Schools of the Air (SOTAs) are a correspondence system of education funded by the Australian government and are schools. There are somewhere around 25 ‘distance’ schools in Australia, in all states except the ACT and Tasmania. Most are primary school only, but most states also have an ‘open education’ High School.. Once a rural SOTA student has finished primary school, they can enrol in that, or attend a private boarding school in the city.
School of the Air was started around 1950 by a lady called Adelaide Miethke. She was the president of the South Australian branch of the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service from 1941. She had the idea to use the pedal-radio network of the RFDS to broadcast lessons to the children on the stations. The trial lessons were broadcast from Port Augusta in 1950, with the first official lessons being broadcast from Alice Springs in 1951. Twelve stations were involved in the first lesson, but interest quickly grew.
Many information sources, particularly online ones, will tell you that modern SOTA classes and lessons are broadcast with High-Frequency radios, but the truth is that that just isn’t so anymore! Yes, that is how it they were broadcast from around 1970 until 2000, but most SOTAs use a wide range of internet softwares now.
The most common internet software for lessons is a programme called Centra. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like an interactive whiteboard (a SmartBoard), but it has a ‘text chat’ function, and students can also write on the board, put up their ‘hand’, see and hear their teacher, and all sorts of things. The sound lags, however, so most teachers will chose to use teleconferencing in conjunction with Centra. Other lessons can be broadcast with just teleconferencing, usually in conjunction with a programme called Moodle (on which work can be posted so that students can access it) or with textbooks. Some SOTAs use Skype or other real-time systems like that. The Open Access College in South Australia (of which Port Augusta School of the Air is a part) tends to use Centra almost exclusively for primary school students, teleconferencing and Moodle for the senior school, and a combination of the two for middle school. Some SOTAs use Skype or other real-time systems like that.
Outside of ‘contact lessons’ or ‘air time’ like that, students also have to do ‘non-contact’ or ‘non-air’ work (known to everyone else as ‘homework’!). They do the same amount of work as their counterparts at face-to-face school. It’s done on a computer more often than work at a face-to-face school, and e-mailed to the teacher, but some subjects and schools use paper materials which must be posted in (it’s much slower that way). Most students have a separate ‘classroom’, and they often have to submit a timetable to their teacher detailing when they have lessons and when they’ll do homework.
The system is surprisingly effective, and allows students to work at their own pace more tha they can in school, which means that quite often, they only spend half a day doing schoolwork! Students are at the same level as their face-to-face schooled counterpats, and are required to sit the NAP-LAN test in years 3, 5, 7, and 9.
Most SOTAs also run ‘Come-In Days’ or ‘Residential Schools’, which gives students an opportunity to meet up and make friends. There are also itinerant teachers and home visits for isolated children, too, so most students get the chance to meet their teachers face-to-face.
Although originally all SOTA students were isolated children living in the Outback, today, all sorts of children learn through SOTA and other correspondence schools. The most common reason is medical issues – both physical and psychological – which make it difficult or impossible for a child to go to full-time face-to-face school – including teenage parenthood. Children who are travelling or live overseas can also enrol. In the senior years, a lot of homeschooled children also study through their local open education school, and throughout high school, many students from country schools study a subject of interest, such as a language, through their local open education school which cannot be offered by their own school for one reason or another.
Some webpages with more information about SOTA are:
The Australian Government website – http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/school-of-the-air
A BTN report from last year – http://www.abc.net.au/btn/story/s3610675.htm
The Questacon website – http://www.questacon.edu.au/indepth/clever/school_of_the_air.html
The Australian Children website – http://www.australian-children.com/school%20of%20the%20air.htm
Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_of_the_Air
The Australian Geographic – http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/australias-school-of-the-air.htm
You can also learn more about different SOTAs and their history by finding each one’s website. Mine is the Open Access College, at http://www.openaccess.edu.au/