Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dreams past: Collective Wisdom, education & the NBN

This post today is a personal historical piece, However, it is also one that has a certain relevance today in the context of the NBN and other discussions on the application of new technology in education.

The following photo dates from February 1996. The scene is the Armidale Town Hall. The event, a Collective Wisdom Project Demonstration. This was the last major thing I did in Armidale before joining the family in Sydney. The photo shows kids and teachers, set against the backdrop of old and new technology. The bearded chap in the background is Martin Levins, head of IT at The Armidale School. He was the brains behind the exercise. Further comments follow the photo.



In the middle of 1987 I left the Commonwealth Public Service to establish with my wife a new information, training and consulting business in Armidale servicing the electronics, aerospace and information industries. I had been arguing that Australia had a future in these new industry areas, so was putting my personal money where my policy mouth had been.

I met Martin Levins soon after my arrival in Armidale. He was then head of IT at TAS and was driving the school in the direction of new technology. Under Martin's influence, TAS was a very early adapter of new communications and computing technology.

One of the things that we were trying to do was to grow the Armidale base in the new technologies, drawing from University of New England staff and graduates. This meant a big education role, for we had to train our people and popularise the opportunities. As part of this, Aymever combined with Martin and his then business partner Tom Pollock in 1987 to mount in a local pub the first ever display in Armidale of multimedia, the English Doomsday project, itself one of the first global demonstrations of the potential applications that we now take for granted.

Aymever grew rapidly. By the end of 1989, we had seventeen staff, a monthly fees base of over $80,000, clearing $8,000 after operating and start up expenses. We were then hit by the pilots' strike (we had to travel all the time to get business) and by the sharp downturn of 1990. While the Australian economy itself actually bottomed in mid 1991, the business services marketplace collapsed much earlier. Over the first months of 1990, national fees dropped by a third. Our own fees fell from $80,000 in December 1989 to a bottom of $29,000 in March 1990. We bled money, loosing $190,000 over calendar 1990.

We clawed our way back. By mid 1991, revenues had reached record levels, but we were now carrying heavy debts. We then hit a very large bad debt that forced retrenchment and finally led to us appointing administrators in 1994. Even though we had work in place and good prospects of further work, the administrators closed the business a week after appointment.

I mention this history for several reasons. It sets a context for what follows. Further, the rise and then fall of Armidale's nascent high technology and associated services sectors is of itself indicative of a broader Australian collapse. by the end of 1989 there were more than a dozen Armidale start-ups employing several hundred people. All this vanished over the next few years.

Genesis of the Collective Wisdom Project

As a strong exponent of the new computing and communications technologies, Martin developed the idea of a communications network linking Armidale schools - private and public - that would assist sharing of resources and promote new approaches to learning. He had already tried many of the ideas at TAS and had been helping train people in other schools and especially Drummond Memorial Primary School. He began negotiations with Telstra on one side, the University of New England on the other, for UNE had its own ideas and was also negotiating with Telstra.

The next photo is another shot from the Collective Wisdom Project Demonstration contrasting the old and the new. IMG_0003

For my part, I had reestablished as an independent consultant still trying to follow the same dream. As part of this, I was project managing the bid for funding for an Armidale based cooperative multimedia centre under the Commonwealth Government's Multimedia Program.

This was proving a frustrating experience. Beyond a small grant given to all the NSW contenders, we could get no State Government support. UNE who should have played a lead role was in a state of turmoil that came very close to forcing the university's closure. Martin himself was experiencing similar problems in gaining UNE support. The University wanted to do its own thing, but just couldn't deliver anything.

In frustration and knowing that in the absence of something radical we were doomed by metro myopia and the NSW disease, I decided to take the New England CMC concept alive to try to provide proof of concept. However, we needed something dramatic to show that what we had was not just hot air. For that reason, Paul Holland (my then industry analyst) and I joined with Martin to try to support the creation of the Collective Wisdom network.

The Collective Wisdom Demonstration Project 

It was clear to all of us that we needed something to showcase just what was possible. Locally, we needed full involvement of the schools and university. More broadly, I wanted something that might break through indifference in Sydney and Canberra, that we could invite people too and gather support.

In retrospect, the demonstration project we came up with was remarkably ambitious. Remember, this is 1995. It involved:

  • An exhibition in the town hall in which hundreds of primary and secondary school kids would combine to create web pages from material sent in via phone from groups at their schools
  • To attract interest from locals, an exhibition of education past to contrast
  • With the whole thing watched live from a NSW Government Centre in Sydney.

The next photo shows some of the participating kids, these ones from the New England Girls School. IMG_0004

We had very limited resources to do all this.

Telstra was one sponsor, and undertook the required network connections. Because of its own problems, UNE could not help in any real way. Paul and I effectively worked full time on the project for several months, while TAS provided considerable support. This included making the IT lab available for training purposes,  kids were trained at night in the week before to ensure that they had the required skills, as well as the supply of kit.  

The next photo shows some of the TAS boys at work on the day.IMG_0001

The demonstration was a considerable success, although we hit very real technical problems.

One that we did not make public at the time is that Telstra could not get the dial-up network to actually work. Instead of doing it all on-line, we actually had to courier material from the schools to the town hall! 

The Aftermath

Before outlining the results of all this, another photo, this time of the PLC girls at work.IMG_0002

In a way, the results for all this effort were not good.

We did not get Commonwealth CMC funding. Attempts to create cooperation among Armidale schools foundered on a simple practical reality that, with UNE cutbacks and the consequent decline in Armidale's population, all the schools were competing for a diminished student base. Without a strong support base and some cash, the establishment of a network at that time was just too hard.

At a purely personal level it cost me an arm and a leg, for I went well beyond the point that could be justified by any personally rational payback. And yet, and even though it all appears as a few words on my current CV under community, I cannot regret it.

You see, we actually showed what might be possible with the proper application of technology. Fifteen years later as the NBN is discussed in abstract, as a set of theoretical possibilities, I remember the Armidale Town Hall on that day in 1996.   


Anonymous said...

Jim I understand that this effort was important to you, and having been involved in a number of 'bleeding edge' initiatives I feel likewise about the 'if only' factor which somehow never came down in my favour.

But the fact should be faced that the timing of your venture was just wrong - as it was for my few attempts. The technology gave the promise, but the ongoing administration would have been a nightmare.

I have become a bit philosophical about this sort of stuff; for instance I now am grateful that such visions as I had were not actually required to work past demonstration. Who actually would enjoy assuming responsibility for the ongoing day-to-day maintenance of such a project?

But kudos to you for the vision, and for the effort.


Anonymous said...

And in one of those wonderful ironies of life, Martin Levin's son decided he wanted to be an actor (as did so many TAS boys); how non techo can you get?

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually I'm not sure that's true, KVD.

The specific problem with the town hall connection lay in the creation of a special purpose connection for that day.

It's a long time ago, but the network plans were all based on existing technology and aimed to leverage what was already there, including UNE's investment in IT. Most of the applications we were talking about had already been trialed locally, especially at TAS. In fact, later in 1996 a line was established linking TAS and UNE.

Then as now, broadband was one of the issues. There had already been some investment in broadband. In 95 I went to a display at UNE of video
lecturing linking the Armidale and Coffs campuses. Part of the tripartite discussions dealt with possible extensions of broadband.

The project discussions on technical and management issues were still at an early stage, but obviously would have involved a management and support structure.

Given that the apps had been trialed and that the project was education not technology driven, the big problems were institutional. Finance might still have blocked it, but my feeling is that would probably have been okay if we could have got through the institutional issues.

Interesting on Martin's son. TAS actually has a very good record in music and drama relative to the school's size. This continues today under Emma Buzo, Alex's daughter. And so the wheel turns!

Anonymous said...

Points well made Jim. I was actually talking about the ongoing administrative effort involved in marrying the competing objectives and priorities of the institutions involved - a point you alluded to.

The technology would only have gotten more reliable, if at first on a wing and a prayer, but the people management side of it....

Better you than me. None of which at all detracts from the visionary nature of the project. Thus, my 'kudos' were sincerely offered.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. There are always frustrations in any project management. A key issue is that the horse must be willing to drink!

One of the big problems in doing something new in a small place like Armidale is that the institutional factors bulk larger than they would in a bigger place. It's so much harder to work around impediments.

I did understand that the kudos were sincere!

Rummuser said...

Awesome experience Jim. I had my moments of exhilaration when I taught as visiting faculty in two business schools for three years while still in active service. Interacting with young and uncorrupted minds was the most satisfying experience I have ever had. To match their idealism with realities of the business world was a herculean task! I had to put a stop to it as physically, I was unable to stand, yes stand the strain.

Jim Belshaw said...

How interesting, Ramana. I love teaching, but there can be strain.

Martin Levins said...

Aah - those were the days my friend.

Like a lot of Armidale's endeavours, there were many pulling in opposite directions!


"And in one of those wonderful ironies of life, Martin Levin's son decided he wanted to be an actor (as did so many TAS boys); how non techo can you get?"

Martin Levins' (please note apostrophe) son supplements his acting pay with working in the snow ski industry and has a private business as a computer consultant!

Such is the nature of a versatile TAS student!


Jim Belshaw said...

Nice to hear from you, Martin. Too true about the opposite directions! Versatile TAS student is right.

Rod said...

I can't believe I missed this post until you pointed it out to me. Very interesting, what challenges you had! and what an experience. So many (very big) highs and, sadly a too many lows. It is interesting how local priorities can be badly affected by the national scene, and how a malaise at a major local institution in a regional community can let the whole community down.

Until now I was actually unsure of what my brother Pauls work for you actually involved. So, on a personal note this is even more enlightening! I don't get to see Paul often as he has been basically a permanent resident of Japan for the past 15 years. I'll let him know about the post.

Jim Belshaw said...

I'm glad you liked it, Rod. Gladder still that I mentioned your brother. He did a lot of policy related analysis for me. Good to know that he might see this item from his past.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thinking further Rod, I don't think Paul was there for the demo itself. He would have finished in 95.