The history of the Mount Isa School of the Air has been linked with the development of the north west with perhaps a similar community influence as the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) . There is no doubt that the historic radio communication between Cloncurry and Augustus Station heralded a new era in the development of the region. From the ‘pedal radio’ circa 1930, medical advice could be sought to allay the fear that sickness and injury posed.
Facilities to enhance education for outback children was to be realised much later, following the first School of the Air opening in Alice Springs in 1951. Queensland's first School of the Air opened its doors in 1960 at Cloncurry.
The RFDS apart from providing aeromedical support developed a skilled team of radio technicians to attend to the radio communication needs of the RFDS and the station community. As rural telephone services were confined to the principal towns in the region, the RFDS provided a radio/telephone (radphone) interconnect call service to those in isolated station communities. Limited radphone interconnect facilities are still available through private contractors and operating telephone companies (OTC). The RFDS technicians provided the technical support for the fledgling School of the Air in Cloncurry.
The Cloncurry School of the Air followed the RFDS to Mount Isa in 1964 when the RFDS moved to its current premises on Barkly Highway. The Mount Isa School of the Air was housed in the building that is now the RFDS tourist centre. Later the principal and teachers used the Happy Valley School as base and commuted between the Happy Valley School and the studios at the RFDS base for lesson broadcasting.
In 1992 Telstra completed the network of towers and repeaters to provide the North Western area with a rural telephone service (called Digital Rural Concentrator System or DRCS). With the stations families being able to call each other and the RFDS by telephone, the previously widespread RFDS high frequency radio system became secondary to the telephone system and less important to needs of the station families. As a result the RFDS technical support to the Mount Isa School of the Air dwindled.
In 1992 our school moved into a new home in Able Smith Parade, on the same campus as the then Kalkadoon High School (now Spinifex State College). For the first 2 years or so only limited outside technical support was available. In 1995 the need for ‘in house’ technical support was recognised and the first radio technician was employed. The second radio technician joined our school in March 1996.
In 2001, 230 students from 120 families were enrolled in our school. The majority of families lived on stations within a 450km radius of Mount Isa.
To provide radio coverage over such distances, high frequency (HF) radio communications were used. The school used 8 frequencies or channels available of which 5 were used daily to enable the teachers to conduct lessons with their classes. Radio signals were reflected from the upper atmosphere some 150 kms above the surface of the earth. The ionosphere, as this region is called, enabled radio signals to cover the immense distances to the boundaries of our service area. The ionosphere was referred to as our ‘mirrors in the sky’ acknowledging the important part the ionosphere played in communicating with students.
Class groups averaging 7 students were grouped in geographical wedges, where possible, radiating out from Mount Isa to provide 3 way communication from teacher to student, student to teacher and from student to student. It was regarded as important that students could hear other students (hence the grouping in wedges) but on many occasions the children could often only just hear their teacher, let alone other students.
Each family was provided, free of charge, the necessary radio equipment, aerial, interconnecting cables and power supply for the duration of their enrolment with the school. The purchase price of each set of equipment was almost $3000. Much of our radio equipment had seen yearly service for going on 15 years, a testament as to how reliable the equipment was. The radio equipment, manufactured by Codan (an Australian company) was intended for mounting in a vehicle and was built accordingly. From time to time however equipment failures did occur, with the highest failure rate being the microphone cable. Replacement units were promptly sent to the affected family to get them back ‘on the air’ as soon as is possible.
The technical facilities at our school comprised of 5 studios and lessons were transmitted from all 5 studios Monday through Friday, with the first lessons starting at 8.30 am. By using 5 studios, lessons could be concentrated into the morning time slot, the best period for communicating HF radio lessons to our students, taking into consideration our geographic location and the possibility of gulf storms accompanied by lightning which produced crackles and pops that interfered with lessons.
As each student spent only ½ hour on air with their teacher, it was important the best reception conditions possible were provided. HF radio is subject to interference from man made electrical appliances and machinery and by natural occurrences such as lightning. We encouraged our families to install their equipment to exacting instructions, so as to ensure that their reception was as interference free as is possible. To accommodate our transmission and reception in Mount Isa, separate high power transmitters and sensitive receivers were used at 2 sites 10km and 17km from town centre. Telstra provided the interconnect facility to our transmitter and receiver sites.
In the late 1990s, a decision was made to investigate the telephone network instead of radio, to provide the connection for students enrolled with the Charleville School of the Air and a telephony bridge to provide the facility to gather the students in classes for their lessons.
The trial was deemed to be a success with Telstra incorporating significant upgrades to the rural telephone network to improve performance particularly in connection with line congestion and call dropout. The telephones used were modified to suit our requirements, a variation of hands free technology. The telephone included a ‘press to talk switch’ to reduce the amount of background noise normally picked up by the telephone microphone, the clatter of pots in the kitchen and dogs barking as an example.
The move to teleconference lessons resulted in several benefits to students including lessons free of the ‘burps’ and ‘crackles’ that often plagued HF radio, the absence of interference reduced distractions and enabled better student concentration and participation and as well as hearing their teacher, students could also hear other class participants clearly.
Better communication did however come at a price. Whilst the teleconferencing system was less expensive than a radio network to set up, the recurring costs of telephone calls was considerable, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
The telephones were only part of the required infrastructure. Telstra provided 90 incoming lines to the specialised equipment used to connect the students to their respective classes. The core of the system was a computer controlled ‘bridge’. The ‘bridge’ consisted of a number of ‘pigeon holes’ into which the students could dial to join their nominated class. To do this, after students accessed the ‘bridge’, they dialled in a PIN which comprised of a 4 digit family identifier and a 2 digit class identifier. The computer recognised the family identifier and used the 2 digit class identifier to allow same class students to be assembled.
The teacher had access to the computer that controls the ‘bridge’ and the teacher selected the assembled class group, knowing which students have dialled in and joined the group. This assembling of class groups is similar to ‘teleconferencing’ where a number of people can dial into a conference and speak to each other. The main difference is that the teacher has full control of the conference including the ability to ‘mute’ or cut of a student and indeed cancel the conference if necessary, should problems such as interference arise.
Each lesson normally lasts for 30 minutes (with some 45 minutes and different starting times) and start on the hour and on the half hour. There are 5 studios and 5 studio lessons can be conducted simultaneously. Should a teacher be absent from the school building it is possible for the teacher to conduct a lesson remotely. Under these circumstances the teacher would dial into the bridge and join her students with reduced control. Up to approximately 5 minutes before the scheduled lesson start time the students will dial into their class. During the minutes before the teacher takes control the students are able to have a ’chat’. When the lesson time has ticked over, the teacher recognises the assembled group and joins the students. There is a well established protocol that we have developed over the years and students adhere to the protocol. Students only talk to the teacher when invited to do so.
The number of students in a class is kept low to enable the teacher to interact with each student. The number of students in a class is between 5 – 10, on average 7. The teacher keeps a record of responses from each class member and by doing so can even up the active participation by each student.
When you look into a studio the components you can see are:
A computer screen and keyboard
A control panel
A tape / CD player
Audio monitor loudspeaker
Headset / microphone (two provided, one for visiting student use)
The teacher uses the computer to access the bridge.
All class groups are displayed that have dialled in.
The teacher can join a conference or class group (and leave) as lesson times dictate.
The teacher can speak to the class group via the headset and is able to play a tape or CD as the lesson requires.
Control of the headset and tape / CD is made by manipulating keys on the control panel.
For visitors in the studio the audio monitor can be turned up for them to listen to the conference in the studio without using a headset.
More frequently these days teachers and students communicate using the Education Queensland eLearn website and log onto Blackboard for lessons and support.
What part does Mount Isa the School of the Air play in the provision of education to our remote families?
Schools of the Air seek to gather remote and isolated family groups into a school based unit that aims to develop a sense of closeness and belonging by being part of a group classroom. For the teacher to be able to talk to the students and for the students to be able to hear responses from other students, is an important part in breaking down the isolation that children who live on remote properties experience. Teachers conduct regular meetings on air for that important member of the distance education triangle the ‘home tutor’. Being able to provide access to clubs and facilities, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, normally available to children who live in towns and cities, is an important part that radio inexpensively provided to isolated children. Club activities such as fishing, reading, poetry, cooking and music are available to enable children to participate with their peers. Radio provided P&C groups the medium over which they conduct meetings. Other parent groups, concerned with the well being of their children, also conduct meetings over the air.