Distance Education Comes Home

May 15th, 2004 | By | Category: 15-4: Ancient Cultures Modern Technology, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

STUDENT USING COMPUTERNot that long ago, “distance education” for American Indian people meant boarding schools. Federal agents and missionaries ripped children from their parents’ arms and transported them to far away boarding schools where they were detained, often isolated from their families for the entire school year.

The federal government intended for the schools to immerse the children in non-Indian culture so they would forget their “backward,” “heathen,” and “savage” tribal and family traditions. The boarding schools were told to “drown the Indian and save the man,” in the words of Richard Henry Pratt of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Boarding schools left a tragic legacy that surfaces today in many American Indian people as physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug dependence, and – significantly – generalized distrust of education.

Fortunately, the federal government failed in its mission to eradicate tribal cultures and languages. One quarter of American Indian people in this country live on reservations where they can participate in cultural and family activities in the land of their ancestors. Thousands of “urban Indians” still visit their home reservations for social and cultural events; many plan to retire there, and they seek closer ties.

Taking Education to the People

Today “distance education” means something entirely different. Tribal colleges and universities are using technology to deliver higher education to the students where they live rather than students being forced to abandon their families and tribes. They are creating virtual universities, offering a broad and growing range of classes to students no matter where they live.

All but five of the 34 tribal colleges in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in the United States are involved in some form of distance education, according to Carrie Billy (Navajo), AIHEC director of technology development.

Through satellite networks and the Internet, tribal colleges transmit and receive workshops, courses, and entire degree programs using cutting edge technologies, many of which are described elsewhere in this issue. Three of the pioneers of tribal college distance education are featured as authors in this issue: Dr. Gerald “Carty” Monette (Ojibwa), Dr. Lori Lambert (Abenaki/Mi’kmaq), and Mark Trebian (Tlingit).

Tribal colleges have turned to technology because Indian people often live in remote, rural areas with little access to education. The General Accounting Office found that the tribal college students who benefit from distance education are often older students with dependents who cannot leave their jobs to travel to a college town.

The 34 tribal colleges serve many more tribes, some hundreds of miles away. The tribal colleges work closely with tribal officials to determine their tribes’ needs. Based in Washington state, for example, Northwest Indian College broadcasts classes to remote campuses on reservations in three states. Bay Mills Community College serves all 11 tribes in Michigan and people in 17 other states. Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute serves tribes in four Southwestern states.

Articles in this issue provide other examples. Community Health Representatives and Head Start instructors receive professional training without leaving their work duties. Tribal college students and faculty conduct scientific research with partners at some of the nation’s top research universities and laboratories.

Providing a Cultural Foundation

Strategic planning by the colleges in AIHEC has helped keep the technology from straying from their missions. Outside experts who have studied the tribal colleges’ work in technology have noticed that it differs from other systems. Rather than competition and top down decision making, the colleges are more likely to cooperate and share resources.

Technology has the potential to “increase the marginalization of the already marginalized,” who cannot necessarily pay the costs for the hardware and software, according to Alex Byrne in an article in the periodical, The Electronic Library: The International Journal for the Application of Technology in Information Environments.

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