Independent review into regional rural and remote education

New evidence: Stark inequity of online access for rural and remote students

It’s long been known that those in regional and remote areas of Australia do not have access to the same quality of internet as their metropolitan counterparts. Now we have more evidence about how regional and remote students are disadvantaged by this low-quality access. We should mention here that Australia’s average internet download speed is 43.4 mbps, ranking Australia 62nd in the world for connectivity. So generally, Australia lags way behind in internet download speeds compared to other parts of the world.

During the COVID-19 lockdown we asked university students in eight regional NSW towns – Cooma, Goulburn, Broken Hill, Narrabri, Moree, Grafton, Griffith and Leeton – to run an internet speed test and share the results with us. The regional internet speeds reported by our students were a long way behind the rest of the the country.

The students in our study were all registered with a Country Universities Centre within the eight towns. These centres are part of the network of Regional University Centres. The students were mostly enrolled in a fully online, distance mode within a range of universities, while some  had recently returned from on-campus study to their home towns, to study remotely during the COVID-19 restrictions. Due to these same restrictions, none had been able to physically visit one of these centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns for some weeks prior to our survey. We asked them what their home internet download speeds were, whether this was sufficient for them to do their university work and how it was affecting their study.

A total of 55 students responded over one week. Almost two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that their internet was sufficient for their studies. Among those who strongly disagreed, the median download speed was 4.5 mbps, with some experiencing speeds of less than 1 mbps. Multiple problems were reported in accessing or downloading materials, including being unable to watch lectures and having assessment tasks interrupted. Understandably, many expressed anger, stress and frustration, with some being unable to access the internet from home at all.

 “It takes an eternity to download lectures and streaming them requires extensive buffering. Uploading any files for group work or assignments is extremely slow and frustrating when deadlines are looming. The fluctuating connection which completely drops at times makes live tutorials or meetings pointless.” (Internet download speed: 6.4 mbps Broken Hill)

 “I am currently unable to properly access my zoom calls and online lectures because of how unreliable my internet service is. It often cuts out or is incredibly delayed. (Internet download speed: 1.6 mbps Goulburn)

The median download speed test was slightly higher amongst those who disagreed (rather than ‘strongly disagreed’) that their internet was sufficient, at 10.6 mbps, although many experienced lower speeds than this. These students talked about interruptions, disrupted focus, reduced productivity, and being unable to study at certain times.

 “It’s challenging and frustrating to be productive when everything takes so much more time.” (Internet download speed: 5.2 mbps Broken Hill)

“If it is really slow you easily lose focus and you get easily frustrated. This can turn you right off studying in these conditions.” (Internet download speed 9.5 mbps Goulburn)

Only those with a download speed above 16 mbps agreed that their internet was sufficient. Even among this cohort, difficulty with video calls and slow internet at certain times of the day or evening were reported. Across the whole cohort, cost of internet was a recurring theme.

I also do not have access to NBN or broadband where I reside and having to complete my whole degree at home has become quite costly with all the excess data charges (for incredibly bad service)”

Students studying online are two and half times more likely than those on-campus to withdraw from university without a qualification.  Certainly, this survey revealed that internet problems can make it nearly impossible for a student to continue with their online course, much less perform at their best.

Access to reliable internet has been identified as a key equity issue for education in Australia, with previous research identifying that poor local residential internet connectivity is a significant barrier to regional university study.

The sudden and exponential increase in online delivery during COVID-19 restrictions has led to a heightened focus on the quality of online deliveryTechnology advances coupled with universities aiming to deliver a more engaging online experience means that online course content increasingly contains interactive and engaging content, such as video, live streaming,  collaborative tools and other interactive multimedia.  However, students with poor internet speeds will struggle with accessing, let alone participating in this more engaging and interactive remote learning environment.   Unless home internet connectivity is adequate and affordable, those in regional/remote areas and/or from low SES backgrounds are likely to be excluded from these technological and pedagogical advances in online learning.

The lifeline of Regional University Centres

Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, many students in regional/remote areas were relying on Regional University Centres which offer high-speed internet connection (100 mbps up/down) to any student studying at any Australian University. These centres have been a lifeline for many online students in country areas, with some students willing to travel up to 150km to access a centre.

Country University Centre Clarence Valley
(Image by Monica Davis)

Offered free to students, the centres are supported financially by Commonwealth, State and local Governments, as well as community and university partners, and provide face-to-face support for regional online students, not only with fast internet but also with academic and social support.  Most of these centres have now reopened or are planning to reopen under socially distancing guidelines, however some students may face other COVID-19 related reasons they cannot attend their centres.

The COVID-19 restrictions have further exposed the inequitable access to adequate internet across Australian society, affecting those who are already among the most educationally disadvantaged. This is a problem that urgently needs attention if the past and current lower participation rates in higher education across regional and remote Australia are to be seriously addressed.

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Monica Davis is the Director of Educational Delivery for the County Universities Centre. In this role she focuses on student support and collaborations with Australian universities to make higher education more accessible to regional, rural and remote students. Monica completed her Bachelor of Science with Hons I from the University of Newcastle, and a Masters in Geostatistics from the University of Adelaide. Monica believes that the future of an aspiring student should not be predetermined by where he or she lives. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at The Country Universities Centre is on Twitter @countryuc

Is something going wrong with rural and remote education in Australia? (Or is it all about perception?)

The Australian government has launched a new independent review into regional, rural and remote education, with the aim of improving the education outcomes of rural students and their access to higher education. It aims to identify new and innovative approaches.

This will be the first major national review since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry of 2000 into rural and remote education.

I believe a review is needed. But the real challenge will be to find a new direction to improving rural education, rather than simply resurfacing old ideas.

What issues need addressing?

The challenges of rural schooling in Australia, and the apparent under-achievement of rural students, have been a perennial issue since the advent of mass primary education in the late 1800’s. Figures show that overall education achievement has not changed much since the Human Rights Inquiry. Rural students are up to one and a half years behind their metropolitan peers in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. They are also less likely to complete year 12 and half as likely access university.

Rural students often say that year 12, or university, are not relevant to their lives and future work, and they would have to leave town to complete them anyway. Communities also express concern because students that leave often don’t come back.

So I have to ask, how will increasing the rate of participation in higher education help our students and their rural communities?

Perceptions of rural education

 The traditional perception of rural education is one of disadvantage. It is seen as something that needs improving. This is because school achievement, completion and access to further study are always measured in relation to the city. The aim seems to be to have no major differences in the results of city children and country children. Rural children sit the same NAPLAN tests and the same senior school curriculum exams.

This may seem like common sense but it raises the question of the appropriateness of these measures, and the values they embody, for rural students.

Historically we have come to recognize that some of the things mainstream education assumes as normal are not shared by all. For instance we now understand more about what works for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, working class children, and children from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is recognized these children came from are different cultures and can have specific educational needs.

For some reason however, being from a rural community has not been considered as being different and having particular needs. This is a bit strange to me. For example, how do you make sense of the ‘classics of literature’ set in cities when you rarely, if ever, visit one, or write a literacy response about a ‘day at the beach’ when you have never been to one, or answer a numeracy question based on a train timetable when you have never caught a train?

I am talking here about difference. How can we recognise and value difference in schooling for rural children? They come to school with different ‘funds of knowledge’, that is the knowledge they have from home that might not be valued at school. For example, rural children know about the environment, the life cycles of animals, and the importance of working with communities, whereas some city children don’t even know where milk comes from!

Who is the more advantaged? It depends on what we value.

Perceptions are often entrenched

As I see it, the problem is we have labeled rural communities as disadvantaged. It won’t be easy to change such perceptions as they have been entrenched for a long time. For example the NSW parliament in 1904 positioned rural areas as a problem, and suggested that education would reduce the “rural-mindedness” of children. As a result, education has been about making rural children more like their urban peers.

Nowhere in the Australian Curriculum do rural children learn about their rural lives and rural environments. Nowadays the curriculum is itself based on developing skills for the 21st century global economy, which is fine, except this economy has often left rural areas behind. It is the very thing rural voters around the world, and in a number of rural electorates here, have been venting against.

We need to move beyond “Rural disadvantage” being constructed in relation to metropolitan norms and measured in terms defined by the cities. When school retention rates, literacy and numeracy, senior secondary results and university entry rates are generally lower than the city it is easy, perhaps natural, to aim to find ways to equalize them. It is harder to ask why has this been the case for as long as we have records (both here and overseas!). To do so might suggest the answer is the system itself.

For over 30 years we had the country areas program (CAP). In many respects the CAP may have been limited as its focus on making curriculum enactment relevant to rural kids while not actually changing the curriculum itself. However even more revealing is its replacement in 2009 with a national focus on (universalised) literacy.

Reframing the debate

I believe the challenge for the review is to get outside its framing in the traditional notion of disadvantage. Maybe national testing, standardized curriculum, traditional school subjects and the idea that university is the pinnacle of education, to name a few, are the issues that need to be investigated.

Perhaps city children should be asked to learn from the perspective of rural children. Lets include some numeracy examples drawing on (stereotypically) fencing a paddock, the science of farming, and literature from the ‘bush’. Lets demand policy and assessment officials’ start engaging with more complex forms of assessment and evaluation.

If we are going to persist with universal NAPLAN examinations, then surely we can develop questions that draw on students’ different contexts and life worlds. Surely we can do better than curriculum based on content? Can we come up with a curriculum based on more universal concepts and allow teachers the professionalism to choose the examples they use to illustrate those concepts.

Finally, perhaps all teachers should do time out of the city to help them understand the nation is bigger than the 85% of the population who live in major cities. None of these would be popular suggestions, but that’s my point; what’s popular usually serves the needs of the majority at the expense of others.

Philip Roberts is an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Studies at the University of Canberra, where he convenes units across the fields of Educational Sociology and Curriculum Inquiry. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability. 

Philip is a Chief Editor for the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education and national convener of the Rural Education Special Interest Group for the Australian Association for Research in Education.

This post is the first in a series about Rural and Remote Education in Australia. Stay tuned for more.