Pasar al contenido principal

Indigenous Distance Education

Indigenous education has been misconstrued, misinterpreted, and miserably unsuccessful for many years in Canada. Western notions of education and of “educating the savage” were implemented with presumed supremacy while indigenous notions of community involvement and preservation of oral histories were considered by Western educators to be deficient. As a result, indigenous education has been presumed by Western standards to be about assimilation and segregation.


In part, this discrepancy has been the result of the intellectual gap between indigenous scholars (elders and spiritual leaders) and Western scholars. With the presumed superiority of Western education by Western educators came the suppression of the role of traditional teachers in indigenous education.


In no small measure, the devastation of indigenous economies and the resulting impact on infrastructure and growth of key components of indigenous nations (such as the systematization of indigenous education principles and practices) has affected how indigenous education has been presented in and received by indigenous nations and the Canadian government.


For many years, indigenous education has been mistaken by Western educators for a number of related concepts and undertakings. Native studies or indigenous content programs, university entry programs, and the inclusion of indigenous faculty and staff in schools are all pieces of a larger model of indigenous education. In the model we discuss here, indigenous education is education for and by indigenous people. This model is reliant upon:

• the respectful inclusion of indigenous people in programming, course development, and staffing

• the reflective development of substantive and procedural inclusion of indigenous peoples based upon indigenous philosophies

• the creation of intellectual and institutional responsiveness to concerns and principles identified by indigenous peoples


This model is meant to operate in a community with a lack of infrastructure for university degree programming; indigenous participants who are willing to create alliances at the community, national, and institutional level; and an existing educational system that is willing to develop courses, programs, and processes which are based upon the principle of inclusivity and partnership.


A largely unspoken belief in Western institutions is that indigenous learners do not learn well in distance education models. At the Athabasca University, we have often heard that indigenous students do not perform well except in a classroom capacity, and then only once there is “hands on” experience in the classroom. To some degree there is a verbal shorthand developing, a sort of intellectual shortcut, that enables Western thinkers classify students’ behavior based soley upon observation—even if the observation is based on perceptions that are culturally influenced.1 The problem is, the behavior may not make sense without cultural or linguistic context. Indigenous learners are assessed by the measuring stick of culturally insensitive non-indigenous standards which will always find them coming up short.


The stereotype that indigenous people cannot perform well except in a classroom setting presupposes an inherent inability of indigenous students to adapt to technology and perpetuates the false image of indigenous cultures frozen in the past. This belief, as many stereotypes, may have a grain of truth in it—without infrastructure and access to equipment and technology in the home, many learners will have to “catch up” to the technological advances being made. As well, the stereotype of indigenous learners as experiential has a grain of practical truth in it: many indigenous learners advance their learning and achievement if they are able to apply it to a concrete experience. But with a history objectifying and labelling their character as primitive, it is important to ensure that we separate fact from fiction as we identify which learning experiences are beneficial to indigenous people.


Challenges of Distance Education


A spring 1998 article in the Journal of American Indian Education describes how distance education can help overcome these challenges at the post-secondary level:

Under the right conditions, these barriers can be at least partially reduced through the technologies of distance learning. They are particularly appropriate for American Indian students, who are, on average, significantly older than traditional college students, likely have a history of dropping out and returning to school, and who suffer both financially and emotionally while in traditional colleges … The key is the availability of distance education that is culturally sensitive—that understands the individual as part of a cultural community, and that is sensitive to the parameters of that community, recognizing that “distance” can be both cultural and geographic, and that effective learning requires the reduction of both.


Indigenous education and distance education have two things in common. Both are often perceived as less credible than Western in-class educational programming, both models have struggled with issues of individuality and a lack of peer support for students. It is important to observe that successful learning situations, in which indigenous students complete programs of study successfully, are most often characterized by three factors:

• a trust relationship with the instructor

• a support system in place

• a recognition of the value and merit of opposing or dissimilar worldviews, understandings, and philosophies


All three of these requirements can be achieved through distance education for and by indigenous peoples. The most challenging obstacle is the development of a trust relationship between a distance education instructor and an indigenous student. Studies demonstrate that indigenous students achieve success in environments where they have a personal relationship with their teacher or learning facilitator, regardless of the degree of autonomy or of self-determination.2


“Tribal colleges and partner institutions face several hurdles when they design distance learning programs,” writes Deborah Westit in the spring 1999 Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Faculty must address the needs of various, specific cultural groups despite the physical distance between students and instructors that can foster a sense of disengagement or isolation. American Indian cultures represented in the Montana region remain relatively traditional in their cultural beliefs, values, ceremonies and traditions. … Tribal college faculty must learn to take tribal cultures into consideration, and this can be more challenging for faculty who are not based on reservations.”


As outlined by Westit, course development and instruction in this new model must take into account the citizenship, identity, and cultural influences that inform and impact indigenous learners, including:

• strong extended family and community ties as compared to a nuclear family system

• a sense of tribal identity as compared to a more national or mainstream identity

• an emphasis on relationships as compared to an emphasis on task orientation

• an emphasis on sharing and cooperating as compared to the more individualistic values of mainstream culture

• a strong sense of humor

• a culturally specific communication style.


Distance learning researchers strongly advocate building relationships between instructors and students to facilitate learning. This is quite compatible with the goal of making the information in distance education courses available to indigenous students. It is not necessarily an issue of “indigenizing” teaching, texts, pedagogy and teaching tools. It is actually more like releasing the vice grip of colonization on education to allow other models and ways of knowing and understanding to permeate the educational system. Administrators, editors, information technology staff, and faculty members must at least be aware of the context within which indigenous people live to be able to present indigenous education in a viable form. One distance education team that Westit describes wrote: “In our experience, instructors must also consider the reservation context when developing the curriculum and presenting it. This helps students relate to the concepts and theories being taught.”


Context can be provided by having a number of indigenous members on course development teams, indigenous review panels, and in cross-cultural training. The following examples will outline approaches that the Indigenous Education Center at Athabasca University has undertaken.


Athabasca University–

Arctic College Model


Many of the distance education models in indigenous communities are based on collaborative approaches and cost-sharing between existing educational institutions or other organizations.


Arctic College in Inuvik contacted the indigenous faculty and staff at Athabasca University in March 2001 and mentioned that eight female indigenous students wanted to study issues of importance to indigenous women. Arctic College had a candidate, a non-indigenous male anthropologist, who could teach the course, but at Athabasca University we are committed to providing indigenous educators wherever possible, and we suggested an indigenous woman to teach the course.


The teacher overcame the first barrier, distance, by relocating to Inuvik to teach the course. The indigenous course development team then addressed the concern of scant available research resources by constructing a 2,000-page research package for each of the eight students. Every student had access to the same research materials and the course assignments reflected that. Because the Inuvik area is inhabited largely by Inuvialuit and Gwich’in peoples, the course development team specifically looked to include resources by and about citizens of these nations.


Importantly, the course development team structured the assignments and readings to include indigenous women’s diversity in the materials and to examine women’s rights and movements in international indigenous populations. Students were given the option to attend the classes or to study on an individual basis and get a written set of study notes upon which all students would be examined. The choice to attend and stay in the community was, therefore, a choice made by the students, and all made the choice to attend daily.


Athabasca University–Blue Quills First Nations College Model


The Blue Quills First Nations College is located on the Saddle Lake Reserve a one-and-one-half hour drive northeast of Edmonton, Alberta. The college is a leader in presenting courses and programming developed and delivered by indigenous peoples. In its collaboration with Athabasca University, Athabasca University faculty and staff teach Athabasca University courses to Blue Quills students using Athabasca University materials on-reserve. In many instances, the tutors tailor standardized lectures, examples, and assignments to meet or exceed current standards of Athabasca University and to incorporate relevant information for the audience.


In summer 2000, the coordinator for indigenous studies of Athabasca University was asked to staff and present an indigenous law and government course on-site to 10 indigenous students, almost all residents of the Saddle Lake or Kehewin First Nations.


An indigenous scholar with expertise in law and governance taught the course. The course development team presented a version of the reading package ordinarily provided for this course, enhanced to incorporate materials specific to Treaty 6, the treaty area in which the college is located. Students were also canvassed in order to identify what issues were relevant to them as First Nation citizens. These issues, including historic treaties, colonization, and litigation, were included in the course syllabus.


The expanded syllabus was then developed and standardized by an indigenous author with a master’s degree in law. The course package was similarly developed.


Athabasca University–Yellowhead Tribal Consortium Model


The Yellowhead Tribal Consortium is an indigenous-determined entity which has many portfolios—one being to present educational opportunities to Treaty 6 citizens. The consortium houses an academic center that presents certificate, diploma, and university-transfer opportunities on the west end of Edmonton. Athabasca University has a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship with the consortium.


In fall 2001, Yellowhead Tribal Consortium approached Athabasca University to present an indigenous studies course dealing with current issues of interest to indigenous peoples. Because most of the students lived on the reserve and did not have access to extensive research libraries, access to information seemed to be an ongoing concern. The university staff passed the request to the indigenous course development team. As a team we identified four issues of interest to indigenous peoples: indigenous rights and title, treaty interpretation, litigation, and negotiation. We built the course around these issues. The team utilized the Inuvik model and developed a 1,000-page research package for each student


No course had been offered in this format before by the consortium. Students were given the option to attend or to take study notes developed by the professor for each lecture. An indigenous expert with substantial experience in the area taught the course.


Athabasca University-Northern Lakes College Model


In fall 2001, Northern Lakes College requested that Athabasca University provide a course in indigenous studies in Wabasca and Athabasca, Alberta. The course was to be the same indigenous women’s course, with the same course materials, syllabus, and research package that had been developed by the indigenous course development team. Students were again given the option to attend or to take study notes developed by the professor for each lecture, and again an indigenous expert with substantial experience in the area taught the course. In winter 2002, the course was offered by videoconference from Athabasca to Wabasca and vice versa on a rotating basis.


At one point, to troubleshoot interference with the videoconference, the instructor used teleconferencing to teach the course at two locations. Resources—videotapes, lecture notes, and other materials—were doubled to ensure that they were available to each site.


Neheyiwak Caucus Model


Two committees have advisory capacity at Athabasca University. The first is the Peoples’ Caucus/Neheyiwak Caucus. This caucus strategically plans and implements programs at an academic center or department level. The caucus relies on advice from the Indigenous Education Advisory Committee, an intra-university committee which draws upon the resources and infrastructure in the university to develop short- and long-term planning, including course development and academic credential planning.


As a caucus, we identified the need to develop an indigenous course development team to develop courses and credentials that were respectful of indigenous peoples’ traditions and responsive to indigenous peoples’ goals and objectives. The model described below is our response to the mandate to create an indigenous course development team. Initially, we designed this model to address how the university could be more responsive to indigenous constituencies requesting education in their nations. We concluded, after a prolonged period of study, that the question could only be answered by addressing indigenous education as a whole, not just delivery options for indigenous individuals and communities. After we addressed the most effective means to present educational options to indigenous peoples, we addressed delivery.


In the new model, two teams participate in course development—a writing team and a course development team. Each team is usually led by an indigenous faculty member or specialist.


In this model, we pay particular attention to ensure that we are gathering relevant information in the most respectful way possible. By addressing the protocols existing in indigenous nations we meet Western standards of integrity and copyright. The indigenous protocol, to date, has been addressed by each team leader. We are proposing the development of guidelines by our community representatives and the elders committee. All course curricula are written by a team including elders, spiritual leaders, indigenous citizens, and academics. The writing team is supported by the indigenous course development team, which is composed of the writing team leader, an elder, an editor, a copyright specialist, and course production and technology specialists. This team addresses indigenous and Western pedagogy and determines the ways and means by which a course can be accessible to the most people. The indigenous course development team determines the medium through which the course will be presented and ensures that the course is pedagogically in line with indigenous protocol and copyright standards and university protocol and Western copyright standards.


In the caucus model, indigenous citizens determine the direction and development of courses. This level of ownership promotes choices, and choices enable self-determination.


Harnessing Technology

to Create New Models


The Neheyiwak Caucus has developed four distance education courses using the two-team model. Seven more are currently slated for development in the next 12 to 18 months. The indigenous course development team assesses each course to determine which enhancements are likely to be the most useful to learners. While a paper-based course is the bottom line, enhancements may be proscribed, depending on the nature of the course itself. For example, a Cree language course may be more successful in an audiotape, videotape, or CD-rom format than in written form. This allows potential Cree speakers the world over to study the Cree language by listening to fluent Cree speakers and repeating the language.


A Web site is being planned to allow students to have their specific questions answered through online discussion with peers or their instructor. The Web site also allows students to access research materials if they choose to follow up their course with additional study. An online dictionary would allow students to hear words spoken in Cree and translated to English.


As another example, an indigenous leadership course could be composed of lectures or in a reading package. Enhancements could include a teleconferenced or in-person discussion led by a lecturer or facilitator. In a comparable model delivered in the United States, a team facilitator gathered 70 hours of video footage from over 150 interviews for the development of a cross-cultural education course.3


With these enhancements, issues related to sacredness of information and indigenous protocols have to be addressed in a meaningful way. What information can be accessed by the general population and in what ways must it be discussed with elders and spiritual leaders? One study with North Dakota spiritual leaders outlined by Carol Davis in the spring 1999 issue of the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education asked elders whether information related to ceremonies, indigenous histories and other indigenous understandings should even be presented on the internet.


The colonial legacy has resulted in an understandable and fundamental lack of trust by indigenous peoples for non-indigenous authority and agencies. The commodification of indigenous culture; the unauthorized use, publication, and sale of indigenous histories, sacred stories, and prophesies; and the attempted de-legitimization of indigenous languages, laws, and leadership has affected the way in which relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people now develop. Therefore, course and program development and distance education presentation to indigenous peoples is partly a trust exercise. For this trust to be well-placed and assured, we must be sure to understand and address both indigenous and non-indigenous protocols and ethics of respect.


An additional level of vigilance can be accessed by having courses reviewed at critical junctures or upon completion by an indigenous protocol team. The Neheyiwak Caucus is developing both an elders’ advisory capacity and a regional indigenous advisory committee to facilitate this review. The development of guidelines by indigenous advisory panels will advance this exercise considerably. The inclusion of indigenous people at every stage of course and program development will also assist in the trust-building exercise.


Western institutions, organizations, and educators are beginning to see the wisdom of including appropriate cultural and linguistic information in courses and curricula for indigenous peoples. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization issued the Hamburg Declaration with two articles that directly impact indigenous peoples.4


Seemingly, the gap between Western and indigenous protocols with respect to the sharing of information is narrowing.


For course development and programming development within Western institutions to be meaningful for indigenous citizens, institutions, organizations, and nations, it must respectfully address self-determination in indigenous nations. For successful partnerships with and the successful provision of distance education to indigenous peoples, the materials must not only be relevant but also mindful of the autonomous nature and aspirations of different nations. Different nations and organizations have differing levels of development in their capacity and infrastructure. The homogenous approach to indigenous citizens can only hinder partnerships, as well as course and program relevancy.


Programming for and by indigenous peoples also needs to take into account the existing geographic, economic, social, and political isolation that still challenge many citizens and nations.5 Northern and isolated peoples (including non-indigenous peoples) still relish the opportunity to study and achieve academic success in their homes and in their traditional territories. Distance education that is culturally relevant not only enables students to achieve these goals, but can also grow and become diversified as educators and course developers come into contact with a variety of people.


1. For example, many people speak of the stoicism or reticence of indigenous people. Often this observation is based upon the perception of shyness or anger because indigenous people will not meet the observer’s eye. In Canadian society this is perceived as sullen, shy, fearful, or angry behavior. This perception is culturally informed and does not begin to address indigenous principles of respectful interaction which are intended by the action.


2. It should be stated that the continuum does not encompass the needs of the learners; it has largely addressed the capabilities of the institutions.


3. Mayhew, J., Herbert, M., Peregoy, J.J, & Sebastian, J.P. Culture and School Success: Development of a Documentary-Style DE Course Rural Special Education for the New Millenium, Conference Proceedings of the American Council on Rural Special Education (ACRES) (19th, Albuquerque, New Mexico) at 368-370.


4. Both articles reprinted in Richardson, C. & Blanchet-Cohen, N. (2000): Article 15—Diversity and equality. Adult learning should reflect the richness of cultural diversity and respect traditional and indigenous peoples’ knowledge and systems of learning; the right to learn in the mother tongue should be respected and implemented. Adult education faces an acute challenge in preserving and documenting the oral wisdom of minority groups, indigenous peoples and nomadic peoples. In turn, intercultural education should encourage learning between and about different cultures in support of peace, human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, justice, liberty, coexistence and diversity. Article 18–Indigenous education and culture. Indigenous peoples and nomadic peoples have the right of access to all levels and forms of education provided by the state. However, they are not to be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, or to use their own languages. Education for indigenous peoples and nomadic peoples should be linguistically and culturally appropriate to their needs and should facilitate access to further education and training.


5. Terry Anderson, “Distance Education Delivery Networks—Role in Community and Institutional Development” in Dennis Wall and Michael Owen, eds., Distance Education and Sustainable Community Development” Selected Articles from a Conference on Distance Education and Sustainable Community Development, (Edmonton, Canadian Circumpolar Institute, December 1990) at page 87 states of this “A successful distance education initiative must address the development needs of both the communities and institutions. Within the educational institutions there is a need to develop faculty and administrative commitment and support and effective systems that provide support for long term distance education delivery and development. … Distance education challenges both institutions and communities to adapt to change in the philosophy, technology and practices of both learners and teachers.”


Tracey Lindberg is an associate professor at Athabasca University’s Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research (CWIKR) and is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies. Priscilla Campeau is an administrator at Athabasca University. Janice Makokis is an assistant in CWIKR. All three are members of the Neheyiwak Caucus, Athabasca University’s Indigenous Advisory committee. The fourth member of this Caucus is Harold Cardinal – to whom we are grateful for reviewing this paper and providing us with feedback and guidance.


References and further reading


Davis, C. (1999, Spring). North Dakota spiritual leaders give guidance for distance learning. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education 10:3, pp 20.


Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Sanchez, J., Stucky, M.E., & Morris, R. (1998, Spring). Distance Learning in Indian Country: Becoming a Spider on the Web. Journal of American Indian Education 37:3, pp 5-7.


Westit, D. (1999, Spring). Emphasizing the Human Being in Distance Education. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education 10:3, p 16.


Richardson, C. & Blanchet-Cohen, N. (2000). Adult Education and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. International Survey on Adult Education for Indigenous Peoples. Country Study: Canada. Hamburg, Germany: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.