Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Belshaw’s World: The need for Collective Wisdom

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 1 July 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Just back from a week in Canada and still very jet-lagged. The QANTAS flight out of LA was much delayed. It was 2.50am their time before we finally got away.

Looking back over my last column, it is very easy to pontificate. It is even easier living in Sydney, as I now do, to underestimate the work being done locally.

That said, I think that the starting point in any action to grow Armidale’s educational base to is to delete the word “regional” wherever possible.

I have come to bitterly resent the application of the word regional to Armidale or its institutions. I want the word cut out.

I grew up in a world in which Armidale was a major educational centre, not a regional education centre, just an educational centre. Certainly a country educational centre, we were located in the country and were bringing education to the country, this was a matter or pride, but not a regional centre.

We got first the Teacher’s College and then the University College because we were an educational centre. Yes, we fought for it and there was strong political support. But we were an educational centre. That was the start.

The way that the word regional is used today has come to mean provincial, not city, second rate. Each time we use the word regional we put ourselves into a second class box.

Let me ask you a question. Where would you prefer to go to school or university?

Case one: Armidale is a national education centre, Australia’s only university city, drawing students from X countries.

Case two: Armidale is one of regional Australia’s major educational centres.

I think that the answer is clear. Who would want to study at two? Unless, of course, you had too.

This is not a parody. I find the use of the word regional now pervasive in Armidale material.

This brings me to my second step, the need for Armidale to reclaim its place as an educational centre in its own right, not simply an extension of UNE. This actually helps UNE because it reinforces the University’s own marketing activities.

The last thing I did before leaving Armidale in 1996 was to work with Martin Levins on what we called the Collective Wisdom Project. This centred on Martin’s dream of a cooperative electronic network linking all Armidale schools, private and public.

At the time, UNE was going through one of its periodic crises. Part of the Collective Wisdom dream was to build and promote Armidale’s school sector as something of a counter-weight to the University.

We mounted a display in the Armidale Town Hall showing the use of internet technology at school level. This involved students from private and public schools, primary and secondary, preparing web pages based on material sent in to the Town Hall.

This was leading edge in 1996. To make it work, TAS provided technical support, including training kids from Drummond in web page design. Hundreds of students were involved, while senior Commonwealth officials were invited and attended to see what Armidale could do.

I left Armidale the following week. My family was already in Sydney and I had stayed to support the display.

Nothing seemed to happen after that. When I asked Martin and others what had happened, I got a very mixed story.

A bit like Waiting for Godot, the UNE plans for its own network being developed in conjunction with Telstra had come to naught. The unity that had been building among the schools to support collective action had collapsed as the schools competed for a declining local student base. The resources required to push forward could not be found.

Had Collective Wisdom succeeded, it would have positioned Armidale (among other things) to compete in the growing market for international students that was then emerging. To my mind, and I stand to be corrected, its failure was due in part to localism and lack of broader vision.

Collective Wisdom may have failed in the broadest sense, but it remains an example of the type of action that can build Armidale’s position as an independent educational centre if we but have the vision and the courage to grasp the opportunities.

I am out of space. I will continue later when I am a little less jet-lagged!

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