Lessons learned at Australia's vast Outback classroom

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).

'My bedroom is only a few steps away'

While the school once relied on pedal-powered radios, then high-frequency radio, satellite Internet is now the norm.

The system allows almost instant interaction between the teachers in the studios in Alice Springs and the students at their computers - which can be up to 1,300 kilometres away, although there remains a slight time lag in the connection.

Pupils can see and hear their teachers, and can speak and be heard by their classmates.

It's a huge improvement on radio, which was used in Alice Springs up until 2005, but which allowed real time communication for decades during which telephone connections to remote areas of the Outback were patchy.

When they are not in the interactive mode - which is for two half-hour slots a day - the students are overseen by their home tutor, often a parent, or work independently.

Teachers, of whom there are 17 who work at the school, also have a website where students - even as young as pre-schoolers - can access some of their educational tools, while set work is sent to them in the post.

"We do have a lovely interaction with them over the phone or through the video," Phillips says.

"But the classroom interaction between children, between students is quite difficult. There's a bit of a lag in time."

The children are encouraged to visit the government-run school three or four times a year to spend time with their teachers and do other things they miss out on in the Outback such as team sports and swimming lessons.

And the students, who range in age from four-and-a-half to 15, can visit each other as well, and teachers visit each pupil once a year even if it involves lengthy drives along country roads that see only one or two vehicles a day with no mobile phone coverage for hundreds of kilometres.

Phillips sees no disadvantage for School of the Air kids.

"They are having a beautiful time," she says.

"Sometimes after school they quite often hop on their horses... they have a lot of wonderful activities that they do."

Cameron's mother Jo Smith agrees that her son has not missed out, and acknowledges the comfort of always having a teacher "at the end of the phone".

"He's had a great few years, as have all our kids. With the computer technology and the phones, they are really not disadvantaged at all," she says.

When asked what he likes best about the school Cameron says: "It's predominately the flexibility of the learning... and the fact that my bedroom is only a few steps away as well.

"I think I would get a bit tired if I had to walk to school," he jokes.