Distance has long been a barrier to learning, but the University of Wollongong's IT team is refusing to let kilometres get in the way of a child's education.
The university has partnered with 41 early childhood centres in rural and remote areas across NSW and the ACT under its Early Start Program, which aims to give every child - regardless of location - "the best start in life".
The initiative is delivering BlueJeans video conferencing, iPads, and smart devices like Electroboard whiteboard and tables to the remote sites to bridge the gap between research and practice.
The university has built an Early Start Facility at its own campus that educators and students can attend physically or remotely link into. It is equipped with the kind of research and discovery tools they would not otherwise have access to.
CIO Fiona Rankin's team has had to grapple with a spread of technologies and infrastructure to get the program off the ground - everything from computers-on-wheels and PoS systems to boom gates and lighting.
The chosen tech also had to be rugged enough to withstand the rigours of both remote locations with unreliable network connectivity, and use by not-always-delicate children.
"This ranged from protective covering of network ports to safeguard little fingers, to robust lighting controllers for the dress-ups theatre experience," Rankin said.
"Unique sound solutions were needed for video conferencing in a food skills teaching ‘kitchen’ to ensure equipment is sufficiently robust to withstand the ways a child interacts with technology.
"It’s not every day your technology requirements include creating a ‘fart’ sound for when children exit the tummy tour (which teaches about food’s journey through their body after it is swallowed)."
The project was born in 2010 from a partnership with the Abbott Foundation, receiving a $7 million donation from founder Christopher Abbott to fund the build of a discovery space at the university.
This 'children's museum' provides a hands-on learning environment for children from 0-10 and their carers and educators. Experiences range from steering a ship to excavation, construction and engineering, and exploring a cave.
The discovery space is part of the wider $44 million Early Start Facility, which also contains a research institute aimed at working out ways to overcome disadvantage in learning.
While the program has generated commercial research income alongside its grant funding, the payoff will be opportunities for remote and rural students and teachers that were previously out of reach, as well as the potential to produce real change as a result of its research.