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The Reg explores technology in a remote aboriginal community

Can the net make a difference in central Australia?

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The author William Gibson is reported to have said the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.

I've recently seen plenty of truth in that utterance first hand, in the remote aboriginal community of Willowra, located about 300km north-west of Alice Springs on the land of the Warlpiri people. Willowra is home to the Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre, a new adult education facility that opened in April 2013 and brought with it ten PCs and Macs anyone in the community can use. They're the first public computers in a town that lacks mobile phone service and in which not every home has a phone.

The Tanami Desert en route to Willowara

The Tanami Desert en route to Willowara. The vertical smudge near the horizon is a small dust devil

The Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre offers TAFE-level studies (polytechnic for UK readers, community college in the USA) tailored to the needs of locals. It also co-ordinates many other educational activities that don't build to qualifications. The Centre was built by the Warlipiri Education and Training Trust, an organisation that believes education is key to the people’s future. The Learning Centre is an attempt to make education more readily available in Willowra and at a cost of over $AUD3m it's a big and eloquent investment.

Education is important because remote aboriginal communities don't have a lot of economic opportunities. A long-running debate in Australia considers integration as a way such communities might find more opportunity and access better health and educational services. The nation also has a growing sense that integration is not the answer because to separate Aboriginal people from their land, language, culture and extended family can create a profound poverty of a different sort.

Brighter and more expert minds than mine are pondering those issues. But as a technology journalist with an interest in how computers change the world, and a remit to foster a community, I went to Willowra to learn how those PCs are being used and how they help the Learning Centre's mission.

I first heard about the Learning Centre from Robin Burton, who spent a month working there as a volunteer and Tweeted about his experience. Robin told me he'd been able to be useful just by sharing his knowledge of the online world, something I felt I could also do. Robin put me in touch with the Learning Centre's Co-Ordinator Kerrie Nelson, who agreed to host me, while the Central Land Council granted me a permit to enter Aboriginal land.

Ahead of my visit I imagined that online services must have a lot to offer a remote community. Crowdsourcing could bring work. Etsy or RedBubble could offer a new way to sell art produced in town. MOOCs and other open courseware could provide educational opportunities. LibriVox and Project Gutenberg could bring free books. Combined with WiFi hotspots, the community could quickly connect to the world and overcome the tyranny of distance.

The Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre

The Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre

I got the chance to put that theory to the test during the twice-daily sessions when the Learning Centre allows anyone in the community to use the computers, which share a satellite link to the internet. I was able to participate in two of those sessions, partly as an observer and partly as a helper after my status as a “computer expert” was pointed out to visitors. I was also asked to see if there were any quick alterations that could make the computers more accessible.

Many visitors to the centre hopped on and off computers with nonchalant ease, quickly logging in to Facebook, email or internet banking. Several visitors came in just to use a USB charger for an iPad. Kudos to Apple: some of the iPads I saw had taken a fearful battering but were still working.

Others were less adept with the PCs and Macs, often because for many Willowra residents English is their second language. I assisted men in their twenties who had learned only the basics of reading and writing English. That didn't stop them logging on to YouTube or iTunes to watch music videos and movie trailers. I was asked how to download such content to USB sticks more than once.

Some of the PCs inside the Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre

Some of the PCs inside the Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre

I was asked to make the PCs more accessible to those with emerging literacy skills, and tried to do so by hiding shortcuts to Internet Explorer 8: on a slow network up-to-date versions of Chrome or Firefox are a better idea. I cleaned up Start menus, gave shortcuts simpler labels and increased icon sizes.

Using the internet for a few minutes of entertainment didn't seem to me to have much to do with learning but I was assured that every time someone with low levels of literacy uses their skills it's a small win because it means they practice and engage with English. Explaining that using those hard-won skills is illegal when applied to YouTube rippers was not easy!

Use of the Learning Centre's WiFi is understandably restricted to its own devices so I had no answer to the smartphone owners who wanted to download games and no easy way of explaining the need for a Google account to do so. That felt like a failure.

Kerrie Nelson encouraged me to show users around the Windows XP PCs on offer and as I did so I noticed the presence of Tux of Math Command, a simple maths tutorial disguised as a version of the classic arcade game Missile Command. The men I worked with enjoyed the game and I saw them quickly improve number recognition and simple addition skills. Another small win.

I also showed locals the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Footy Stats program that features Aboriginal footballer Andrew McLeod. My audience recognised him instantly. Just helping to make that connection felt like a win.

Not long after that session, my trip to Willowra had to end, because I squeezed it in during The Reg's coverage of the World Solar Challenge. In the weeks since, I’ve spent a lot of time on this piece, trying to figure out how to describe the visit.

I can now see that my original intention of bringing knowledge of what the internet can offer to the community was sound, but also a little misguided. Online services are already of huge use to Willowrans, but services to help with literacy or adult education, and wider access to communications tools like Skype, can make a difference now. It might be years before MOOCs make their mark: the future I and Reg readers are reaching for or already inhabit isn’t always the future many Willowrans could use right now.

But those I met are clearly reaching out for an online future. They've decided to go online and see it is a part of their lives.

Web-based English-as-a-second-language courseware or other resources for people with basic literacy skills will help their explorations. If you know of any, give us a shout please! Indeed, if you can think of anything online that might meet the needs of the people I’ve described above, do please share!

The Warlipiri Education and Training Trust

Education is they Key

There’s something else Reg readers might be able to offer, namely advice on network improvements because the Learning Centre’s network is painfully slow: PING returned round trip times of 2000 or more milliseconds to sites like Google. Downloads regularly timed out.

I wasn't able to learn about the speed of the Centre's satellite connection and don’t want to traduce the Centre's designers by guessing at the reasons for their chosen network design, but let's say I'm pretty sure there's some low-hanging fruit that could speed things up without huge effort. I’m making inquiries so I can ask readers for more specific input and perhaps for help.

It’s my hope that in the near future, more representatives of The Reg's community can meet the Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre’s community. I think we’ve a bit to offer, because we live in a future that’s just starting to appear in Willowra. Knowledgeable people and some extra tools might bring the future to town a little faster than would otherwise be the case. What Willowrans chose to do in that future is their own business. ®

Thanks

This article would not have been possible without the extraordinary generosity of Kerrie Nelson and the Willowra community.

I also need to thank Sennheiser Australia, which donated four pairs of headphones to the Wirliyatjarrayi Learning Centre. The Centre gets through a few pairs of headphones, so the new pairs Sennheiser donated were very gratefully received.

The conditions of my permit included a request not to photograph any houses, hence the lack of Willowra photos.

A final note: if you click on the first mention of Willowra up in the second paragraph, the resulting Google Maps page depicts a broad river. It's not accurate: the river is actually a broad, dry, sandy river bed. Locals told me that in the wet seasons some thin channels of water may appear for a few days or weeks at a time.

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