The QUEST for a connected future

2012 QUESTnet conference
 Imelda Cooney
The NFSA Connects initiative provides students across Australia with unprecedented access to creative arts professionals – such as director Kriv Stenders and editor Jill Bilcock, pictured – to hear their stories and learn about their experiences.


The annual QUESTnet conference is a buzzing hub for those involved in the development of Information and Communication Technologies in higher education and research. Far North Queensland was the location for QUESTnet 2012 and stepping out into the humidity of Cairns was a welcome change from the disappointing weather of Sydney. But whilst this was a blessing initially, it became a source of frustration as attendees at QUESTnet 2012 suffered in the almost arctic air-conditioned environment, distracted by holidaymakers in the swimming pool just ten paces outside the function room.

The conference had as its tagline ‘To infinity and beyond – Ubiquitous communications’ and for three days higher education research and IT people gathered to hear abstracts with the longest titles such as ‘Right-Sizing the Right Solution – Building a Flexible Core Network for Future ICT Challenges’, and the mystifying ‘What’s Behind the AAF Front Door?’.

For the NFSA the interest was the Digital Outreach stream of the conference: a day and a half where content providers from the cultural and science sectors who provide schools with videoconferencing opportunities shared their experiences.

Institutions such as the Sydney Opera House, affectionately referred to by its staff as ‘The House’, National Museum of Australia, Powerhouse Museum and many others, as well as NBN Co and Education Services Australia, presented sessions on how videoconferences are being used in schools, the variety of content and the needs of the education sector.

Videoconferences themselves were part of the day. A session from the Centre for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) in Indianapolis appealed for content from Australian providers – specialised content is in high demand in American schools. Reef HQ offers underwater experiences of sea life on the Barrier Reef. They have videoconferenced, by request, to elderly citizens in an American retirement home as a result of being on CILC’s database.

Robert Bunzli from the National Museum of Australia (on loan from Questacon) described and showed a video of ‘patrol-bot’, a semi-autonomous mobile robot that has a 360˚ camera (made up of six cameras) that will allow remote visitors to ‘visit’ the museum and control their own view within the gallery. These visits will be augmented with other content – high-res images, video, close-up shots etc. This kind of (pilot) project needs a lot of bandwidth, hence the involvement of the NBN and highly specialised technical expertise provided by the CSIRO who may make it commercially available at a later date.

The evidence of this robot generated friendly rivalry from the next speaker, Peter Mahoney from the Powerhouse Museum. He joked that their own ‘big ideas’ included making their Marsyard rovers remote controlled and able to be manoeuvred around the synthetic Mars landscape by students from their school locations. Whilst the Powerhouse may not have the technical resources that the National Museum of Australia can boast, they have had the Administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden, in their museum participating in a videoconference with Australian students who connected with a school in California to discuss space issues.

This Mars project has spawned a self-identified group of space-interested students who meet at the museum on Saturdays for four hours to hypothesise about life on Mars and send their hypotheticals to space experts in the United States for discussion.

As videoconferencing in schools is a burgeoning industry, the NFSA is well-placed to be a valuable player in this arena with such a variety of content in the collection that can be exploited to cover a majority of learning areas in the national Australian curriculum.

NFSA Connects is the NFSA’s videoconferencing program which provides school students with opportunities to ask creative artists about their work experiences. The Q & A-style events have featured some of Australia’s most highly-respected figures in the audiovisual industry, such as Rolf de Heer, Rachel Perkins, Paul Kelly, Aden Young and Kriv Stenders.

NFSA Connects has exciting prospects for development in content and format as well as expanding its audience. As Stuart Tait from Education Services Australia stressed, they are striving to provide ‘authentic’ content for the curriculum. He also explained that the curriculum is machine readable and applying metadata to content aids teachers in finding the material. He urged content providers to use terms found in SCOT (Schools Online Thesaurus) to describe and classify their material for all educational purposes.

Some institutions are still taking baby steps with their videoconferencing. Others, such as the ‘The House’, have thrown as much support and resources as they possibly can to their digital education and videoconferencing. In the first six months of their program this year they connected with over 60 schools and 3000 students. The House has a technical crew of six as well as all their education staff to provide virtual excursions and workshops to students. They, surely, will be high profile amongst the online education exporters; education will be in the top ten of Australian exports in the next ten years, according to Sean Casey of NBN Co.

Through hearing the experiences of others at QUESTnet lots of questions and ideas sprang to mind, some worthwhile pursuing, others a bit random… Can we do a cross-cultural educational Indigenous program with countries such as New Zealand and Canada? Why doesn’t Australia have a poet laureate (the US has run videoconferences with their poet laureate and school students)? Should the NFSA be doing professional development videoconferences for teachers on how they could use our collection items in the classroom? Could we create whole units of work to engage schools repeatedly? Finally, and importantly, why was I inside this freezing room instead of out in the warmth of the sun?