Indigenous Australians Are Among Australias Most Disadvantaged Education Essay

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Indigenous Australians are among Australia's most disadvantaged people's, with education, health and lifestyle outcomes far below those of other Australians. They are also among the lowest users of internet services, and Indigenous people living in remote communities are the least likely to have used the internet (ABS, 2004a). In Australia, the gap that separates those individuals who have access to new forms of information technology from those who do not is widest between people living in remote Indigenous communities and other Australians, although there are major variations among remote Indigenous communities as well. Indigenous Australians living in remote communities face considerable obstacles in accessing and using the internet. Overall, they have poor and inadequate access to internet technologies and the equipment required and most currently lack the pre-requisite knowledge and skills for more intensive internet use. That people living in remote Indigenous communities are not accessing computer technology is hardly surprising, given "low levels of education, English-language proficiency and high unemployment" (Daly, 2005; Lloyd & Hellwig, 2000).

Increasingly the world is moving towards a higher dependence on online technologies, for everything from banking, liaising with government services, communicating with other people and of course education. The push towards online education, particularly in the more developed countries of the world has been considerable over recent years. "Open learning" is transparent and accessible to anyone with internet access (Savage, 2012) and the push for online opportunities has been sold to the consumer as another way Universities and Vocational Education and Training provides are meeting the needs of their diverse client groups. Such openness could do a lot to improve standards at universities whose business models are driven by the number of students, rather than mastery of a given subject. In Australia, for a group of people who are already well behind the national average in areas like education, literacy and socio economic standing, the push towards online learning may be just another step too far for Indigenous Australians and in particular those living in remote location. This push may very well be widening the gap as opposed to closing it.

The discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in Australia is most apparent in relation to school completion and progression to higher education (Gray & Beresford, 2008, p. 199; Toombs & Gorman, 2010, p. 14). It is well documented that Indigenous Australians experience a level of disadvantage which prevents many from undertaking university studies. However, despite this disadvantage many Indigenous Australians do enrol in university and successfully complete their studies (Toombs & Gorman, 2010, p. 14). In Australia it is clear that those groups which are socio-economically disadvantaged will become further disadvantaged if they are excluded from the technologies others take for granted (Servon, 2002).

Within the education system there has been a shift towards using Internet and various digital technologies to provide greater opportunities, and this trend has influenced educators, in Australia and overseas, to utilise online environments and technologies to meet educational goals and aims (Kral, 2010, p. 5). Technology is now central to the daily routine of university life. In most higher education institutions students must search and enrol in courses and otherwise manage their academic schedule online. Final grades and general university announcements are also provided online. Implicitly, these institutions presume that the student body has the technological knowledge and skills to navigate through this digital environment. With the level of technology currently used in universities, students must possess a minimum level of computer knowledge in order to function successfully in an online environment. The Illinois Online Network has stated that students must be able to use a variety of search engines and be comfortable navigating on the World Wide Web, as well as be familiar with Newsgroups, FTP procedures and email, and if they don't possess these technology tools they will not success in an online program (ION, 2010). However, students come to university with differing technological skills and access to technology.

The digital divide and Indigenous access to ICT

The advent of computers, the internet and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has brought significant changes to individuals and communities across the globe, though it is clear that these technologies are not accessible to all individuals and communities and there are inequalities in ICT access (Rombel, 2000, p. 47; West, 2003, p. 23). Gaps currently exist between those people considered to have access to ICT services and those who do not. These gaps are commonly referred to as the digital divide (Black & Atkinson, 2007, p. 1). Digital divide discussions have primarily focused on the technical component of the equity gap, which recently has meant broadband Internet access (Meredyth & Thomas, 2000, p. 213; Warschauer, 2002, p. 30). The digital divide remains the leading theory as to the reasons for, and the impacts of, differences in internet access and use (Van Dijk, 2005).

Do we need this paragraph? Should I explain how access, ability and affordability relate to remote Indigenous students?

Rooksby, Weckert and Lucas (2002, p. 201) further define access to ICT as being made up of three components; access, ability, and affordability. 'Access' is defined as someone being able to access ICT from their home, community or a public place and also includes the physical components of access to ICT such as basic computer facilities, word processing, data storage and printing, web browsing, searching and discussion mediums (Black & Atkinson, 2007, p. 4). 'Ability' is explained as the training and support needed to utilise ICT and 'affordability' is the material cost of access for ICT (Rooksby et al., 2002, p. 205). The cost factor is always an issue for poorer Australians, so access becomes a barrier to computer technology. Roberts and McInnerney (2007, p. 257) further clarify that some of the underlying problems associated with the digital divide, or barriers to technological access, include "access to knowledge, access to technology, access to communications, access to control, access to goods and commodities and access to participation".

In Australia, this "gap separating those individuals who have access to new forms of information technology from those who do not" (Gunkel, 2003, p. 499) is widest between people living in remote Indigenous communities and other Australians, although there are major variations among remote Indigenous communities as well (McCallum & Papandrea, 2009, p. 1231). For Indigenous Australians living in remote areas the digital divide can be interpreted as lack of available services in some areas, but also low levels of access in dwellings where internet services are available, whether mobile or wired internet access (Rennie, Crouch, Thomas, & Taylor, 2010, p. 49).

While the digital divide may be becoming less prominent to other marginalised groups in Australia (Willis & Tranter, 2006), the divide may be increasing and becoming even more significant for Indigenous Australians (McCallum & Papandrea, 2009, p. 1234). The 2000 Telecommunication Service Inquiry and the 2002 Regional Telecommunications Inquiry explained that Indigenous Australians in remote and isolated communities had access to a poorer level of technological facilities, slower internet connections and less access to maintenance of facilities and training in internet use than those in urban Australia, all factors which impacted on their use of internet services (Besley, 2000; DCIA, 2002). The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2004a) data showed that in 2002, 56 percent of Indigenous people reported that they had used a computer and 41 percent had accessed a computer in the previous year, but did not provide information on the level of use. Earlier Australian Bureau of Statistics data reported that in 2001, only 3 percent of Indigenous persons in very remote locations had a computer at home; (ABS, 2004b, 2008; Besley, 2000).

The survey conducted by Rennie, Crouch, Thomas & Taylor (2010, p. 52) found that of 34 of the larger Indigenous communities in central Australia (with a combined Indigenous population of 9724, or 72 per cent of the Indigenous population of central Australia outside Alice Springs or Darwin) residential access was extremely low. They explain that internet access is immensely variable in remote Australia, in the types of access, bandwidth, reliability and cost. Some remote areas are well-equipped with ADSL, while others have only satellite. Physical obstacles, such as distance and harsh environmental conditions, have meant that installation and maintenance costs are high. Small, scattered populations with high unemployment and little in the way of industry make no economic sense for telecommunications providers investing in a competitive market (Rennie et al., 2010, p. 52). The 2002 Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Indigenous Communities (TAPRIC) cited factors such as poor and inadequate housing, isolation and harsh environmental conditions as barriers to developing communications systems.

Recent research by McCallum and Papandrea (2009, p. 1232) mapped the patterns of internet access and use in remote Indigenous communities in Australia by visiting 14 communities in the Northern Territory and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankuytjatjara (APY) lands of northern South Australia. The data they assembled highlights the problematic nature of uncritically imposing inappropriate technological solutions on Indigenous communities. Their data supports the findings of Rennie et al (2010) that private access to the internet in the communities was rare and that less than one quarter of the Indigenous households surveyed had a computer, and fewer than half of those with a computer also had an internet connection at home (McCallum & Papandrea, 2009, p. 1238).

As Selwyn points out, an emphasis on availability can obscure more subtle disparities:

"accessing online information and resources from a home based computer or digital television set is not necessarily equitable to accessing the same materials via an open access workstation in a public library or other community-based ICT centre" (2004, p. 347).

Rennie et al. (2010, p. 59) found in their study that fewer than half the communities had community internet access and, of these, many were only semi-functional. McCallum and Papandrea (2009, p. 1242) explain that poorly maintained facilities, intermittent training and the absence of home access mean that users have little opportunity to reinforce skills and retain knowledge. For the most part, community access facilities are considered a culturally appropriate means of internet access in remote Indigenous communities and government policy has supported community internet facilities as opposed to home Internet (Rennie et al., 2010, p. 52). However, the difference between media use in the public and private domains have yet to be adequately examined in the remote Indigenous context. The assumption that a generally communal lifestyle requires community internet access facilities needs to be tested.

Mobile Phones

The Parliament of Australia established the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee (RTIRC) to assess the adequacy of telecommunications in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia. The resulting report found that "generally, Indigenous people in remote communities purchase mobile phone services in preference to fixed voice telephony services" (Glasson, 2008, p. 75). The report acknowledged that fixed voice telephony services are an unpopular choice for remote Indigenous households due to lack of mobility and pricing, noting that there is "strong evidence of a cultural misalignment between the technology and the intended user" (Glasson, 2008, p. 75). For internet access, mobile telephones would therefore seem to be a good option. However, mobile-based internet connections are not really suitable for situations requiring a large download volume because of the high costs that apply to large data download volumes on mobile services. For an online learning environment that requires weekly interaction with discussion boards and downloading content like readings this is simply not practical. The impact of substantial personal expense complicates any basic assumptions around the social benefits of access (Rennie et al., 2010, p. 57).

McCallum and Papandrea (2009, p. 1241) also found in their study that younger people under 30 years were generally more knowledgeable, and more confident, about their level of computer and internet skill and that they also used a broader range of ICT services. Generally, they had acquired their computer and internet skills at school, where there was a good range of facilities and training opportunities. While schools provided access to computing facilities, those who no longer attended school had limited opportunity to access the internet and few opportunities to use the internet for leisure or work. Similarly, most young people were unable to access the internet outside of school terms and hours.

Online learning

'Online learning' ranges from simply videotaping lectures and posting them for any-time access, to uploading materials such as syllabi, homework assignments, and assessment items to the Internet, all the way to highly sophisticated interactive learning systems that use cognitive tutors and take advantage of multiple feedback loops. Most Australian Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Higher Education (HE) facilities are experimenting with online instruction though the rationale, form and strategy differ from institution to institution. In addition to the growth in 'online' or 'hybrid' courses the pervasiveness of the Internet in higher education is evident in the increasing use of it in the form of course management systems or virtual reading materials incorporated into the curriculum. Even courses that are called 'traditional' almost always involve some use of digital resources (Bowen, Chingos, Lack, & Nygren, 2012, p. 7). As students become increasingly accustomed to incorporating sophisticated technology into more and more aspects of their daily lives, more courses will migrate to the digital classroom and the pace of change is likely to accelerate (Bacow, Bowen, Guthrie, Lack, & Long, 2012, p. 16).

Rapidly evolving online technologies and powerful mobile devices mean educators all over the world are now working to understand the profound 'disruption' web-based online learning is ushering in (Ben-Naim, 2012). Simonson (2010, p. 72) notes that "a disruptive technology or disruptive innovation is a technological innovation, product, or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology or product in the market". 'Disruptive' is used not because it is a breakthrough improvement but because it transforms the product or service into something that is simpler and much more affordable to the whole population who it then becomes accessible to (Simonson, 2010, p. 72).

The much-discussed book on disruptive technologies and universities by Christensen and Eyring (2011) is a good example of the attention being given to online technologies as a way of changing profoundly the way students are educated, such as distance education, virtual school, and e-learning. Online education means to broaden access to instruction by serving students who otherwise would not be able to matriculate in traditional programs. These non-traditional students include older students who are attending school while employed, students who are located some distance from campus, including those in rural and remote areas and disabled students, among others (Bacow et al., 2012, p. 10). Distance education has come to dominate by filling a role that the older technology could not fill.

Massive Open Online Courses and Interactive Online Learning (future of online learning)

For people who live in rural and remote areas, online learning represents a significant change in access to higher education. The availability of distance education has made a difference in accessibility over the last few decades but the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a major leap forward. MOOCs are highly sophisticated, interactive online courses in which machine-guided instruction can substitute for some face-to-face instruction. Course systems of this type take advantage of data collected from large numbers of students in order to offer each student customised instruction, as well as allow instructors to track students' progress in detail so that they can provide their students with more targeted and effective guidance (Bowen et al., 2012, p. 9). The larger and more prestigious education brands, like Harvard and MIT in the United States of America are enrolling tens of millions of people into their MOOCs (Ben-Naim, 2012; Savage, 2012). This push to democratise learning is being taken up in Australia too. Universities are trying to understand whether MOOCs are just healthy competition or are a disruptive innovation.

Greater - and smarter - use of technology in teaching is widely seen as a promising way of controlling costs while also reducing achievement gaps and improving access. President Emeritus of Northwestern and chairman of the board of Rasmussen College, as well as chairman of ITHAKA Henry Bienen is quoted in a recent article as saying that:

"online education, in some form, is the only way that many people can acquire more skills and earn a college degree, the returns on which have skyrocketed in the past three decades. But online education is also increasingly common in colleges and universities that educate 'traditional' students" (Bowen et al., 2012, p. 10).

Online education is increasingly being seen as a 'revenue-generating' force in many institutions (Bowen et al., 2012, p. 8). It is a two pronged attack, consisting of a higher capacity to enrol students and thus raise revenue but also to lower costs and therefore raise profits. Until now, "technology-induced productivity gains in higher education have been taken mainly in the form of increased output" (Bowen et al., 2012, p. 24) for example in producing more and faster research. Online learning systems can be helpful not only in curbing cost increases including the cost of building new space, but also in improving retention rates, educating students who are place-bound and increasing the throughput of higher education in cost-effective ways (Bowen et al., 2012, p. 29).

Importance of Culture

Studies aimed at assessing access to and use of the internet need to consider and discuss the potential for damaging outcomes from internet use (McCallum & Papandrea, 2009, p. 1235). Article 15 of the WSIS Declaration of The World Summit on the Information Society states "In the evolution of the Information Society, particular attention must be given to the special situation of Indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their heritage and their cultural legacy" (2003). Culture has been defined by Uzuner (2009) as "acquired behaviours, perspectives, and values characteristic of a particular group or community". While many digital divide studies position computer technology as a force for positive social change, (DCIA, 2002), this assumption is neither universally accepted nor without considerable debate. It is important to acknowledge that new technologies can produce new sociocultural conflicts and uncertainties.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Information Technologies in Education has stated that for Indigenous peoples, technology has often had unforseen and unwanted consequences and that "ICTS may be used to reinforce and accelerate the dominance of Western-based modes of though, culture, and learning strategies" (Resta, 2011, p. 4). Casey, Ross and Warren (1999) noted that integration of new technologies in Indigenous communities can create conflicts between old and new ways of living and would succeed and thrive only with support from tribal members. Livingstone (2003) states that studies of internet use should avoid assuming that what is good for non-Indigenous urban communities automatically, must be good for remote Indigenous communities.

Mainstream educational institutions either fail to recognise or dismiss the glaring fact that Indigenous students are attempting to function in an educational system that is often unsympathetic to them while at the same time trying to participate in the prevailing society that has been and is still oppressive to them. According to Waller et al (2002), the cultural divide between Aboriginal and mainstream ways causes distress and disorientation, which in turn is associated with Indigenous students' educational disengagement. Indigenous people often come to believe that they are incapable of learning (Pirbhai-Illich, 2012, p. 257).

However Indigenous communities tend to place an "intrinsic and collective value on education which is woven into the present and future needs of their people" (Eady, Herrington, & Jones, 2010, p. 262). Battiste (2008, p. 176) notes "Aboriginal scholars and writers have recognised that education is the key matrix of all disciplinary and professional knowledge and central to alleviating poverty in Aboriginal communities." Current models of distance education being implemented for Indigenous learners are largely representative of the technology, heritage and scholastic traditions of the developed Western nations, and lack culturally appropriate learning components which have been proven a factor to the success of adult learning (AISR, 2006; Ramanujan, 2002; Young, 2004; Young, Robertson, Sawyer, & Guenther, 2005). Ramanujan (2002, p. 37) warns against carelessly copying Western models of distance education rather than recreating Indigenous models, which "will have greater relevance and strength than the copied or adopted models". Prototypes based on Western middle-class ideals and standards where the curriculum and learning objectives emphasise the acquisition of workplace skills and appropriate literacy levels related to personal success and status in mainstream society are often rejected in Indigenous communities (Taylor, 1997).

The dispossession of Indigenous Australians was reinforced through the destruction or deliberate undervaluing of their culture, art, beliefs, and oral traditions, as well as through the conscious elevation of European traditions (McClellan & Tanner, 2011, p. 33). The consequences of the erosion of Indigenous culture have been dismal for Indigenous peoples. They have been, and continue to be, significantly disadvantaged in terms of key social and economic indicators. Whilst Indigenous people as a collective, the wider Australian community and Government all share a common goal to 'close the gap' on Indigenous disadvantage in terms of education, health, and economic participation, each Indigenous community has its own specific ideas of well-being shaped by how close a connection they have been able to maintain to their country, culture and tradition (Sen, 1999, p. 38). The more disconnected or removed they have become, the greater the emphasis on restoring these connections and returning to country as central to their well-being, even surpassing more measurable social and economic indicators (Vaughn, 2011, p. 133).

However, with the growing understanding of the nature and underlying causes of Indigenous disadvantage, there have been some recent positive steps toward tackling this disadvantage and empowering Indigenous peoples to control their future (McClellan & Tanner, 2011, p. 33). There has been a growing awareness that overcoming Indigenous disadvantage necessitates recreating cultural identity and pride, with self-determination being a vital element. It is important to note that the things that external bodies think will be beneficial for Indigenous people are often not what they want. It is critical that Indigenous peoples are in the 'driving-seat' of programs that affect them. Governments and researchers alike are learning through experience that successful outcomes are contingent on effective partnerships and genuine consultation (McClellan & Tanner, 2011, p. 35).

Culturally appropriate ICT Training

Differences in the skill competency between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations indicate a need for skills support for learners who experience limited access due to "geographical barriers, government policies, language background, poverty, health or technical insufficiencies" (Eady & Woodcock, 2010, p. 25) and for assistance with accessing ICT. UNESCO has recommended that governments support research that determines the level of access to ICT devices and connectivity needed in Indigenous communities and the training and technical support that is required (Resta, 2011, p. 8).

Governments are encouraged by UNESCO to develop initiatives using ICTs and e-learning to help Indigenous peoples benefit from the new opportunities offered by ICTs. ICT awareness and literacy programmes should be available in Indigenous communities as an initial step in achieving this goal (Resta, 2011, p. 9). One of the objectives of the Australian Government's Indigenous Economic Development Strategy 2011 - 2018 is to assist eligible higher education providers to meet the special needs of Indigenous students through the Indigenous Support Program (ISP) (Government, 2012). The ISP supports the establishment and management of Indigenous Education Units, provides assistance with study skills, and cultural awareness activities (DEEWR, 2012).

Learning support programs need to provide solutions to effectively address the unique learning and skills development needs of Indigenous learners by researching, designing and delivering online programs in culturally-appropriate and community-relevant ways. ICT training and support offered to Indigenous students' needs to be culturally appropriate, which means that it should incorporate "culture specific values, styles of learning and cognitive preferences" (McLoughlin, 1999, p. 231). However it is crucial to note that the optimal learning environment to support adult Indigenous learners while maintaining educational integrity in the process is the implementation of technology that is not just suitable but accessible and reliable (Eady & Woodcock, 2010, p. 35).


A key point, if an obvious one, is that there is no one approach that is right for every student or every setting. In important respects, the online learning marketplace reflects the diversity of higher education itself. For those who work in Indigenous Australian education, culture and diversity are seen as important and it is necessary to design and teach our courses to relate to local conditions and accreditation requirements. We can still do this in a virtual world with online courses, but for obvious reasons they can't be mass globalised courses. When we teach we need to do so using examples from the students own culture in order to engage them at the level of their own life experience. There are real advantages to gaining some competence in learning in online environments, but there is also great value in discussion groups, seminars, and directed study. Ideally, students will be exposed to a carefully designed mix of learning models, in part so that they can continue to benefit from the socialisation values of higher education that have been so important historically.

For Indigenous Australian students, computing skills and knowledge of technology is part of "enculturation into tertiary study" (McLoughlin, 1999, p. 233) and a prerequisite for academic success. A major consideration when attempting to use computers in Indigenous communities is access and for the majority of these communities there are logistic challenges in finding a workspace, purchasing equipment and connecting to the internet.

In a world where access to computing for the purposes of engaging in education is becoming increasingly more popular amongst education providers, there is a very real chance that those who are not able to engage with these emerging technologies will be left behind.

Mike would like to add some harder hitting statements here about equity and the split online will cause between an already disadvantaged cohort and the mainstream, in a time when we should be "closing the gap"….