Learning literacy from laptops

aboriginal literacy foundation

The Aboriginal Literacy Foundation is going digital with an innovative scheme to deliver one-on-one tutoring to Indigenous students, including those living in remote areas.

For 20 years the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation (ALF) has been devoted to improving reading and other academic skills of Indigenous children, primarily though providing tutoring programs and supplying books as well as other educational resources.

ALF CEO and founder Dr Tony Cree said digital learning platform Need A Tutor was a new way of connecting students with highly trained and experienced tutors in Melbourne and Ballarat.

“It’s a real step forward,” he said.

“If the child is a long way from the school but can pick up the internet we can tutor quite remote places as well.

“It could even be done on a smartphone but obviously it’s better to have a laptop.”

Dr Cree said online tutoring had a number of benefits, including removing child safety concerns about a child being left one-on-one with an adult and Indigenous cultural sensitivities about male and female adult interaction with boys and girls.

There can also be cultural or logistical reasons why it is difficult for Indigenous students to attend schools, which makes digital tutoring to homes a valuable substitute.

Dr Cree said the hardware was available due to a government push to get computers into schools.

He said he had seen Northern Territory schools with plenty of computer facilities but no library, indeed not even a bookcase.

Even Groote Eylandt, which is a three-hour flight in a small plane from Darwin, has a school with internet facilities.

Dr Cree pointed out that NAPLAN testing indicated Indigenous children in year 6 were roughly three-and-a-half reading years behind their non-Indigenous peers and this gap had not closed in the last 15 or 20 years.

“Our big push is with upper-primary and lower-secondary students,” Dr Cree said.

“The problem is many are going into a secondary school with a basically grade 2 or grade 3 reading ability, so it’s hardly surprising that a lot of them drop out at the first opportunity. If you can’t read, you can’t do the assignments so I don’t think you have much of a chance, do you?

“Griffith University research shows that Indigenous Australians with good literacy skills were five times more likely to have a job but also have an improved life expectancy.

“It isn’t just a literacy matter, it’s a job and a health and a lifestyle matter.”

ALF tutoring also includes numeracy skills.

“We try to get students up to a basic level of numeracy so they can face secondary school with some prospect of success,” Dr Cree said.

Providing books and other materials that Indigenous students want to read has long been the mission of the ALF.

“We’ve actually sent 100,000 volumes from Melbourne to schools in Northern Australia in the last two years,” Dr Cree said.

Dr Cree said that new approaches, such as digital tutoring, were something privately-funded not-for-profits such as the ALF have the freedom to try.

“We can afford to experiment and try different things that governments can’t do,” he said.

“Many innovations in health and education are initiated by the private sector. When its seen to work you’ll find the government comes in big time. If this is successful you might very well find it taken up by education departments.”

The ALF is funded by donation from individuals and philanthropic organisations.

“We have no government money but we have very, very strong supporters in the community. We have about 3500 people who subscribe or give money to us directly,” he said.

“Because we have no government money we are rather accountable. Government money can just disappear quite easily but people who give their own money want to know exactly where it’s gone. So we run a pretty tight ship.”

Dr Cree said half of his individual backers came from the Australian churches.

“The Catholics and the Uniting Church are probably our biggest supporters,” he said.

“We really, really appreciate it.”

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