Bridging the digital divide in Australia's schools

Bridging the digital divide in Australia

The advent of COVID-19 has forever changed modes of learning delivery with education and training providers now requiring students to have access to online learning environments.

While most of the Australian population has access to high-speed broadband internet, those who live in remote parts of the country often find themselves excluded.

The dramatic shift to online education service delivery has had a significant impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote parts of Australia.

Lack of online access means learners in remote communities are unable to fully participate in education opportunities and this lack of access is creating a divide between the “digital haves” and the “digital have nots".

Research conducted in the Northern Territory by Associate Professor John Guenther of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and Flinders University, Metta Young of University of South Australia and Ben Smede from indigiMOB, documents the processes by which exclusion can be ameliorated and inclusion enhanced.

“Ameliorating Digital Inequalities in Remote Australia outlines the barriers to digital inclusion and reports on the engagement between government agencies, the private sector and Indigenous-led communities and organisations to bridge the gap,” Professor Guenther said in an article shared by MCERA.

“The research focuses specifically on the advances made by indigiMOB - a program funded by Telstra to work with media-related and other organizations in remote communities to build digital literacies, support improved access, advocate for infrastructure improvements, and build on local community aspirations.”

 In 2015, Telstra and the Northern Territory Government signed an agreement to expand telecommunications infrastructure across the Northern Territory and to serve more remote communities with mobile and fixed broadband services. The following year, First Nations Media Association (FNMA), a peak body advocating for the digital needs of people in remote communities, developed the inDigiMOB program. 

“At the heart of inDigiMOB is the principle that communities should decide how technologies should be best used and applied to their context,” InDigiMOB Project Manager Ben Smede said.

“InDigiMOB works with communities to build digital skills fit for community purpose and this has been largely achieved through Digital Access Worker and Digital Mentor relationships.”

Researcher Metta Young noted that: “Despite the strategies and co-investment partnerships, there are still limitations associated with inadequate digital infrastructures for many living in rural and remote communities where people have less choice, less secure, and less reliable internet access as well as less access to devices other than mobile phones.”

According to Professor Guenther, the reasons for exclusion are in part related to the lack of digital infrastructures in some locations.

“However, issues of affordability, digital literacies, and systemic priorities, which favour white, financially and educationally well-off people, create inequalities that serve to discriminate against First Nations people living in remote communities,” he pointed out.

“No single program can remove both the social and digital inequalities that exist in an instant. What inDigiMOB does is provide a model – using partnerships and employment strategies – to ensure that communities can build robust digital foundations, which support digital inclusion. With these foundations in place, the ability of remote communities to respond to the downsides of inclusion is potentially enhanced.”

The research concludes that while there could be some optimism about the role that inDigiMOB is playing in ameliorating digital inequalities in Australian remote communities, the seriousness of the problems associated with digital inequalities should not be downplayed.

“The limitations that minimal digital access has on communities are negatively affecting education and other opportunities. Building infrastructure, by itself, will not solve the digital inequality issues many remote communities face,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Resourcing for many communities may be an ongoing issue, but an informed understanding of the need and therefore the demand for digital skills/infrastructure creates a space for communities to advocate for their digital access rights and right to education equity.”

The original version of this article appeared as a media release by MCERA.