Educating the Native Student at Distance

Feb 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 10-3: Distance Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Few subjects elicit as much heat in educational circles as distance education. While most educators value computers, many object to the idea that technology can solve all of our educational problems. Titles of recent books reviewed in this issue’s resource guide by Jim Ereaux indicate the depth of the emotions regarding technology in general: High Tech Assault On Reality, Absence of the Sacred, Dancing With the Devil, Silicon Snake Oil.

The tribal colleges featured in this issue have approached distance education thoughtfully. They are creating models for reaching Native students at distance using Internet-based learning and interactive video. Their work is remarkable, but even more remarkable is the time being devoted by some of them to methodical planning. Their hesitancy does not result from being tradition-bound to old ways as some might think. With limited resources, they cannot afford to follow the siren of technology and rush blindly into major expenditures. They must scrutinize their missions, their students’ needs, and their institutional capacities. The revolution occurring in the delivery of education poses a competitive threat to the future of tribal colleges, but if they can utilize it appropriately, they can extend their services to effectively reach thousands more students.

Rather than having technology drive their pedagogy, the good tribal college models start with the pedagogy. Tribal colleges in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) began planning a national telecommunications project in 1991. To keep the project focused upon desirable curriculum instead of simply baud rates and satellite signals, the academic deans were involved with the technicians designing the project from the beginning. They adopted a guiding philosophy for the network that reflected the guiding philosophy of the colleges themselves: “preserving the traditional values and philosophy of Native Americans.” The AIHEC colleges subsequently shifted their focus to regional distance education networks, but their early brainstorming benefited individual colleges’ planning.

As one of their first acts, the academic deans asked eminent tribal scholars for counsel. At a video conference in 1993, the elders embraced the technology. Tobacco was offered to bless the telecommunications project by a tribal elder who then chaired the Native American Studies Department at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Wisconsin. More recently, doctoral student Carol Davis turned to 18 North Dakota spiritual leaders for their advice on distance education. To her surprise, they too embraced the technology although they specified material that should not be shared. The results of her research are included in this issue.

When designing distance education, too many colleges and universities try to replicate the old, familiar, factory-style education, which is centered around the teacher as lecturer, according to Jim Ereaux of Salish Kootenai College (SKC). The student-centered SKC model is being watched by other tribal colleges. Tribally-designed distance education programs may resemble traditional Native American ways of educating the young, with teachers acting as mentors and guides.

Effective teaching is difficult. Teaching students of a different culture is even more difficult. Over the past 30 years, the tribal colleges have built their success on their administrators’ and instructors’ passionate, personal commitment to their students. Legends abound of tribal college presidents—one loaned her personal car to a student to drive to a job interview, another took a midnight flight back from Washington to see his students’ championship ball game. How do you preserve this type of student-centered, supportive interaction at distance? For asynchronous, Internet-based distance education, students participate individually, from their homes, whenever they can, not necessarily synchronous with their instructor or classmates. This technology requires highly motivated students who have strong writing ability. Will it exclude many of the students the tribal colleges want to serve?

The article in this issue by Dr. Deborah Wetsit describes the efforts of the Montana Consortium to keep the “human being” in distance education. The Montana system and some tribal college distance education systems in North Dakota and South Dakota rely upon interactive video to connect instructors with students congregated in distant classrooms. Cultural gulfs can endanger any non-Indian instructor trying to reach Indian students, especially when they are separated by not only culture but also geography. Based upon solid scholarship about Indian student learning, the Montana Consortium has carefully designed its system to bridge these gulfs. For example, the Montana Consortium encourages instructors to travel to reservation tribal colleges and visit their students in person. The value of this cultural bridge was demonstrated earlier by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks off campus Bachelors of Education degree. Starting in 1974, the university has placed faculty members in Native communities to reduce the cultural distance and to give the faculty the opportunity to learn about indigenous knowledge.

Committed to reducing isolation

Distance education requires the commitment of people throughout the institution to devote their time and effort to change. Salish Kootenai College received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop an associate degree program that will be delivered at distance. Before starting, SKC took a busload of its faculty and administrators to tour distance education centers in Canada to evaluate whether distance education would work for them or not. Faculty met with faculty, registrars with registrars, student services with student services. On the long trip homeward, SKC Vice President Gerald Slater asked the group whether the college should return its distance education grant to the Kellogg Foundation or proceed. After hours of debate, the group reached consensus. They wanted to build degree programs to serve reservations that had no tribal colleges.

Building upon their shared vision, SKC has developed courses that have received international attention. The Commonwealth of Australia has nominated SKC’s innovative distance education health care education for a World Health Organization prize. By the year 2002, SKC expects to have developed at least two Internet-based degree programs and possibly as many as eight, three of them bachelor degrees.

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