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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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Antipodean Dreaming

by Chris Bigum

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


I am writing this in a small town overlooking water that runs between the Australian mainland and the Great Barrier Reef. It is warm and Yothu Yindi ( is singing "Superhighway." I have just checked my email and replied to friends who are battling snow and cold in North America. I dropped into a MOO while online to chat to some friends. The stories shared were of football, the weather, and recent Christmas celebrations. Where I live is a day's drive from the nearest large city, Brisbane. People here, like those in other so-called remote parts of the world, have developed ways of weaving the stories that come to them through media new and old with those that are told locally. They manage the flux of stories collectively, often relying on their social institutions to make sense of the synchronous and asynchronous information that comes to them in increasing volume from around the world.

Schools, despite increasing competition from old and new media, occupy an important place among the social institutions that help the young make sense of an increasingly complex world. While much diminished in terms of their socialising influence and, some argue, their authority, they still provide a local site, largely free of broadcast media, at which the young are able to hear the stories that the elders of their tribe deem important. These stories, known as curriculum to educators, used to be a matter of local and national determination. However, the spread of the Internet and the growth of broadcast media with global reach is changing that. What is worth telling and who should tell it have increasingly become matters in which non-Australians now participate. Outside school, what stories are told and who tells them have been largely resolved. Australia, like other parts of the world has been Coca-Colonised, barely managing to maintain the flimsiest of what Americans call trade barriers, against a tide of film, television, and video. Our children wear t-shirts and caps emblazoned with the numbers and names of American sporting heroes, many of their favourite stories and characters are American, and the bland fast foods they consume come from ubiquitous American franchises (1). The growth of Internet use in Australia (2) has given the young greater access to the stories and practices of U.S. popular culture. Their capacity to use and exploit new media like the Internet for their own purposes gives them an additional and largely uncensored avenue to these resources. Schools have had to come to terms with the growing popularity of Internet use in Australia, and some teachers, have included use of the Internet in their teaching repertoire. Nevertheless, its impact on the professional lives of most teachers remains small. Schools have a history of adapting to but generally resisting new media and technologies (3), and the Internet in schools, at least in Australia, has produced familiar patterns of resistance, adoption, and promotion (4). Government too, has reacted much as it did in the 1980s when schools began to use computers in classrooms. Then and now, the government needed to be seen as doing something about it, and in keeping with an emergent digital nationalism, together with meeting other domestic political needs, they established Education Network Australia (EdNA).

EdNA seeks to maintain and support the development of Australian educational "content" and, like most top-down "solutions" in education, it has struggled to secure support from teachers. EdNA is also intended to lower costs for Internet access by providing local resources to educators. Australian participation in the Internet is dominated by its connection to the rest of the world via cross-Pacific satellite links. A large proportion of Internet access costs derive from the charges for these links. A combination of economic concerns with worries about overseas curriculum influences gave rise to an early proposal for EdNA to be a largely closed, national network with high tariffs used to restrict school access to overseas sites.

Australia's geographic isolation has always figured prominently in the nation's psyche. In curriculum terms, it has meant, among other things, that we have learned to pick and choose from overseas curriculum initiatives such as the post-Sputnik U.S. science curriculum projects. In the past, the picking and choosing went on at a state or system level. As Australian schools take up Internet use, local, system-developed curriculum frameworks are increasingly meshed with curriculum resources from overseas. On email discussion lists, teachers trade useful URLs much as teachers have always exchanged resources, except now they trade with teachers from other cultures and education systems. Teachers choose from a range of local and overseas Internet-based curriculum projects. The beginnings of a deregulation in educational ideas and resources is apparent.

The ubiquitous adjective global is employed to "explain" and to obfuscate much of what is happening. What is actually global and what the term means is elided in a rush to participate in "global" educational activities. That many of these activities come from one set of cultural assumptions about what global means goes unnoticed. To more accurately reflect the cultural assumptions, origins, and framing of many Internet curriculum projects, the term global should be replaced with U.S. or American (5).

Confusing global with American is understandable, at least on the Internet. On the basis of digital information flows, the United States is a very large country. When you do an Internet search in Australia, you typically need to use a U.S. site. A large number of U.S. sites are mirrored in Australia but the sheer number of U.S. sites that Australians use means that the digital traffic into Australia far outweighs that going out. These facts, combined with the dominance of U.S. software companies, make American influence difficult to avoid.

What this all means for Australian education is unclear. In many respects we face, at least in a digital sense, what the indigenous people of Australia have faced for over two hundred years, a dominant culture largely insensitive to the interests and needs of the culture it is suppressing. At this time of reconciliation in Australia between Aboriginals and more recent immigrants, there is an opportunity to learn how to educate our young in preserving the stories that matter. A people renowned for living in harmony with the earth, our indigenes may be able to give us lessons about how to live in harmony and balance with the new digital influences.

missing my home, missing her love, missing the land, missing her touch, out on the land superhighway - around the world, children of the earth, superhighway - across the sky, children of the earth - wanna be free, wanna be free

- "Superhighway" from YothuYindi's Birrkuta (honeybee) CD


1. The legal device of franchising is, of course, a U.S. practice.

2. On a per capita basis, Australia is second only to the United States in Internet use (see a recent AGB McNair survey:

3. See for example: Cuban, Larry (1986), Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920, New York, Teachers College Press; and Hodas, Steven (1996), "Technology refusal and the organizational culture of schools" in Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, ed. Rob Kling, San Diego, Academic Press, pp. 197-218.

4. There are strong similarities between how schools have taken up the use of the Internet and how they responded to the use of personal computers in the early 1980s.

5. A prominent example is the Global Schoolhouse.


Return to Table of Contents, Winter 1997 CPSR Newsletter

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