Blogging in the Bush Using social computing to enhance adult literacy in remote Western Australia

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					Blogging in the Bush: Using Social Computing to enhance adult
literacy in remote Western Australia
Melanie Smith and Sue Trinidad
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia
Emilia Biemmi Beurteaux
Karrayili Adult Education Centre, Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia


      The aim of this project was to investigate how the use of social computing might
      enhance the effectiveness of learning for Aboriginal students living in a
      geographically isolated region. The case study site is a small town in the vast
      Kimberley region of WA. As with many other outback towns, education in this
      community is a major issue of concern, in particular regarding the engagement of
      learners with educational programs. This project set out to first enable a group of
      adult literacy learners to use a social computing tool – in this case Blogging – and
      then to observe and evaluate the ways in which, and the extent to which, using this
      technology impacted on their engagement with learning. The paper describes how the
      project was established, illustrating the unique context in which the study took place;
      it outlines some of the challenges faced by participants and researchers; and it tells
      how the project impacted on everyone involved. The findings indicate the potential
      for social computing to be an extremely powerful educational tool for Aboriginal
      learners and their teachers.


INTRODUCTION

Rapid changes in the uses of new information and communication technologies (ICT) present both
challenges and exciting possibilities for education in rural and remote Australia. Learners need to be
able to contribute and respond to a society increasingly shaped by the use of ICT, and literacy skills in
particular can no longer be practised in isolation from the computing tools being used in everyday life
(Penrod 2007).

Technology impacts on the ways we use literacy, and literacy skills are frequently a necessary
requirement for accessing technology and using it fully (Warschauer 2003, p. 109). Those not able to
access or effectively manage these new technologies can be placed at a distinct disadvantage, a
situation often referred to as ‘the digital divide’ (Snyder, Jones & Lo Bianco, 2005; Trinidad, 2007).
In Australia, as with other developed countries, disparities in access to and usage of ICT tend to be
related to factors such as socioeconomic status, geography and ethnicity. Disadvantaged and
marginalised groups are “not only less likely to use such technologies, but also disparities in access are
increasing, and, more importantly, the ability to use available computing is significantly unequal”
(Snyder, Jones & Lo Bianco, 2005, p. 13).

This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in remote Indigenous communities. As with other
Australians living in rural and remote areas, ICT has enormous potential to diminish the feelings of
isolation and build the capacity of individuals and communities to participate in education, workplace
and social opportunities. For Indigenous Australians ICT also offers new and promising ways to help
overcome some of the social and economic disadvantages so frequently experienced in remote
communities. Increasing emphasis is being placed on engaging Indigenous Australians in e-learning
(McDonald et. al., 2006, p. 3), but its use is often limited by factors including insufficient or
inappropriate resources (including technical support and teacher skills), and by the poor literacy skills
of students.
It is within this context that the Social Computing project on which this paper reports was conducted.
The Social Computing project, established through the National Centre of Science, ICT and
Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) during 2007-2008, was a
collaboration between the SiMERR-ICT state/territory hubs and the SiMERR National Centre. Its
aims were to raise awareness of the possibilities for using social computing in rural and remote areas,
and to investigate the impact of social computing on student learning. This national research project
created professional learning opportunities for teachers in each state and territory to implement action-
learning in their own school, and to participate in a community of practice via videoconferencing and
the use of Web2.0 applications. Ten regional and remote schools, from all over Australia, participated
in the project. A web-based collection of case studies of the use of social computing to support
student learning was produced and the use of social computing for student learning and teacher
professional learning was evaluated.

The case study reported on in this paper involved a group of adult Aboriginal learners in a remote
Western Australian town who were able to learn about and develop Blog sites as part of their literacy
and employment skills development. The creation of an organisational Blog would allow the
participants to communicate amongst themselves and with other stakeholders, allowing them to be
involved in a social computing practice that could increase and assist them with their literacy skills.
The project aimed to also encourage participants to communicate via their Blogs with others outside
their everyday environment. The paper reports on the initial stages of the project - as students were
first introduced to the concept of Blogging, developed the IT skills required to create an ongoing Blog
site, and began to explore the suddenly much larger world that was opened to them by the use of the
Internet and social computing.

ICT AND INDIGENOUS LEARNERS IN REMOTE AREAS

New technologies are generally accepted by Indigenous communities as they recognise the potential of
ICT to promote opportunities for workplace training, effective sharing of information, and for
preserving culture and language (McDonald et. al., 2006). However, many Indigenous people in
remote areas do not have adequate access to computers because of factors such as cost, access to
necessary services (eg. phone, reliable power source) and a lack of appropriate levels of literacy skills
needed to maintain ICT operations. When Indigenous Australians in remote areas do own computers,
bandwidth is often a problem. While emerging technologies have the potential to reduce the ‘digital
divide’, inability to access appropriate devices and services can also widen the divide (McDonald et
al., 2006, pp. 4-6; Penrod, 2007, p. 19).

Added to technical and hardware issues, lack of professional development for trainers can mean that
they are unable to provide adult Indigenous learners with the support learners need to fully access and
employ emerging technologies. The 2005 Indigenous Engagement Project Report notes that training
created around the available technology or programs can be inappropriate or unengaging, and there is
a need for training to be both sustainable and integrated into the social and cultural framework of
communities. The report also identifies a number of factors hindering the take-up of e-learning by
Indigenous Australians, including poor infrastructure, level of staff capability, lack of resources,
inadequate funding, lack of partnerships, lack of support from Registered Training Organisations, lack
of awareness, and program content not being relevant to learners (McDonald et. al., 2006).

WHY BLOGGING?

Blogging is being taken up by people from all walks of life, of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, at an
astonishing rate. It is now considered to be “the world’s hottest, fastest-growing electronic medium
for writing and distributing opinions and information” (Penrod, 2007, p. 1). It is particularly popular
with students and young adults – but the reasons for adopting this medium for this case study had little
to do with popularity. Rather it was the intersection of the development of literacy skills with the
more personal benefits of Blogging that drew us to explore using this social computing tool for this
project.
In particular, we were interested to see whether Blogging would engage Indigenous learners in ways
that the standard education system has often failed to. Indigenous Australians are often at a
disadvantage educationally, and the statistics on Indigenous education speak for themselves – in 2005
Indigenous Australian children were “substantially less likely to meet reading, writing, spelling and
numeracy national benchmarks than other children”, and only 9.4% of Indigenous Western Australians
attained a post-secondary qualification compared with 32% of all Western Australians (Department of
Indigenous Affairs, 2005). Improving levels of Indigenous attainment and engagement with
education is clearly an issue needing urgent and innovative attention.

Blogging appears to have the potential to make a significant contribution to this issue for a number of
reasons. First, the very nature of Blogging, with its absence of ‘failure’ and opportunities for
creativity and self-expression, has much to offer learners who have previously had negative classroom
experiences. In her examination of the Blogging phenomenon and its relationship to education, Diane
Penrod notes that “... Blogs are a way for writers to be treated the ways they have always wanted to be
viewed, as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feelings” (2007, p. 26). Blogging also allows
marginalised learners whose voices have traditionally not been heard, or who are dismissed by a label,
to “join a community that values them as thinking, feeling human beings” (ibid).

Penrod (2007, pp. 3-18) identifies five basic reasons for the popularity of Blogging as a social
computing tool, all of which are relevant to Indigenous learning:

1. Blogs are easy to use and publish.
2. Blogs are fun to use and mix pleasure with information. Blogging gives the writer immediate
   feedback, a balance between challenge and skill, an increase in autotelic behaviour (where writers
   find themselves ‘in the zone’), and, perhaps most importantly, there is no fear of failure.
3. Blogs are a malleable writing genre. Within the adaptability of the genre, however, students learn
   how to balance information with consideration of online spaces, audience needs, and the writer’s
   own aspirations. This, as Penrod notes, is an important phase in becoming digitally literate.
4. Blogs allow writers to generate new personas and construct new worlds.
5. The final reason resonates most clearly with regard to Indigenous learners. Blogs empower those
   who are often marginalised. They provide an outlet where their voices can be heard, in a society
   which too often refuses to listen to their stories.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

This research project aimed to find out how the use of a social computing tool would impact on the
skills and attitude to learning of adult Aboriginal literacy learners in a remote location.

Three key research questions framed the design of the study:

1. How does the use of social computing impact on the engagement of adult Aboriginal learners in
   remote areas with the learning environment?
2. What are the specific ICT needs of Indigenous learners in remote areas?
3. In what other ways can social computing benefit adult Aboriginal learners in remote areas?


METHODOLOGY

Research setting and participants

The case study was undertaken at an adult education centre in a small town in the remote Kimberley
area of Western Australia. The town is a predominantly Aboriginal settlement, situated in an area
popular with tourists due to a number of local environmental attractions. The town is frequently in the
news for all the wrong reasons – alarming levels of alcohol and drug abuse, high incidences of
domestic violence and suicides, and serious concerns regarding the engagement of youth with the
education system. Adult literacy outcomes in the town are often insufficient to enable individuals and
communities to participate in mainstream educational and economic activities as they would like.

Participants (n = 6) for this project were care workers, cleaners and laundry staff at the local aged care
facility, all of whom were current learners at the local adult education centre. The six staff members
involved in this study were of varying ages (from 16 to mid-40s), life experience and school
experience. All staff members were Indigenous and the majority of staff were from local language
groups. The majority of local Indigenous staff have a relationship with the old people in the hostel,
including Indigenous kinship responsibilities and obligations. All staff understand one or more of the
local Indigenous languages, all speak and converse in Kriol, and Kriol is the first language for many
people under the age of 40. English is most staff members' second, and in many cases third, language.

Some staff members had never touched a computer prior to coming to classes, although some of the
younger staff members who had recently left school were computer-competent and could work on
tasks independently. Some students found their literacy skills a challenge when using computers
(finding letters on the keyboard, spelling, reading on screen), while others relished the opportunity to
produce work without using the traditional pen-and-paper approach, as literacy issues can become a
major obstacle when work is hand-written.

Two days a week a literacy lecturer from the adult education centre visits the aged care facility and
provides literacy support for staff completing daily Progress Notes for documentation. One day a
week, the staff go to the adult education centre for 'free time', where they have the opportunity to learn
a range of literacy/numeracy skills by taking part in a range of different class activities - for example
using the internet, watching videos/DVDs, writing stories, reading activities, computer-based activities
and driver education. It was during this Wednesday afternoon session that the Social Computing
project was developed and conducted. The project involved both group work and individual work,
direction from the lecturer and two literacy support workers, whole-group decision-making and
consultation with management and staff at the aged care facility.

Data collection and analysis

Primary data for this case study was collected through observations, written feedback from students,
and in-depth interviews. Participants’ progress was observed, recorded and evaluated by the on-site
lecturer on an ongoing basis, with the Curtin researcher conducting observations of students during a
visit to evaluate the project Towards the end of the initial stages of the project, the Curtin researcher
visited the case study site to conduct ethnographic interviews to gain rich, in-depth data on the
students’ and teachers’ experiences, speaking with two students and three teachers during the visit. In
addition, students gave written feedback during the early stages of the project. Interviews were
transcribed and, together with written student feedback, analysed for factors that related to the three
research questions framing the study.

Methods

This study was designed to investigate the implications of the use of social computing, and the
development of students’ IT skills and knowledge, for adult literacy education in remote areas. In
focussing on the learning experiences of a specific small group of adult learners in a particular setting,
the study was not intended to provide data for statistical analysis. Instead it provides a ‘snapshot’ of
how one group of learners responded to the challenges of incorporating social computing into their
learning, and in doing so paves the way for further studies in this important area to be undertaken.

A qualitative approach to the research design was adopted as this would enable the study to maintain
its focus on the learners’ lived experiences. As the focus group are Indigenous learners, it was also
important that the research be conducted in accordance with AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research
in Indigenous Studies (The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 2000),
particularly with regard to recognising and accepting issues of consultation, negotiation and free and
informed consent.

A number of social computing sites for Blogging, including MySpace and Facebook, were
investigated, but ultimately it was decided to use Blogger.com (http://www.blogger.com) as it was
easy and relatively safe to use, and supported the aims of the Social Computing project.

The project was conducted on-site by the literacy teacher from the adult education centre. Initial
stages involved basic computer literacy skills, with at least one student never having used a computer
mouse before. Management staff at the aged care facility also participated in the Blogging lessons,
and in doing so were able to not only provide ongoing support for the students but became enthusiastic
about creating their own blog in the process.

FINDINGS

In discussing the findings of the project we return to the three research questions detailed earlier in the
paper.

How does the use of social computing impact on the engagement of adult Aboriginal learners in
remote areas with the learning environment?

One of the key achievements of the introduction of the Blogging project at the research site was the
engagement of learners with using computers and learning new skills. At initial meetings with
learners and staff members at the aged care facility to discuss the proposed project, and while the
project was being explained conceptually, it was noted that the prospective participants seemed
interested but hesitant. It was only once the hands-on lessons began, and students were able to see
Blogging in action, that their interest really became aroused. By week three of the project all three of
the literacy teachers and support workers commented on how enthusiastic the students were about
attending the Blogging classes.

      They’re chuffed with themselves. They’re asking the manager, ’Have we got computers
      today? When have we got computers next?” and that’s all valuable stuff as in “We like
      learning’. It’s not the tedious thing that they’ve always had to do at school. And I think
      a lot of them feel that they ... academically, it hasn’t been very worthwhile to go to
      school. Really in some ways it has no relevance to their lives, you know? ” (T1)

      It’s been really good. They’re always asking when we’re coming down here (to
      Karrayili) … they love it. They can’t wait to come down. (T2)

The students themselves told of how much they enjoyed the Blogging sessions, and of how
worthwhile they found them. When asked how they felt about the Blogging sessions one student
replied

      We’ll probably be coming back here every week eh? That’ll be good! (S1)

The literacy support teachers involved with the blogging project identified the ‘ripple effect’ of
the Blogging activities on staff and community members not directly involved with the project.
They were especially encouraged by the ways in which the Blogging was beginning to draw in
learners and staff members who had previously shown little interest in developing their literacy
or workplace skills.

      One of the fellows who’s been particularly resistant to any teaching whatsoever… was
      really interested. And there’s a glimmer, you know? (T1)
All but one of the students providing feedback from the first blogging session said that they had
been ‘excited to try something new’, with one student who had never touched a computer before
remarking that she had been ‘nervous about using computers’. Feedback from students was
entirely positive, with all students reporting that they had felt ‘good that I tried something new’
and ‘excited about future classes’.


What are the specific ICT needs of Indigenous learners in remote areas?

Students’ ICT skills at the start of the project ranged from absolute beginners to those with
limited experience of using computers at school, and lessons were therefore highly intensive as
a result. They incorporated input on such things as keyboarding skills, using the mouse,
navigating around Internet sites, creating links and uploading photos to the Blog sites. Early
sessions were carefully designed to ensure students had sufficient and appropriate support in
learning and applying the new skills, and all students progressed well. The students surprised
staff members with the relative ease with which they absorbed the new techniques and applied
them to the blogging project.

      The feedback from the students generally is that it’s been easy. I mean, most of them are
      fairly young, so where I’m in my fifties thinking ‘My god, this is technology. I can’t do
      this!’ they tend to sit in front of a computer and just go for it. There was one of the ladies
      the other day who had never touched a computer before – she set up an email address,
      and she set up her blog site, with absolutely no problem whatsoever (T1)

Students were also quick to recognise further applications of their ICT skills.

      One of the other things that computers has done is that all of a sudden some of the guys
      want a bank account, so I’ve gone on with a couple of them to show them how to apply
      over the internet for a bank account (T1).

As well as the need for adequate ICT skills support, the Blogging project illustrated the need for
delivery of ICT programs to Indigenous learners to take into account the importance of ‘human touch’
and face-to-face delivery. This is supported by McDonald et al (2007) who state that “E-learning is
most effective for Indigenous people when it involves some components of face-to-face delivery” (p.
7).

ICT programs for Indigenous learners need to be relevant to learners’ lives. A major factor in
determining the success of the Social Computing project was that the learners had full ownership of
their Blog sites, from their design and creation to the posting of Blogs and interaction with readers. In
this way the learners were able to work with the Blogs in ways that were meaningful to them, resulting
in their engagement with e-learning being relevant and built around their needs, interests and
aspirations. The students were interested in learning about using computers, but not in e-learning for
the sake of itself – to engage Indigenous learners, e-learning needs to be relevant to their lives, and to
bring about clear, practical, positive outcomes.

While it is not clear from the data collection conducted for this project, it is possible that the nature of
the collaboration between Curtin University staff, staff at the adult education centre and aged care
facility, and the learners involved made a significant contribution to the success of the project. A
report titled Engaging Indigenous People in E-learning found that ‘collaborative partnerships between
the community and experts from outside is a major indicator of success of e-learning initiatives’
(McDonald et al 2006, p. 4).


In what other ways can social computing benefit adult Aboriginal learners in remote areas?
Personal skills and experiences
The initial stages of the Blogging project focused on developing students’ computer skills to enable
them to manage their Blogs as independently as possible. It was only towards the end of this study,
once their Blogs were up and running, that the students began to interact with others through their
sites. The impact, however, was immediate. Students were extremely keen to share their experiences
with others, especially those living in the city who may know little of life in the Kimberley other than
the predominantly negative events presented by media reports. When asked what they liked about
Blogging, it was this aspect that students mentioned first.

      People sending comments! (S2).

      Yeah, just doing our own Blogging websites, and just putting the stuff in there, and people
      from uni such as Curtin University doing comments about our photos on our blogging
      sites. That was really cool I think. (S1).

      They’re seeing the comments people have made and going “Oh wow, someone is looking
      at my Blog and making comments”. They’re really enthused and happy about it (T2,).

An important benefit of becoming competent in using computers has been the impact on learners’
confidence and self-esteem. Indigenous learners have often had negative learning experiences at
school, and staff involved with the project found computers to be an enjoyable, non-threatening way
for the students to learn. Students are comfortable with using computers for social computing:

      They’re enjoying the challenge, they’re enjoying the technology. And the dignity … you
      know, you are using modern technology and that’s, like, about confidence-building, self-
      esteem (T1).

Impact on literacy learning

The students who were interviewed for this project felt that using Blogging and emails helped
them with their literacy skills.

      Well, … we don’t know how to spell or read or write. We just come here and start using
      this stuff just to get back on tracks, with spelling and stuff (S1).

The literacy teacher also noted the potential for social computing to have a positive impact on
these students’ literacy skills.

      And they’re learning, as we’re going along. (One of the students) was doing a ‘can’t’, so
      he knew he needed an apostrophe but he didn’t know where it was or what it was so
      that’s part of the learning, that this is an apostrophe and ‘can’t’ is short for ‘cannot’, so
      he’s learning things as he goes along but it’s in a more meaningful kind of way (T1).


Other benefits
Teachers involved with the project noted that the use of social computing by the learners had
produced some unexpected improvements in other areas. It was felt in particular that the project
had made an important contribution to the aged care facility’s workplace culture of learning,
encouraging and enhancing staff professionalism and the required completion of documentation.
The project also generated interest from related organisations including the local branch of the
Home and Community Care program (HACC), the local cultural health organisation, and staff
at Environmental Health. Cognisant of the positive impact of the Social Computing project,
management at the aged care facility considered purchasing a new computer for staff to use in
order to be able to continue Blogging and emailing outside their lessons.

Finally, the project developed the ICT skills of literacy teaching staff in the case study,
increasing their capacity to support Indigenous students in their future engagement with e-
learning.
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE PROJECT AND HOW THEY WERE OVERCOME
Challenges faced in the project included issues surrounding student attendance, the low level of
language and literacy skills, initial reluctance to participate, and technical difficulties.

Despite learners being enthusiastic about the Social Computing project and keen to attend classes,
attendance was affected by dependency on their workplace shift schedule. While this meant that
learners were not able to attend every session, the focus of the project on the development of
individual students’ Blog sites enabled the adult education centre’s literacy teacher to develop and
implement a program that was flexible and able to accommodate individual learners’ needs.

Students’ literacy and computer skills were generally low. While all of the learners were adults, high
school completion rates varied, English was students’ second or third language, and few had had much
experience with using computers. Students had to grapple with finding their way around the computer
and keyboard, making the process of creating a blog post slow and laboured. Reading and writing
abilities were basic, and prior learning experiences had left many with negative feelings about
education. A key factor in determining the success of the project was the high ratio of literacy support
staff to students (up to six learners and three support staff in the early stages of the project), which
enabled the staff to provide sufficient and appropriate guidance to learners, ensuring that this learning
experience was a positive one.

Low literacy and prior learning experiences may have contributed to the blogging project challenging
some students in a very personal way. Several prospective participants were reluctant to participate,
possibly because they found the project to be personally confronting. At the time of this research
being conducted, however, they were showing interest in the Blog sites being produced by other
learners, and it will be interesting to follow their engagement as the project progresses. A major factor
in overcoming this challenge was the nature of the support given by the literacy support workers and
teachers. Lessons and guidance were delivered in such as way as to be entirely non-threatening,
supportive and encouraging.

Not least of the challenges faced was access to computers, as few if any of the Indigenous residents
have a computer at home and students’ only opportunity to develop their ICT skills was once a week
(shifts permitting) during lessons at the adult education centre. Computer access at the centre is also
limited, with technical issues often restricting use.

CONCLUSIONS
For literacy learners, and young adult learners in particular, Blogging makes it cool to write. Initial
stages of this project resulted in immediate and strong engagement of the learners, generating interest
in and a passion for e-learning. Students were keen to develop their ICT skills in order to achieve
specific and practical outcomes that were meaningful to them. The project enhanced students’
understanding of the internet and how to use it as a tool for communication. Students were given
opportunities to develop their technical skills, including using digital cameras, downloading and
scanning pictures, understanding and using hardware and software, finding their way through and
around a website, following technical instructions, and learning new IT vocabulary. The success of
this project also demonstrates the need for ICT training for Indigenous learners to reflect the students’
geographic and social context and needs, and the findings suggest potential benefits for stakeholders
and the wider community.
This case study illustrates the potential for the use of social computing tools to have an impact on the
learning experiences of Indigenous learners in remote areas that is not only positive, but that
encompasses far more than simply learning to use computers. In addition to developing their ICT and
literacy skills, the Blogging project also encouraged the development of students’ personal skills such
as team work, collaboration, communication skills, and an increase in self-value.
As one of the literacy support staff on the project commented ,
      [Blogging is] a really valuable way of giving dignity to the learning to read and write
      process.
Through the social potential of technology in the workplace/community the learners were excited
about being able to ‘tell the world’ about their lives, and the interest shown by comments on their
Blogs demonstrated to learners that their way of life is valued outside their immediate community. As
Penrod states in her book, and as we found in this case study, Blogging can “bridge cultural,
economic, social, physical, emotional, technical and geographical limitations to learners” (2007, p.
32). A powerful learning tool indeed for Indigenous learners.

This paper has reported on the initial stages of the introduction of Blogging into literacy and
workplace skills development in one small, remote community. The success of the project in these
initial stages raises exciting possibilities for not only reducing the ‘digital divide’, but for addressing
the wider needs of Indigenous learners in remote areas.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
SiMERR National for funding this research and the teachers and students who participated in this case
study.


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