What cost the future? Education in the NBN

When Julia Gilliard pushed the button to activate the National Broadband Network in Armidale on Wednesday, the complaints were not long in following. ''There goes $18 billion,'' said shadow treasurer Joe Hockey in Canberra, stating that the government was rolling out a Bentley to every Australian when the nation can only afford a Commodore.

Complaints about the cost of the National Broadband Network, the NBN, are not going to stop any time soon. It’s easy to see the expense but assessing the value of the NBN will take far more thought. Supporters of the NBN have been quick to argue that it will strengthen education. Unfortunately, they’ve been slow to anticipate a damaging counter-argument: namely, that technology does not improve learning.

If you read studies that have tried to assess the effects of digital technology on learning outcomes, you have to conclude that technology does not – in itself – make a significant difference. No doubt opponents of the NBN will eventually pick up on this research. When they do, it will be important to put it in context.

People with a stake in education need to point out that studies of the impact of technology on education often miss the key point. What these studies end up illustrating is that the benefit you get from using any tool depends on whether you know how to use it properly. These studies aren’t – in themselves – much help when it comes to assessing the intrinsic value of something like the NBN. They don’t help us assess its potential, and it’s the potential of the NBN that matters.

Let’s turn to the potential of the digital technology available in Australian homes right now. Your teenager, for example, probably enjoys access to the web and all the educational benefits associated with it. If, however, they’re downloading music and playing Tetris in the corner of the screen while supposedly using the Web for research, the potential of the technology they have is not being realised. It’s not the tool that’s at fault though, it’s how it’s being used.

So how does broadband help learning when used wisely? There are five rock-solid benefits.

First, and most obvious, is access to a world of information. We shouldn’t take this for granted. My primary school’s library in the late ‘50s was a single, narrow cupboard. In a few months, you could read every book it contained. The first public libraries provided a lifeline for learning for the socially disadvantaged. The internet is filling this critical role today.

Secondly, the internet doesn’t just offer raw information, it’s also populated with explanations. Thirdly, the internet features recommendation systems that let you follow in other people’s footsteps and see what resources they found useful. Fourthly, you can network: you can find other people to learn from, learn with, or help you change the world. Finally, there are powerful tools to help you figure out complex issues – tools for visualising data, modelling systems and asking the big ‘what if?’ questions.

This is a snapshot of the benefits associated with digital technology today. But the NBN is not about the present, it’s about the future. Despite the fact that we know technological change is accelerating, it remains perversely difficult to frame a public debate about the future that’s not based on the delusion that it’ll be just like the present, only more shiny.

Imagine people connecting to the NBN six years from now. What do you picture? Smartphones, laptops and iPads? This time last year almost no-one in Australia had seen an iPad. Six years’ ago we had no iPhones or Kindles. We weren't using YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook or Twitter. What potential technologies and developments that we haven’t even imagined yet will the NBN enable?

Assessing the future benefits of the NBN is not going to be easy. It has no intrinsic value. It will only help us if we learn how to use it wisely. And Australians will have to. Big challenges are on the way: from climate change, globalising competition, food security, peak oil, obesity, chronic ill health, and drug-resistant superbugs.

There’s no doubt the next generation needs to be better educated. After all, they’ll have to fix many of the problems we’re leaving in the too hard basket. They’ll need to be bold in unravelling complexity and quick to innovate. This ‘innovation generation’ will need a world-class broadband network, not a cut-price lash-up made of fencing wire and wishful thinking. It’s up to us to deliver it and let them maximise its potential. The costs of failing them, due to a lack of nerve on our part, are unaffordable.

– Peter Goodyear
19 May 2011