Empowering Indigenous females in rural Australia through technology in the classroom

Kiera attended the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women 62 (CSW62) in 2018. She is studying a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney and has had the opportunity to study abroad in India, France, Vietnam and Denmark.

 

Abstract

Rural Indigenous females are amongst the most disadvantaged populations in Australia. 

Despite the progress made through the Australian Government’s ‘Closing the Gap’ campaign, not all goals have been met, and statistics show that Indigenous Australians continue to achieve lower education attainment and employment. 

There is a large scope to improve the current situation of Indigenous females in rural Australia, who face intersectional disadvantage to increase education, employment and empowerment. Education and digital literacy, supported by communications technologies, is widely acknowledged as an effective means of empowerment. 

Increasing frequency and scope of technology in the classroom in rural Australia, supported by adequate services and infrastructure, and substantial input from Indigenous communities provides a path to empowering Indigenous females. 

 

Proposed recommendations

The policy recommendations to empower Indigenous females using technology in the classroom are;

1. Increasing the frequency and scope of technology in the classroom in rural Australia

2. Increase provision of infrastructure and services in rural Australia to support technology in the classroom and education

3. Establish Indigenous authorities and conducting community consultation to inform national education policy

 

Introduction and Context

Indigenous Australians continue to face the disadvantage in education opportunities and outcome. It is a challenge which the Australian Government should urgently address. As Fogarty (2012) writes, ‘On the face of things, our inability to deliver a good education to such a small percentage of the population defies belief’

More specifically, Indigenous females living in rural, remote and regional (RRR) Australia are the most disadvantaged.  Worldwide, Indigenous women are the most susceptible group in the world, and Australian Indigenous women are no exception (Booth, 2015). Further, rural woman consistently faces worse outcomes than both rural men and urban women (UN ECOSOC, 2017). As 65% of Indigenous Australians live in RRR areas, compared to only 29% of non-Indigenous Australians, Indigenous females are disproportionately affected by the problems of living rurally and remotely. 

The "2018 Close the Gap" report showed that Indigenous students lag in year 12 attainment, school attendance, literacy, numeracy and employment (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2018).  In 2016, school attendance rates for Indigenous students was 83.4%, whilst non-Indigenous was 93.1% (Australian Government, 2017). Remoteness further decreased this figure; attendance is 86.9% in inner regional areas to 66.4% in very remote areas (Australian Government, 2017). There exists a discrepancy in employment; in 2008, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was 16.6%, whilst non-Indigenous was 5.0%. 63% of Indigenous Australians stated they face barriers from employment due to inadequate training and qualifications (Korff, 2017), a direct consequence of their education.

Education is a human right. There is significant evidence of the social and private returns to human capital investments, including productivity, earnings, health outcomes and social networks(Acker, 2010). Education is fundamental in ensuring employment and can offer an escape from poverty and disadvantage. 

The United Nations acknowledges the power of communications technologies to empower females (UN Women, 2018), which could be extended into education. The UN suggests ‘technological innovations can facilitate rural women’s and girl’s digital fluency, financial literacy and skills development and support their labour market entry and livelihoods.’ Taken together, such measures contribute to gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls (UN ECOSOC, 2017).

Empowering Indigenous females in rural Australia will improve statistical discrepancies in education and employment. The UN states empowerment of females is an important and influential pursuit, impacting all other SDGs, including ending poverty (Goal 1) and achieving full and productive employment (Goal 8) (UN ECOSOC, 2017). Access Economics suggests that raising the life expectancy and proportion of Indigenous Australians in the workforce could raise real GDP by 1% by 2029 (Access Economics, 2008). In addition, Australia has domestic obligations, in honouring its ‘Close the Gap’ targets, as well as international obligations to the United Nations. ATSI Social Justice Commissioner Calma stated that respecting UN’s Declarations of Human Rights and Rights of Indigenous People is important to ‘Australia’s leadership role in the international human rights system’ (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2009). 

There is a large scope to improve the current situation of Indigenous females in rural Australia, who face intersectional disadvantage. Education and digital literacy, supported by communications technologies, is widely acknowledged as an effective means of empowerment. 

 

Case Study from India - Technology in the Rural Classroom

Rural India, like rural Australia, faces challenges to the education of lack of teachers, poverty, gender differentiation, and lack of infrastructure (MyGov India). The Indian government has committed to its ‘Digital India’ plan for education, involving all schools connected with broadband and free Wi-Fi, digital literacy courses in rural centres and developing online open courses (Ralhan, 2016). The Indian Government believes ‘Technology attracts the rural children. Their wish to attend school increases’(MyGov India). India has seen an improvement in its provision of rural education, as well as steps towards allowing rural citizens to use digital skills to become self-reliant. These government initiatives have been well supported by NGOs and social enterprises, who have used government infrastructure to deliver technology initiatives. 

Australian social enterprise, ‘40K Foundation’ works in India, establishing ‘Plus Pods’. Their mission is to create access to learning in restricted environments anywhere in the world (The 40K Group, 2017). The program works through ‘a proprietary technology system that allows us to push content into villages through tablets, and pull data back, all offline’ (The 40K Group, 2017). Technology is used to overcome the lack of qualified teachers and content and bring quality education to rural areas. 40K uses technology to engage students and provide culturally sensitive content. The program has resulted in higher numeracy and literacy levels than non-participating peers. 

This case study shows the role of technology in the classroom as an enabler of empowerment in rural areas. It shows a governmental approach of a national strategy including service provision, supported by NGOs and social enterprises. 

 

Policy recommendations

1. Increase the frequency and scope of technology in the classroom in rural Australia

1.1  Support innovative uses of technology that overcome the barrier of lack of teachers in the community and increase classroom engagement

Indigenous Australian females in rural areas face barriers to education, including lack of trained teachers, physical distance to schools, poor school attendance, dependence on government welfare, and unstable home environments (Castrission, 2014). Technology is effective in reducing barriers of distance. It is easier to access content, resources and learning materials. Technology can overcome the problem of lack of teachers. As in the case study, classrooms can function with a facilitator instead of a teacher, where technology takes on the role of transmitting content. 

Technology is an incentive for children to attend school, as it makes classes more engaging. ‘Technology can help teachers prepare more engaging and dynamic lessons, while students benefit from exposure to a world of learning and opportunity that they could not access without technology’ (Wodon, 2015). Innovative use of technology could include the use of mobile technology as an alternative to 1:1 computer programs, in line with the UN recommendation ‘expand the scope of ICT-enabled mobile learning’ (UN ECOSOC, 2017).

The government should support technology in the classroom to improve education and overcome barriers faced in rural Australia. 

1.2 Incorporate digital literacy in the national curriculum. Assign resources to teach technology in the education system and measure outcomes. 

Australia has a digital divide, which is becoming starker as the importance of technology grows and therefore the disadvantage of not being as connected and competent increase.  It is important that the government acknowledges the integral role of technology familiarity and digital literacy, and incorporates it into the national curriculum. 

Speaking of the UN Women partnership with the Mozilla Foundation, young Nairobian woman Joy Chebet Bii stated ‘if girls and women do not have access to learning ICT skills, they are missing out on big opportunities’. The Mozilla Foundation considers web skills a fourth basic foundational skill, in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic (UN Women, 2016). Technology in the classroom will empower Indigenous females to use technology for other purposes, including health apps, online banking, communication, and access to online counselling services. Further, digital literacy is essential to the modern workforce, and thus technology in the classroom will empower Indigenous females in their future employment prospects.

The government must adequately privilege digital fluency in the curriculum, and therefore assign resources to its teaching and measure outcomes on par with literacy and numeracy. 

1.3 Provide funding or grants to private companies offering EdTech initiatives or school engagement programs to complement the education system, and/or offering rebates to families of students who access these services.

Technology in education can be supplied by NGOs and private firms as in the Case Study. The government should establish funding for these firms to support EdTech initiatives in rural Australia. There is also the possibility to offer rebates or subsidies to families using EdTech services to make the programs more accessible to Indigenous rural females. The government should support partnerships to better provide education to rural Indigenous females. 

1.4 Support establishment of culturally sensitive content for technology

Technology has the potential to address cultural concerns and provide a more inclusive education system for Indigenous Australians. Technology could be used to provide instruction in Indigenous language, distribute resources based on Indigenous culture such as online textbooks and allow communication between Indigenous students over the country. The government should support NGOs or private companies which provide Indigenous culture educational content using technology and should conduct research into its place within the national curriculum. 

 

2. Increase provision of infrastructure and services in rural Australia to support technology in the classroom and education

2.1 Support technology in rural and remote Australia through adequate infrastructure, including effective delivery of the NBN rollout and unlimited internet access for schools

The success of technology in the classroom is highly reliant on supportive infrastructure. However, RRR areas are held back by inadequate public investment, lack of services and physical distances to access services and education, as well as higher levels of reliance on employment in the agricultural sector which do not rely on Western-style education. Australia’s large size and vast distances between urban areas mean that the provision of services is more expensive and existing services are harder to access in rural areas. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics stated that ‘access to the internet within Indigenous communities is becoming vital to ensure delivery of services, particularly in education and health, and to keep abreast of technological advancement’ (ABS, 2007). Despite this, just 6% of residents in some remote Aboriginal communities owned a computer, and in 2017, only 10% of RRR Aboriginal communities could access the Internet. As a result, Indigenous Australians are among the lowest users of internet services, especially those in remote communities (ABS, 2004), in large part due to difficulty accessing the internet and its high cost.

More support should be given to the Government’s in regional Australia, include the Mobile Black Spot program, and support for high-speed broadband at affordable prices within the NBN (Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, 2017). There is scope to take inspiration from the Indian case study, and allow schools unlimited internet access, and to give grants so that all educational institutes are equipped with high-quality satellite equipment and electricity. 

2.2 Ensure all remote communities have access to quality services such as healthcare, water, and nutrition to ensure the health of students so they are able to attend school.

The provision of these services in rural areas should be addressed by a number of governmental department, who should ensure that regional, remote and rural Australia, particularly Indigenous communities, are allocated equal services to those available to urban residents. 

Basic and necessary services are essential to the overall wellbeing of Indigenous females in rural Australia and are currently underprovided. Healthcare, drinkable water and adequate nutrition are essential to ensure students are able to attend school and be able to engage and pay attention. This will increase the success of the previous recommendations.

 

3. Establish Indigenous authorities and conducting community consultation to inform national education policy

3.1 Indigenous authority with power to make self-determinate and autonomous decisions for their communities’ education systems

A common criticism of the Australian government’s ‘Close the Gap’ campaign is that it does not involve Indigenous people implementing local solutions to what they consider a problem (Markham, 2018). Currently, lack of understanding of Indigenous culture in decision-making regarding Indigenous education poses many obstacles. Shields et al (2005) highlight that ‘formal education systems are systems within which Western ideals and values can too easily be esteemed higher than Indigenous worldviews, needs and aspirations’. An indigenous authority would be better placed to make decisions on culturally-appropriate education and the use of technology in the classroom.

3.2 Gather data and interviews from Indigenous Australian women in rural Australia to ascertain their obstacles and opportunities. 

The Department of PM&C and AHRC joint project ‘Understanding the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women and girls’ (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2017) should be continued over coming generations. Importantly, the findings should be acted upon.  This will support the work of the Indigenous authority, and provide evidence-based evaluations and solutions. This will also provide direction on how technology should be best used to empower Indigenous females; perhaps more focus on flexibility of learning at home, or maybe the community would prefer technology to be used to communicate with other schools in the country. Technology has a large range of possibilities, and community consultation will ensure the best solution is chosen. 

 

Limitations of recommendations

There a number of complex factors which may limit implementation of recommendations. The vast distances of Australia will continue to cause obstacles for Indigenous Australian female living in rural areas, particularly regarding the high-quality provision of infrastructure and services. There are cultural concerns for Indigenous Australians which may affect the success of educational programs or technology use. Although the establishment of an Indigenous authority and community consultation as outlined above will increase success. Further, the success of technology in the classroom to empower Indigenous rural females relies heavily on the infrastructure and services which support internet and digital technologies, as well as federal level authorities and evidence. Thus, it is essential that all three groups of recommendations are followed in order to achieve success. 

 

Conclusion

It is of great importance that Indigenous females in rural Australia are given the tools and chance to be empowered, and thus able to live a fulfilled life. This objective will not only improve the opportunity and outcomes of the beneficiaries, but contribute to a stronger Australian economy, reduce domestic inequality, and improve Australia’s reputation on the world stage.

Empowerment through education and technology is effective and worthy and can be achieved by incorporating technology in the classroom, supported by adequate infrastructure and action at the federal level to promote Indigenous self-determination. 

 

References

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