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.
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.
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 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!
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.