;57 a year). "Having the laptop to play with at home in their own time has been very important too," he says. Teachers realise they are fortunate to be given a computer at such low cost and, according to Doherty, regard it as recognition of their professionalism.
Enhancing the professional status of teachers was one of the five objectives of the Notebook Computers for Teachers and Principals initiative, along with helping them improve their skills to integrate ICT into classroom teaching and administration, rewarding them for undertaking significant professional development and improving productivity.
Apart from a research project about two years ago in which laptops were given to a fortunate 10,000 teachers, and a subsidy scheme that has benefited fewer than 30,000, the British government has hown no signs of following suit. Cost is an obvious barrier - even at pound;500 per head, the bill for the UK's 400,000 teachers would be some pound;200 million. However, Britain risks falling behind if it does not quickly increase the number of teachers with personal access to a computer.
The aggressive programme of improving ICT in Victoria's schools has run in parallel with the laptop scheme. As well as slashing the ratio of pupils to computers, the investment has also cut bureaucracy. Doherty says that all communications with schools by the education department have been electronic since March 1999. Schools were given a year to get to grips with the technology before paper documents stopped being printed and posted. As well as saving money, the move got headteachers to use ICT and set an example to their staff.
A sophisticated administration package called Cases21 is allowing the integration of all systems used in schools, from student attendance and academic records to timetabling and staff data. The laptops and wireless networks will eventually make registration a paperless process.
Every school is linked to VicOne, the state-wide government network. With a vision that includes video on demand, Doherty says broadband is a necessity. The majority have ISDN, but the cost of providing even this service to a country school costs some $11,000 (pound;4,260) a year. Using digital satellite for remote schools and high-speed wireless links in cities will cut costs in the future.
The VicOne network provides access to a range of services, including email and personal Web space for every student (350,000 students and all teachers have an address so far), an online library of departmental documents, and SOFWeb, the most popular educational website in Australia with more than 30,000 documents and 20,000 pages of teacher support materials. Every school also has access to educational television programmes delivered by digital satellite.
Victoria hopes that the combination of professional development for teachers with good ICT infrastructure in schools and useful online content will continue to see student achievement increase, as well as prepare them for a world in which a significant number of jobs will require computer skills.
Doherty says pressure from parents to ensure students are ICT literate is one reason why the state government has paid for only a quarter of the new computers in schools. "Schools have found the other 75 per cent from their own funding - school councils and management have said 'This is a priority, we're going to do it'."
The backing the state's integrated approach for technology in education has received from all quarters - parents, the government and schools - has been crucial to the strategy's success. "There's been a transformation in the delivery of education in Victoria in the last three years," Doherty comments. "You have to have a bit of vision to do that. We've now got a ball rolling that is probably unstoppable."
Britain might be following the same three-pronged approach as Victoria, but the failure to give teachers cheap personal access to a computer, through something like a national leasing scheme, means cricket will not be the only arena in which Australians continue to leave the mother country behind.
See www.tes.co.ukonline for more on the state's plan to use the Web to transform its further education sector.SOFWeb: www.sofweb.vic.edu.auDepartment of Education, Employment and Training Victoria: www.deet.vic.gov.auEducation Network Australia: www.edna.edu.au