• Professor Peter Radoll wants every Indigenous household to have a computer and broadband internet access. (University of Newcastle)Source: University of Newcastle
A computer course changed his life. Now Professor Peter Radoll wants every Indigenous household to have a computer and internet access.
Alyssa Braithwaite

20 May 2016 - 3:35 PM  UPDATED 20 May 2016 - 3:35 PM

Peter Radoll never thought he would go to university.

For the first 11 years of his career he worked as a motor mechanic, and getting a university education didn't feature in his "wildest dreams".

"I was pretty confident I was too stupid to go to university. I know that sounds silly now," says Radoll, who is now a professor and Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Leadership and Strategy at the University of Canberra.

It was an adult education course in Word for Windows that changed his life forever. On that course he met an elder, Uncle Ray Hurst, who thought Radoll was "too bright to be a motor mechanic" and filled out a university cadetship application for him.

"Unbeknownst to me, Uncle Ray and Aunty Pat had actually written to the Department of Education on my behalf, got the application form, had filled out the application form as much as they could, gave me one reference, and said ‘Look, we’ve got this stuff for you, you just need one more reference’," says Radoll, who is a descendant of the Anaiwan people of Northern NSW.

"So I did that and the rest is really history. I jumped on an airplane, came down to Canberra for the interview and started an IT degree. When you look at people who are successful, I always say 'Somewhere along the line someone cared enough about them to give them good advice'." 

These days he's trying to pay the good advice forward, and is dedicated to working out how to ensure that every Indigenous person has a computer at home and internet connection.

Radoll wrote his PhD "Stone Chips to Silicon Chips: A Grounded Theory of Information and Communication Technology adoption in Australian Indigenous households— rural, urban and remote" in 2010, and found that Indigenous communities were just not engaging with the internet.

"At most, roughly only 60 per cent of the Aboriginal community will have a broadband connection at home, compared to about 87-90 per cent in the non-Indigenous community. Just 30-40 per cent of Indigenous households in remote communities now have internet access. That's not good," he says.

"And we know that those who have internet connections at home have better incomes, better jobs and better health outcomes. You can derive great economic benefits from using the internet, and you can get access to the best education in the world if you have an internet connection and a PC siting in front of you."

Radoll says that in the six years since his PhD was published, those figures have not improved.

"That hasn't changed much for a long time now. In fact, there is some indication that we might have reached a peak some years back with technology and broadband adoption in Aboriginal households, and now there's a little bit of a drop off," he says.

"That data is really fresh, so it's not really robust data yet, but there is a suggestion that we might now need a new focus on that.

"If we're really serious about closing the gap on health and education, if we're really serious about financial and economic development in communities, we've got to get the internet in all Indigenous homes."

Missing the digital economy

Radoll says the infrastructure is already there, but the reasons behind the lack of engagement include affordability and a lack of purpose and motivation to use it. And the consequences of the poor rates of adoption of the technology in the Indigenous community are a big concern.

"We are in serious danger of missing the digital economy," Radoll says.

"Based on 2009-2012 data, only 11 Indigenous students a year graduated out of university with IT qualifications, so we are so under-represented. I want to let our mob know, this is part of our culture as well."

The father of six has already seen the benefits in his own home, with his two eldest children studying psychology and science at university, another following him into IT, and a 16-year-old son who wants to work in biomechanics and has won a $10,000 scholarship after making a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robotic eyeball that reacts to light. 

"This is the influence you can have if you are brought up with the technology," says Radoll.

"I would love it if the government or an enterprise like Microsoft or Google would say, 'we're going to give every Aboriginal household an internet connection and a subsidized device, so kids can have access to tertiary education regardless of where they are, and access to home-based jobs and real opportunities.

"That's my utopia."

SBS Science in collaboration with NITV is showcasing Indigenous Australian scientists. Stay tuned for more profiles in this series over the following weeks!

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