Old Teachers College (A22)
University of Sydney, NSW, 2006.
The University of Sydney's Koori Centre has been pursuing a strategy of community development which hopes to begin redressing this disparity and foster community control of intellectual property. The project is national in its scope and is based on the provision of services from and in conjunction with the Centre's Internet server: KooriNet. These include:
In conclusion, some brief comparisons are made between aspects of current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander access to networked services and the diffusion of new information technologies in developing countries.
"If one is going to practice systems development in a given cultural setting, one needs to know how to behave in that culture; either by being raised within it or by studying the cultural traditions in question. If one is going to study the factors affecting systems development in a given country, one needs to pay more attention to the political economy and the material conditions of the country within the world-system. In developing countries, both researchers and practitioners need to take into account wider contextual issues and pay more emphasis to participative, empowering methodologies than in the industrialized countries." Korpela (1996, p40)
Despite frequent student requests, initial attempts to improve the local facility were met with some internal resistance. Computers were seen as a low priority by the (largely Aboriginal) staff in the total scheme of students' support needs. Arguments against taking any action ranged across issues such as the potentially significant and recurrent costs involved, the redundancy of duplicating facilities already offered within the institution by departments with greater expertise, and the benefits of students integrating themselves into the wider University environment. The point that it just wasn't working seemed to get lost in the debate.
Although never made explicit, it is highly probable that this resistance was also due, at least in part, to a perception that the technology in question was 'a whitefella thing', and somehow not the proper business of a service for Indigenous Australian students. There was clearly also a misapprehension of the Centre's students having simpler needs in this area than the rest of the student population, based on their demonstrated lack of use of existing facilities. Both positions, of course, entailed the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecies.
The impasse was broken with the award of an Equity and Access grant for $25,000 from the University's Information Technology Committee. This enabled the purchase of a reasonable number of computers, laser printer, scanner, software and appropriate furniture. Judicious use of funds allowed the inclusion of a purpose-built Internet server and networking, including connection to the main University network.
The initial stage of implementation was simply to get a local area network up and running that would meet students' word processing and printing needs. The effect of this single achievement was instantaneous. The Centre's computer room went from a state of general desertion to one of constant activity virtually overnight. Technicians completing the installation were required to crawl between the feet of students eager to test the capacity of the new equipment, and demands for instruction and problem-solving kept support staff continually occupied and on their own steep learning curves for many weeks.
It was also significant that a number of students chose to bring family and non-Indigenous friends to witness the new facility. Strong senses of both ownership and pride were clearly evident from the outset. In this context a positive decision was made, against the advice of University technical staff and with some internal reservations, to locate the server within the student access area. In the face of fears of security breaches or naive interference, the choice was to physically acknowledge ownership of the facility by students and to demystify the technology by making as many aspects of its operation as transparent as possible.
This early success confirmed a couple of important facts. Given a supportive and identified environment and quality facilities, Indigenous students were just as keen to utilise technology as their non-Indigenous counterparts: computers could be as much a Koori thing as a whitefella thing. Similarly, in the context of needs-based, self-directed learning and individualised teaching, Indigenous students were able to demonstrate as much capacity for the mastery of the technology as any others.
Even before the operations of the local network had been stabilised, requests for access to wider networked services were being made. Students were aware that there was more out there and were quite aggressive in their desire to experience it. To satisfy this demand World Wide Web (WWW), e-mail, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) software were loaded onto the user machines. A Telnet client with default connection to the University's online library catalogue server was also provided.
While an initial burst of interest in all new services was experienced it did not take long before WWW and e-mail services won out as the students' clear favourites. In the case of FTP this was almost certainly because there was little to be accessed of interest that could not also be reached by the less challenging use of an integrated WWW browser. And, while IRC at first appeared a great novelty, the idea of anonymous communication with strangers on often trivial topics was clearly mismatched with preferred Indigenous communication styles (c.f. Harris 1980, Coombs, Brandl & Walsh 1983, Eades 1985, etc).
Once the principal purpose of the Centre's purchase had been fulfilled, the next step was to investigate the new potential to actually provide service to others. This was achieved through an initial foray into WWW service: bringing the home page home.
With the registration of the domain name: www.koori.usyd.edu.au, and the relocation of relevant files to the new server, the Koori Centre had finally arrived on the Internet. Not only that, it actually owned and controlled a part of it. Although in reality only a trivial event, internally it was a matter of great pride and empowerment and, for both staff and students, a sudden manifestation of the information superhighway as something tangible and on which Indigenous people could have a direct and immediate impact.
Even from the earliest stages of student Internet access it became apparent that there was very little available of direct relevance to Indigenous Australian students. Searches on a range of terms returned results apparently unrelated to the query or pertaining to indigenous peoples elsewhere. Worse still, some hits resulted in inaccurate or incomplete information supplied by commercial interests, clearly motivated more by the marketability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material than considerations of appropriate representation or veracity. At the time it appeared, and was probably quite true, that all the material available on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on the Internet could easily be read in one day. Scouring the WWW for appropriate sites to establish the definitive links page seemed neither justified nor productive, since other better resourced facilities like the Aboriginal Studies WWW Virtual Library and the VicNet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Page already had the task well in hand. The Koori Centre did, however, establish an Indigenous Australian tertiary support and teaching centre links page which it continues to maintain.
At this point the realisation also occurred that the immense change witnessed in the Koori Centre could just as readily occur for other communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, given similar access. In large part this was a simple extension of the insights gained from observing the experience of students when provided with appropriate resources and instruction in a supportive environment. But it was also due to a recognition of the Centre's inability to fully utilise the enormous potential of the facility and a moral obligation to share as much as practicable with other organisations, communities and individuals not in such an advantaged position. Thus the KooriNet Internet Sponsorship Scheme, whereby non-profit Indigenous organisations were offered free WWW site design and hosting services, was conceived and implemented as a first step towards 'sharing the wealth'.
The scheme has been conducted by two main methods to date: direct approach to organisations perceived as likely candidates to take advantage of such an offer, and through promotion on the KooriNet site. While an offer to construct and publish a WWW site for another organisation free of charge might seem likely to be flooded by interest, this has not been the case. Thus far it has only resulted in the successful publication of two.
A significant element of the apparent resistance to taking advantage of such an opportunity seems to have been the problem of attempting to sell a high-tech solution to a naive audience. What does it mean to be offered a free WWW site when one has never surfed? And, even where an organisation has access, who has the spare time to determine the content and appearance of such an apparently peripheral document when there are so many other more pressing issues, particularly in the current political climate? A further issue limiting progress has simply been the availability of human resources within the Koori Centre to actively recruit clients. Nonetheless, numerous enquiries have been made and discussions are in progress for the establishment of a number of new sites for community organisations. Some organisations have also started to demonstrate active interest which has subsequently lapsed, although hopefully only temporarily.
The two sites which have successfully progressed to publication are for the Federation of Indigenous Education Providers, Inc (FIAEP) and the National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council (NAHHC). The FIAEP is the peak body representing Aboriginal community-controlled adult education nationally with a membership of:
The NAHHC is an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation centrally concerned with working for the recognition, respect, preservation and promotion of Aboriginal history and heritage. A major and ongoing mission for the organisation since its inception has been to rescue from redevelopment the venue in Sydney of the first national Aboriginal civil rights protest: the "Day of Mourning and Protest", held on 26 January 1938.
The development of both sites has been the result of long, but very positive, processes of detailed consultation and negotiation whereby the possibilities afforded by establishing a WWW presence and the perceived needs of each client were identified to determine a practical solution; and with which each has subsequently expressed great satisfaction. Since establishment, both sites have grown considerably from a humble single page and both clients have become quite adept and precise in judging appropriate, relevant and useful enhancements.
In the case of the NAHHC, which is without its own Internet connection, it is of particular interest to note that the process of development required a visit to the KooriNet facility for representatives to observe the server in action and experience the WWW first hand for the first time. Similarly, the processing of e-mail to the NAHHC address from its WWW site currently requires an intermediate stage of printing and faxing. Theirs is an Internet account by proxy: perfectly functional, if a little labour intensive.
Shortly after, and concurrent with the implementation of sponsored WWW sites, the KooriNet project began seeking out ways to usefully expand its potential for e-mail list service to the advantage of Indigenous Australians in a wider context. Given the prior existence of lists on topics such as reconciliation and Aboriginal studies served by other organisations, and the general lack of access to networked facilities amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities nationally, it was initially difficult to determine a niche available to productively service consistent with the project's ambitions. A solution ultimately followed from an earlier step taken to maintain a clearinghouse of WWW sites for Indigenous support and Aboriginal studies teaching units at other universities. If there were centres in similar institutions likely to have a significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and with an Internet presence, then those people were highly likely to have both e-mail access and a good deal of common interest. Thus the <atsiuni> list was created.
The initial subscriber base for <atsiuni> was derived from published lists of e-mail addresses; either as components of the number of WWW sites which had by now been established, or circulated on paper between centres for contact purposes. From a total of just over 60 subscribers in four institutions at implementation <atsiuni> has now expanded to a user base of over 270 at 27 institutions across all states and territories. Although open to self-subscription, the list's existence has never previously been publicised outside its target audience and it has consequently remained relatively closed and consistent with its original purpose. All promotion of <atsiuni> to date has been by direct approach to the staff of Indigenous centres and further awareness has only been generated by virtue of messages forwarded on to others by subscribers. It is open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous subscribers and will accept subscription from any address. However, to curtail unwarranted influence by external interests, it has proven necessary to restrict posting rights to only those addresses in the Australian education domain.
While, in its infancy, <atsiuni> was largely reliant on content forwarded by Koori Centre staff for activity, it is now in almost daily use by individuals across the country; the majority of whom are Indigenous academic and/or support staff. It has also realised immense value in its capacity to rapidly alert interested parties nationally to matters of relevance and importance. The <atsiuni> list was, for example, a key channel of communication in a recent national campaign of protest to the Federal Government which netted the signatures of over 6,000 university staff in one week.
The <atsiuni> list has now also generated a number of subsidiary lists to serve specific purposes; all at the request of Indigenous subscribers. The NSW/ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Network has sought the establishment of a NSW and ACT-specific list composed only of subscribers within those regions, known as <atsihen>; currently with over 150 subscribers representing all universities present. Staff involved in the administration of the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ATAS) have recently requested and been provided with a list to serve their specific interests; <atas>, covering 12 universities. And, as this paper was in preparation, a Liaison Officers' list; <liaisnet> was requested and implemented. A national Indigenous Australian students' list; <atstdnts> is also being served, which currently has over 100 subscribers although, perhaps indicative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student access nationally, only representing five institutions.
Efforts have also been made to develop community access to the Koori Centre's local area network under the project. However, because of the continual pressure of student demand on the facility, there is currently limited scope to facilitate substantial use by organisations and community members external to the University. Nonetheless, family, friends and associates of students and staff continue to periodically utilise the available resources and are provided with any necessary training as required.
However, as always seems the case, there are limitations which frustrate the project's capacity to proceed in the directions and at the pace desired. Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the conduct of the KooriNet Project to date has been achieved completely without dedicated staff. All development of the project has been by personnel whose duties, while including those of supervising the Koori Centre's student access computer facility, do not officially encompass the provision of any of the additional services discussed. Some technical services at the time the new equipment was commissioned were performed by external technical staff. But, virtually all on-going maintenance and development since then has been performed by Koori Centre academic support staff in addition to their normal duties, and frequently in their own time.
Naturally this situation exposes the project to some considerable risk. Without the continued participation and goodwill of the staff involved KooriNet currently has no human resources to implement additional or expanded services, let alone maintain those which currently exist, except at considerable and largely unaffordable expense. The loss of participating staff could easily see the project collapse. Of course, in the realm of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs generally, such a situation is hardly remarkable and many significant developments are routinely achieved with non-existent resources. Nevertheless, if aspects of the KooriNet project such as sponsored WWW sites, electronic publications and the provision of e-mail accounts to community members and organisations are to undergo expansion, the rate must currently be limited by the capacity of staff to undertake the necessary tasks above and beyond their normal demands.
With regard to the provision of increased community access to the Koori Centre's computer facility, the major limitation remains simply in terms of the availability of machines. As the quantity and quality of hardware and software available to the University's Indigenous students has increased, so has the rate and volume of their usage. And, given that funds were allocated to the facility on the primary basis of improved services to students, it is they who must be given priority. While the occurrence of mid-semester and annual breaks in University teaching does allow periods when student demand wanes, these restricted occasions are often not suitable for other community members, particularly those involved in education elsewhere. And, as these times are also coincident with the Centre's major annual recruitment activities, the availability of support staff to provide tuition, troubleshooting and equipment maintenance is limited. The ideal solution to these issues would be a substantial expansion in the number of user machines; probably a doubling of the existing facility, which would allow for the provision of dedicated or, at least, priority community access workstations. However, such a course of action is itself constrained by the perennial problem of the availability of funds.
Lack of funding is also one of the principal limitations to the major area of proposed expansion for KooriNet: the implementation of direct dial-up access. Current plans for the incorporation of this service require a basic 8 modem pool, LANrover and rotary telephone line, valued at approximately $12,000. However, a further unresolved problem remains with regard to the legal implications of providing such a service. Under current Australian telecommunications legislation the University is precluded from acting as an Internet Service Provider to any party not directly affiliated with the institution itself. Thus, any future provision of such services will probably be possible only under the auspices of a research project in which, for example, participating community organisations and individuals are prepared to have their patterns of usage documented in some way in exchange for access. Obviously, this may not be an acceptable price for some.
Until recently all hopes for the next stage of development for the KooriNet project were pinned on a grant application for approximately $100,000 to the Commonwealth Department of Communication and the Arts under the Online Public Access Initiatives. scheme. This scheme promised to make $2 million available to an estimated 20 community projects, emphasising access by Indigenous Australians as a priority area. Unfortunately the recent announcement of grants indicated that not only had the KooriNet project been unsuccessful, but the vast majority of the 24 grants awarded had gone directly to state or local government initiatives, with only one identified Indigenous Australian community organisation achieving any success. At this stage KooriNet must therefore remain in a state of slow growth while the search for sources of substantial funds continues.
A reasonable question at this point might be what is it that differentiates KooriNet from, say, a commercial Internet Service Provider; apart from the fact that it remains much smaller than most? Principally the difference must lie in the fact that it has developed from the outset as a non-profit Indigenous Australian community-controlled service providing exclusively for the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals. On this basis KooriNet has been able to operate free of the constraints and motivations normally experienced by commercial services and be guided instead by considerations of equity, access, community development and social justice. In this context a number of key issues have informed the development of KooriNet throughout its brief history, these being specifically; control, consultation, participation and appropriacy.
KooriNet has been and remains under the control of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander management structure, responding to needs and ambitions identified by Indigenous Australians and developed in direct consultation with them. As a general statement, similar conditions also exist for most, if not all, of KooriNet's current clients. However, it must also be acknowledged that the vast majority of KooriNet's physical development and continued operation has been at the hands of non-Indigenous personnel. None of the technical staff who installed or occasionally service KooriNet, or who author and maintain its WWW pages, administer the e-mail lists, or provide day-to-day troubleshooting for the server and local area network are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There is instead a significant dependence on good faith and good management, and all the risks which that entails.
Amongst the current range of Indigenous Australian Internet sites this is highly unlikely to be a unique situation and may indeed prove to be the norm. But, it highlights a significant gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in networked services, and one that will need some specific and direct action if Indigenous Australians are to genuinely control the provision of services which are designed for, and to represent them. Without the direct and active participation of competent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander personnel, real control and self-determination will continue to remain elusive ideological niceties. As Korpela (1995, p24) notes:
"...it should be understood that [information technology] for appropriate development can not be genuinely and sustainably implemented without the participation of communities." Korpela (1995, p24)
Much of the development of KooriNet has been motivated by distinctly Indigenous Australian cultural considerations. The obligation to share scarce, and therefore valuable, resources for the common good of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been a strong incentive encouraging the investment of considerable time, effort and funds in both making KooriNet a reality and for its continuing expansion. The potential for Indigenous Australians to utilise KooriNet as a medium for the exchange of information has also been clearly realised, as have the possibilities for bilateral education on contemporary Indigenous Australian issues and consequent social change. KooriNet has been and continues to be a significant manifestation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander empowerment in the context of the new information technologies and one which, it is believed, could easily be used as a model by other institutions and organisations in similar circumstances to those of the Koori Centre.
Minority access to educational technology (read computers in classrooms) has received considerable attention, but chiefly in the North American setting and concentrating mainly on non-indigenous peoples. There is, however, a large and growing body of work on the socio-political aspects of implementating substantial information technologies in the 'developing' countries. While it would be unsound to attempt to directly equate the experience of an indigenous minority in a Western country with that of an autonomous non-Western nation state (Korpela, 1994 p187), there are nonetheless some interesting similarities between these experiences; in large part probably due to their shared post-colonial status, which may serve to better inform consideration of the local situation.
Rodriguez (1994, p31), for example, in documenting factors inhibiting the development of Latin American databases, lists the following impediments which could be as well applied to the circumstances of many rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander communities attempting to access or establish a presence on the Internet:
- scarcity of local capital
- inability to absorb recurring costs
- high illiteracy rate
- language barriers
- telephone, postal and electric services inadequate
- telecommunications networks inaccessible
- insufficient hard-copy collections
- shortage of trained manpower
- inadequate continuing education
- dearth of specialists
- high cost of networking with continental systems
- large rural areas lack necessary infrastructure
- communication, transportation and information flow all inadequate
The KooriNet project has been acutely aware of these issues, in the former case, because it embodies strategies intended to overcome some of these barriers yet remains largely frustrated by others and, in the latter; because it has been a self-conscious participant in such a process. While KooriNet can, by offering a public access facility and dial-up services, possibly enhance access for Indigenous communities in metropolitan Sydney, it has limited potential to extend these particular services to populations outside, say, a 100km radius of the University itself. KooriNet can provide WWW server space and site design services to even the most remote communities if they are aware of what is being offered them. However, it cannot equip them with the physical resources to view their own WWW site, should they have the necessary infrastructure available to utilise these.
In this context, Benton's assertion,
"Indigenous people have the power right now to tap into these networks, quite literally, and on their own terms. They can become the leaders in the information age." (1992, p24)
seems more than slightly optimistic. Certainly the information rich members of Indigenous communities such as the current subscribers to <atsiuni> might be approaching such a position. However, for the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, becoming part of an Indigenous Australian cybercommunity is still a distant dream, assuming it is something of which they are even aware or, far more importantly, want. As Toyne and Granites observe:
"The current developments are rapidly projecting community members into information networks which are global in scope and capable of drawing the affairs of the community into an infinity of external agendas." (1996, p107)
As Indigenous Australian access to the Internet expands, a significant issue to be faced will be the impact of the new medium on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and societies. Although, unlike the broadcast media, the Internet affords far greater opportunity for user selectiveness and a new individualised interactivity,
"...Western technology is not culturally neutral and the impact of the values and attitudes involved in the transfer on the socio-cultural traditions of non-Western societies imposes serious threats." Ghosh (1987, p 36)
Such concerns are echoed locally by Toyne and Granites; although balanced by an appreciation of the potential which exists for greater interactivity in service delivery to remote communities:
"The technologies can quite easily promote intrusive, invasive processes which are capable of posing a threat to culture, impede the empowerment of Aboriginal people, and attack the general integrity of community life. Equally, they can alleviate the dysfunctions of isolation and produce a more sensitive and interactive relationship between agency and community in which information and opinion is used to better define the terms of delivery." (1996, p100)
In his discussion of the introduction of networked services to an Aboriginal organisation Ebbs identifies the preservation of Indigenous autonomy as a secondary and conscious factor impeding the diffusion of new information technology:
"There has been a resistance to networking among local Aboriginal organisations mainly because lack of computing expertise in the local communities means greater dependence on outside support." (1990, p50)
Similarly, Michaels (1985) in considering the potential cultural consequences of broadcast television on isolated Central Australian communities cites a number of challenges to traditional authority structures, ontology and linguistic preservation which the imminent intrusion of the new information technology might entail; clearly entertaining these as possible rationalisations for Indigenous resistance. And Toyne and Granites, in their discussion of the anticipated socio-cultural effects of the Internet, focus on some practical aspects likely to be antagonistic to Aboriginal traditions of communalism:
"Equipment has been designed around normal computer screen formats which prevents its use by larger numbers of people. Additionally, the lower cost of the equipment will make it likely that it will be introduced on an agency by agency basis into separate workspaces, rather than on a communal basis." (1996, p103)
There is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm surrounding the currently phenomenal rate of growth of the Internet and a lot of excited talk about the new technologies' potential to deliver all manner of advantages. However, as Ghosh (1987, p36) warns:
"The main danger of [new educational technologies] is the preoccupation with its rate of growth and immense potential. This creates a tendency to subvert ends to means, and education to technology by undermining the human factor."
While those associated with the KooriNet project believe it has largely managed to avoid falling into this trap, it remains uncertain to what extent the same can be said of all current sources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on the Internet. Certainly the incidence of `Indigenous Australian' sites on the WWW, for example, is continually growing. But to what extent do these represent the real participation of the subject population? And how, if at all, have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people directly benefited from many of these? As Ghosh (1987, p44) continues to note:
"The needs of development dictate that educational technology be utilized to reduce inequalities by providing benefits to all, and also develop skills to a level which will make them self-sufficient."
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 The Koori Centre is an autonomous devolved unit of the University of Sydney, managed by an Aboriginal directorate and with a majority Aboriginal staff. It is charged with responsibility for the development and implementation of all policy concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs within the institution.
 `Indigenous', `Indigenous Australian', `Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander' and `Koori' are used interchangeably throughout.
 After the University of New England's Oorala Centre
 i.e. email@example.com
 A grant of $10,000 to the Warlpiri Media Association.
 This and related issues are the topic of a forthcoming paper by the author: Where Are All The Aboriginal Home Pages? The Current Indigenous Australian Presence on the WWW, proposed for presentation at the Literacy and Education Research Network conference in Alice Springs, October 1997.
 See, for example, http://www.i-net.com.au/features/koorie/index2.html