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Aboriginal students get chance with free laptops

SOON after getting a green laptop distributed free to Aboriginal school children in hopes of combating illiteracy and truancy, Jericho Lacey learned his computer was good for more than just homework.

From his home on Elcho Island, Australia, an impoverished tropical outpost, Lacey writes school essays and occasionally plays "maze games" and surfs the Internet.

"Hopefully, my children will become digitally connected to the rest of the world," Jericho's father Marcus said. "This island is not very close to anything."

In the middle of the Arafura Sea and about 2,000 kilometers northwest of Sydney, the former Methodist mission island is no paradise for its inhabitants.

Peanut and banana farming was abandoned decades ago, leaving little or no work on the island for the 2,000 or so adults.

Alcohol is banned to stem domestic violence and cars run on a type of petrol that can't be inhaled after gasoline sniffing became a popular and dangerous past-time for the island's youth. Pornography is also banned on the island.

Organizers behind the program hope to combat the monotony of island life with new-found interests such as online surfing and offering the 1,200 school-age children opportunities to learn of the world beyond the dense mangrove swamps that surround the island.

Illiteracy underestimated

"We're trying to give these kids a shot they might not otherwise get growing up here," said Barry Vercoe, who heads the Asia-Pacific arm of One Laptop Per Child, an international charity he says has so far given away 1.5 million computers.

To date, about 2,000 laptops have been delivered to three schools in indigenous communities in Australia, where illiteracy can be multi-generational and English hardly, if ever, spoken.

The charity was founded by Nicholas Negroponte, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, and has given computers to school-age children as far afield as Cambodia, Rwanda and Papua New Guinea.

Through private donations and corporate sponsorships Vercoe hopes to donate 400,000 computers in Australia over the next two or three years, all to indigenous school children.

"When we have the opportunity to inoculate against ignorance and illiteracy we must take it," Vercoe said.

Studies indicate that illiteracy among Aboriginal children has long been underestimated. A report by education ministers estimates one in three indigenous third-grade students failed to meet a minimum reading standard established by the government for all Australians.

Australia is less than two years into a nationwide initiative to intervene in communities heavily populated by Aboriginals, in some instances sending in police and the army to enforce alcohol bans and conduct health checks for children.

Designed by Chinese company Quanta and manufactured in Shanghai, each rugged XO computer costs US$185 and is coated in thick rubber to withstand harsh conditions.

Gary Barnes, an administrator from Australia's Northern Territory Department of Education, said the arrival of computers on the island can help teachers but is no cure-all.

Nonetheless, teacher Dianne Dickinson said: "Our students enjoy using them, which is a start."


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