I have spent the past decade talking about the positive impact of innovation and technology on educational outcomes, including for regional, rural and remote students. The transition to a knowledge-based economy is demanding changes in our education system and skills mix, especially in ensuring that traditionally disadvantaged groups are able to participate fully in a digital world. Focusing on regional and rural education is critical to ensuring that remoteness does not equal disadvantage.
The decision by the Australian Federal Government to undertake a review of regional, rural and remote education is both timely and critical. The review of rural and regional education is occurring against a backdrop of global volatility and accelerating change. These changes have significant implications for the Australian economy, and the ability of our education system to respond to the demand for future skills and new education requirements for a digital world.
We know that students on average in regional, rural and remote areas underperform on just about every education measure. Incrementalism is not going to cut it – we need to ensure that regional students have access to even more opportunity, even better capability and richer, more immersive technology than their metro counterparts. The objective shouldn’t be helping regional students `catch up’, but rather how to leap ahead and turn regionality into a competitive advantage.
Doing this will require using technology as a lever for improved education outcomes. In my view this will require a focus on three areas. The first is providing students with access to tools and technology that will drive engagement and reduce the achievement gap for learning in a digital world.
One of the best examples of using technology to address rural and regional advantage is in the Pilbara, Western Australia. The region presents unique challenges, including a high proportion of schools in rural locations and some of the most remote in the world. The WA Government has made a commitment to ensure all students in the state have access to a high-quality public school education. To do this they have invested in a range of proactive initiatives to mitigate the effects of isolation for rural and regional students, including live video, augmented by investment in network optimization technology to ensure schools can make the most of available bandwidth.
The second focus area is teaching students to be more collaborative and entrepreneurial to thrive in a digital economy.
One of the most important contemporary skills required by students is the ability to collaborate. Effective collaborators tend to possess a number of the following: communication, capacity to work in teams, accountability and critical thinking. Technology is an enabler of collaboration. A range of tools are available to enable students and teachers to share, co-author, network and analyze information in a variety of forms. True collaboration happens in real time and is immersive.
The importance of entrepreneurial skills also cannot be underestimated. If regions are to create new jobs to replace those that are being automated, they will almost certainly need to tap into the start-up economy and ecosystem. Entrepreneurship needs to be taught in all three sectors (K12, TAFE and higher education) to create the next generation of start-ups, but also to help young people navigate an increasingly freelance economy and volatile job market.
And lastly, to improve education outcomes, students must build STEM skills and apply them.
It is estimated that 47% of today’s jobs will be able to be automated over the next decade or two. What is less understood, as the economy transforms, is the specific nature of ‘reconfigured jobs’ that will be required as replacements, and the foundational skills required to do them. While the answer is not straightforward, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that STEM competencies will continue to be in high demand in the future. It is estimated that 75% of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM-related skills and experience and 90% will require digital skills.
The Australian Government has adopted the right approach by looking at the issue of rural and regional education holistically. The decision to review potential responses in all sectors of education simultaneously recognizes that education, training and learning is increasingly integrated. It also recognizes that in regional and rural areas, educational infrastructure is a shared community asset and increasingly becoming a more critical asset.
Government has an important role in not only supporting the education system to innovate and improve practice, but also in accelerating the pace of change that occurs. The attached response submitted by Cisco in collaboration with Optus to Government demonstrates that corporations are prepared to step up when it comes to contributing to what is a critical challenge for our nation.
 Frey, Carl B. and Osborne, Michael A., The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?, 2013.