Lessons learned at Australia's vast Outback classroom

Lessons learned at Australia's vast Outback classroom
Long distance student Cameron Smith (C), from Tieyon Station some 370 kilometres out of Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory state, speaks with a teacher at the Alice Springs school of the Air (ASSOA) by video link.

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia - Like any Australian child, Cameron Smith attends school every weekday, but with his teacher and fellow pupils spread hundreds of kilometres across the vast Outback his "classroom" is considered the largest on earth.

Children from Australia's remote central desert regions have for decades been tutored by the ground-breaking Alice Springs School of the Air, which once provided instruction over radio and is considered a pioneer of distance education.

For students such as 12-year-old Cameron, it provides an interaction with other children and teachers that would otherwise be sorely lacking in the country's sparsely populated interior.

"There's one other boy in my class, he's 500 kilometres (300 miles) away," Cameron said via a live video feed from the cattle station where he lives, speaking to his teacher 370 kilometres away in Alice Springs, itself a remote town close to the geographic centre of vast Australia.

The Alice Springs School of the Air prides itself on having the biggest "classroom" on earth, with students scattered over some 1.3 million square kilometres (260,000 square miles) - an area about twice the size of France.

The first of its kind anywhere in the world when it opened in 1951, the school now has about 145 students who communicate with their teachers and peers using satellite-backed connections.

"Some of the (cattle) stations, there's only one child on them, so that's difficult for them I think too with the lack of interaction with other kids," said assistant principal Mel Phillips as she stood in front of a map flagging all her students in the Northern Territory, home to the monolithic red rock Uluru.

But in many respects, the school is like any other - students attend Monday to Friday, mostly from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, there is roll call and homework, and they must complete worksheets during the day.

The difference is in the delivery, with each child's home hooked up via satellite and provided with a computer, printer and microphone so they can communicate on the government-run network.

The hardware is supplied by the school whether or not their parents pay the modest annual voluntary contribution of 410-500 Australian dollars (S$495-$610).

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