Wiring the Outback: Shrinking Australia through Technology

Article excerpt

Grueling effort is required to reach Pajinka Wilderness Lodge, situated at the tip of Australia's northernmost point; I waived the thousand-kilometer overland four-wheel, drive trek in favor of the more expedient two-hour flight from Cairns to Bamaga, and then an hour's ride over rutted roads. Despite its isolation, the resort, titled after the aboriginal name for Australia's Cape York, has much to offer: comfortable amenities, access to unspoiled rain forests and excellent fishing, and even a place to swim. As advertised, its freshwater pool is free of crocodiles.

Pajinka means "meeting place," and for thousands of years Pacific islanders have gathered at this cross roads to commingle with the Aborigines, as evidenced by huge shellfish middens on the beaches. Despite its remoteness--more precisely, because of it--Pajinka has become a meeting place of another sort: a cyberspace outpost. As computer and Internet technologies expand Down Under, the isolated communities of Australia's vast Outback--some regions of Western Australia boast of square miles per person--and outlying islands will be caught up in the computer era, expanding their educational, job training, and medical care options. Throughout Australia, formerly isolated communities such as Pajinka are being spun into the Web of the information age.

Getting their bearings

Cooperatively owned by the Injinoo Aboriginal Corporation, on whose land the lodge ties, Pajinka Wilderness Lodge is run by forty-year-old Allen Gerrie, an outsider experienced in hotel management. Over dinner one evening he explained his most difficult quandary: The lodge is unable to entice trained staff to remain in this remote area. Conversely, community members face daunting social challenges when sent to cities for training.

Normally, students and potential employees leave their villages to go to Cairns or Inisfail, where they study for 250 credit hours spread out over twenty weeks to receive hospitality certification. "They usually don't fare very well for that long outside their community. We send young people away to be trained, and they end up losing their bearings," said Gerrie. "They're just not used to living in city conditions. What we wanted to figure out was a way to have people trained here [on site] to run the business."

Gerrie consulted with Australia's Department of Employee Education Training about ways to deliver a hospitality and tourism course on site. With initial funding from the government, a corporation called Cape York Development Plan selected Pajinka and another town, Laura, as sites to instigate remote career-training programs via computer and computer video.

After local consultations, the learning modules were broken down into easily comprehensible English, (the primary language in Cape York is a kind of broken English called Creole). The course lessons were modified, and the revised program was loaded into the main computer in Inisfail, about a thousand kilometers to the south. Two Macintosh computers and monitors, a conference telephone, modem, and printer were installed in a makeshift classroom in Pajinka. Before classes began, the teacher was flown up to become acquainted with the students.

Initially, twenty pupils were expected. But with only two monitors, the first course was limited to ten people, ranging in age from 18 to 45. Potential students were selected for being "fairly focused and career oriented."

Over the next year, four students dropped out before completing the full course to take jobs in tourism in other parts of the country. But on September 23, 1996, six women graduated with grades well above average compared to students at more traditional schools running the course. Government ministers attended the ceremony to congratulate them and agreed to provide funds to develop a management course, with both an associate diploma and a diploma level, which would qualify them to become hotel managers. …