Life lessons learned in 'world's largest classroom'

Life lessons learned in 'world's largest classroom'

Opinion
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For bush families, remote learning been a normal part of life for seven decades, with the School of the Air turning 70 this year.

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Tanya Heaslip is an author and lawyer from Alice Springs.

Tanya Heaslip is an author and lawyer from Alice Springs.

AS A result of COVID-19, schools and parents across the world are facing the challenge of educating their kids remotely.

While this is new for many city families, for bush families, remote schooling has been a normal part of life for many years.

In fact, it's been 70 years, with the School of the Air turning 70 this year.

As a child on a cattle station north of Alice Springs in the late 1960s, remote schooling was our only viable option. But we were lucky to have School of the Air, because many who came before us didn't.

The school came about thanks to the vision of a remarkable woman named Adelaide Miethke, a retired educator in her 60s.

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With the assistance of some dedicated educators, in 1951, Adelaide's vision helped establish what became the "largest classroom in the world", which started with only a handful of students in the NT.

Back then, lessons were conducted over an old-school radio from a base in Alice Springs and received on remote stations on pedal-powered radios. When students stopped pedalling, lessons stopped too.

By the time my siblings and I started school, our remote lessons were delivered via two-way radio.

Like most children who grow up in remote Australia, we were incredibly shy when faced with the outside world and lacked the life skills that children who sit in a classroom with others learn quickly.

But School of the Air gave us the chance to connect with other children, as well as our teacher - Mrs Hodder, who I thought sounded like the Queen when her voice echoed across the airwaves.

The voices of the other students were jumbled, crowding over each other, some louder than others because they had better reception, some almost completely lost in the din of radio noise.

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No one was exempt from the challenge of static - not even Prince Charles and Lady Diana who visited the School of the Air studio in March 1983. When children asked the Royal couple a question, it was barely audible through the static, but luckily the teacher understood, and relayed the question.

Even with the challenges of audio quality, and the fact we couldn't see the faces of our teacher or the other students, we used our imaginations to build pictures of them. Our school lessons weren't just about education; they were our main means of socialisation.

Today, the School of the Air still plays an essential role in connecting bush kids.

The school now covers 1.3 million square kilometres in SA, the NT and WA, and there are between 100 and 120 students calling in across Australia.

Technological developments have taken classes from the pedal radio, to the two-way radio to a computer, where courtesy of satellite dishes, bush children can now see and hear their teacher and classmates.

In today's COVID world, it's not just regional kids who are benefitting from the lessons learned over the years of School of the Air. As schools and governments grappled with educating students online during sudden lockdowns, some turned to School of the Air for advice and assistance.

And luckily, School of the Air had 70 years' experience to draw from.

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