Funk, Guthadjaka, and Kong 2015

Funk, J., Guthadjaka, K., & Kong, G. (2015). Posting Traditional Ecological Knowledge on Open Access Biodiversity Platforms: Implications for Learning Design. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 44(2), 150–162.


BowerBird is an open platform biodiversity website ( and a nationally funded project under management of the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) and Museum Victoria. Members post sightings and information about local species of plants and animals, and record other features of ecosystems. Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute Elder on Country researcher, Kathy Guthadjaka, has shared pictures and information about the biodiversity of her home lands in the Yolŋu community of Gäwa, on Elcho Island in north east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The extent to which this knowledge can be exposed in the same way as other open resources, can pose dilemmas about the level of ‘openness’ that is appropriate. Open sharing of educational materials can be promoted as a basic human right. This paper will explore the extent to which traditional knowledge can be made openly available. What are the implications for sharing this knowledge in a westernised context that compartmentalises it, and how can a western academic perspective learn from this knowledge and engage functionally with it for the purposes of learning? The existence of this project on the interface between traditional knowledge and western technocratic information management also has implications for how information is presented and valued.

Key Ideas

This is significant because the TEK [Traditional Ecological Knowledge] which Guthadjaka has shared on the website could be classified as intellectual property of the language and knowledge authorities of the Country (meaning the land) from which it has grown over thousands of years. Open access to this knowledge can therefore place it in jeopardy by misappropriation of others while promoting and preserving it in scientifically-informed presentation. As this TEK and language is endangered, it could be argued that it requires different management from other forms of knowledge that are openly shared and repurposed in this transdisciplinary learning environment. (p. 151)

Principles which are in Effect in this Context
  1. Traditional Knowledge should be protected.
  2. education is a universal entitlement.
  3. we exist in a knowledge economy and this has implications for how we value information. (p. 151)

Literature Review

Freire (1970, p. 74) speaks of authentic education being a collaborative process carried out with the learner, and that ‘ . . . education is . . . the organised, systematised and developed representation to individuals of the things about which they want to know more’. He goes on to say that:

‘One cannot expect positive results from an education or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding’ (p. 76).

Yolŋu and Warramirri Learning

Djurrwirr’s author, Guthadjaka (2010) speaks about the direction of learning in Yolŋu teaching and learning environments, and how learning on country embodies a strong connection to the place where the learning process happens. Without this, the knowledge gained has no grounding. Guthadjaka describes the learning that happens on country as similar to a joining of tributaries; that learning comes from a series of places and sources, as opposed to the one learning object, teacher, book or whiteboard. (p. 152)

Outdoor Education

Outdoor education emphasises relationships of people to their environment as a most important feature of successful learning experiences (Priest, 1986). (p.152)

Distance Education

The theory of transactional distance (Moore, 1993) can also come to bear on this work, as distance education could be said to have informed open educational approaches. (p. 152)

Audience and motivation

The variety of methods here are the use of more innovative, embedded layers of design that utilise the richness of technology; attempting to emulate on-country, outdoor and context-embedded learning as much as possible. These practices reinforce the contextual potential of using digital resources. It is not sufficient to merely use a digital resource and assume that the medium it is in will enhance educational outcomes. According toWallace (2011, p. 120): ‘Technologies cannot be used uncritically; rather they are used within social contexts. It is important to understand the relationship between social, cultural and physical contexts inwhich learners and (mobile) technologies operate’.

The Cultural Interface and Learning Processes in New Regions

Nakata’s call for ‘a more sophisticated view of the tensions’ (Nakata, 2007, p. 12) in an effort to mediate the tendency to reduce our conceptualisation of diverse knowledge systems into dualisms can also be aligned with Christie and Verran’ s (2013) promotion of using digital practices to ‘see digital files not as containing knowledge (through the conventional practice of representation) but as artefacts as previous knowledge-making episodes that were being enlisted and configured for very lively conversations’ (Christie & Verran, 2013, p. 307). (p. 153)

Le Grange also discusses the performative and representative natures of scientific knowledge. One can regard knowledge in this way as ‘theories and laws’; or as ‘the doing of science, that is, science is a human and social activity that is messy, heterogeneous and situated.’ (Le Grange, 2007, p. 587). This also ‘enables seemingly disparate knowledge traditions to be integrated so as to disrupt the dichotomy between western science and African indigenous knowledge’ (p. 587). (p. 154)

Wallace goes on to note that the ‘role of digital technologies in improving the educational opportunities for Indigenous learners is dependent on the way they are used and connected to people’s own lives and purposes (Wallace, 2011, p. 124). (p. 154)

The outcome of conducting this pilot, however, has led to a critical reflection on how the surveillance directive of this pilot highlights the design features of the site as not working with Warramirri epistemology. It therefore could add limited value to surveillance outcomes, by way of restricted engagement of knowledge authorities from which the information has been sourced. (p. 155)


What is notable is that the predesigned fields did not fit the information Guthadjaka decided to share. This raised the concern that perhaps the site design was not in collaboration with Yolŋu epistemology. Yolŋu cultural protocols determine the level of openness with which stories and information are shared with others. The fields provided were not filled exhaustively, and there was information that was consistently given for each sighting for which there was no field. This pointed to the possibility that the western epistemologies and epistemologies inherent in the site’s design were in some ways conflicting with the values through which Indigenous Knowledge systems operate and share learning. This is also the conflict which led to this critical reflection paper being written. (p. 156)

Taking the effort to honour the principles of learning in context, and from country was beneficial to the situation by respecting Guthadjaka’s position as an elder and teacher with experience spanning over 40 years. This is upheld by Freire’s (1970) contention that collaboration with world views is most likely to be successful, and Fogarty’s (2010) notion of pedagogy as a discourse that requires participation with the learner, or in this case, the source of that learning. (p. 156)