By TIM BISHOP
Parents and teachers have welcomed a multi-million-dollar education package which will see every public student in the Hastings region receive a personal e-mail account and web page.
Under the plan, to be phased in gradually over the next 12 months, all public students and teachers will be hooked up to a $33 million internet network – believed to be one of the largest networks of its kind in the world.
Students and teachers, from TAFE as well as public schools, will have unprecedented access to the World Wide Web as well as customised "e-learning" accounts.
The announcement, made by NSW Minister for Education and Training John Watkins, this week has been greeted with enthusiasm by local parents.
"It is just fantastic, wonderful news," said Jenny Nalder, president of the Port Macquarie High Parents and Citizens Association.
"Access to the internet is a huge issue in regional public schools and to see the government taking positive steps is magnificent."
The Port Macquarie district superintendent for the Department of Education and Training, Frank Shaw, told the News the new technology would help "revolutionise" the way Hastings students approached education.
"This initiative will transform Port Macquarie schools and TAFE colleges from Laurieton to Nambucca," Mr Shaw said.
The new technology will allow students and teachers to access their own e-mail and web pages at home and at school through advanced links with inter-school networks.
It will also allow parents to contact their children's teachers by email about matters such as attendance and academic progress.
In some cases, students will even use the technology to take part in classes conducted at other schools.
"For example, a student in a small rural school will be able to access a French class conducted in another school," Mr Watkins said.
"This is a quantum leap for education in regional areas and is a real equaliser in giving regional students the same access to resources as their city counterparts."
But despite the positive reaction, parents warned they would be unhappy if the government failed to "deliver the goods".
"Although it is a terrific step forward, we do have concerns about the speed and reliability of the internet services which will be provided," Mrs Nalder said.
"As it is now, it is very frustrating for students using the internet in schools because it is usually so slow.
"Any system that is installed would certainly have to be extremely sophisticated to provide the sort of tools which have been talked about.
"We are hoping and praying the service to be provided can deliver all the things that have been promised," she said.
The successful tenderer for the project, Unisys, has promised a state-of-the-art system which will give students greater access to the internet with inappropriate content blocked by filters, virus scanning and intrusion-detection packages.
The first 400,000 users will be connected by the end of the year, after a pilot program involving up to 5000 country and city students.
A progressive rollout will see 1.33 million users – 1.2 million students and 130,000 teachers – connected by June 2003.