Article Critique

Article Critique

Simon, J., Burton, K., Lockhart, E., & O’Donnell, S. (2014). Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v15i1.1357

In their 2014 article, Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada, Simon, Burton, Lockhart, & O’Donnell discuss their investigation of rural Indigenous students' experiences engaging in distance education (DE) courses offered remotely. Their claims are rather modest, as appropriate for their study. They claim that there are both significant advantages, but also challenges for students who take post-secondary education (PSE) courses. Prominent among the benefits are that students who are able to take courses through DE are able to stay in their hometowns and not only continue to contribute as community members, but also draw support from their family members. This ability to stay home is characterized as an opportunity to assert sovereignty over their lands and to "decolonize cyberspace" (para. 5).

Among the challenges faced by Indigenous learners in remote communities are the realities of past and present Canadian policy that have left Indigenous education underfunded and over-bureaucratized, as well as the challenges that remain as a result of the misappropriation of Indigenous land for resource extraction. There are also political challenges as universities design courses to meet the needs of instructors rather than students.

Another major barrier (at least at the time of this investigation), is the lack of technological infrastructure, such as broadband internet, sufficient to support synchronous communications through video.

The authors' goals in this investigation were explicitly exploratory. They did not set out to complete an exhaustive quantitative study on differential effectiveness of different modalities of DE, instead, they wanted to talk to community members and explore their views. The authors did not identify any specific research questions.

Their review of the literature showed substantial evidence that DE can be both effective and challenging for remote Indigenous students. Common themes in the literature are that DE needs to be highly relational, community-based, and directed by Indigenous communities themselves. They also found evidence that technological difficulties can be extremely disruptive if the method of delivery does not match the technical infrastructure of the community.

Findings

The authors did find that Indigenous students reported on the benefits and the challenges with DE. Their report is divided into two groups of students. The first participated in DE via WebEx, a tool which allows for synchronous video and audio connections on personal computers connected to small webcams. This group also mentioned using a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle and Blackboard and SMART boards for collaboration. The second group connected through videoconferencing, described in the report as systems that are built into dedicated rooms, usually located in a community centre. Students in this group would all meet together in the community centre and connect as a group to a remote instructor.

WebEx

Students who connected via WebEx reported that they appreciated the convenience of the technology and being able to connect from home, spend more time with their families, and experience fewer distractions. When they needed to work together with peers, they were able to meet in a computer lab in a community centre and use SMART boards with WebEx to work with and support each other. Other members of this group reported that the technology was difficult to use for students with no previous experience. Trying to resolve technological issues while attending to meeting course outcomes was very challenging for some students. This was compounded by the isolation and lack of personality that some experienced due to working out of their home.

Videoconferencing

Student reports of using the videoconferencing system were also mixed. There is a higher need for on-site technical support to manage the setup of the cameras, microphones, and televisions at each site connected to the session. The authors report that there are networking and support benefits to the videoconferencing model as people in different communities can connect with each other. Some students reported that videoconferencing was more personal compared to WebEx because all the students in a particular community were gathered in a central location and all were doing the same thing. Some students reported that technical difficulties due to inadequate bandwidth were frustrating because they caused delays. Some students self-identified as "visual learners" needing more interaction with their peers and instructor.

Input and control

One final comment from the authors related to the lack of input that the students and communities had over how courses were delivered. They felt that students would have more ownership over the process and there would be greater participation from the community due to more people feeling comfortable with the technology. A significant complaint had to do with not only geographically remote faculty, but culturally and socially remote faculty who came across as rude and uninterested.

Discussion

In their discussion of their findings, the authors draw clear connections to their own results and those themes identified in the literature. Remote Indigenous communities can benefit from DE opportunities because it increases access in a way that allows students to remain in their communities and also attend school. Challenges included technological difficulties, a sense of personal isolation, and unresponsive faculty as well as the feeling of lack of agency in the entire process with administrative and course design decisions made by the university without input from the community.

The authors suggest that there be more support provided for students with different preferred learning styles based on recommendations from the document 'First Nations control of First Nations education' from the Assembly of First Nations (2010).

Strengths of the article

This investigation began with a modest goal: to explore the experiences of First Nation community members as they completed PSE via DE. The literature review clearly showed that there have been successes as well as challenges in the past. The authors clearly identified the persistent barriers to greater participation in PSE, namely, underfunding, lack of technical infrastructure, and the legacy of colonization. Their method was appropriate to the goal of the investigation, including the lack of specific research questions. Furthermore, their sample of participants was appropriate. If the goal was to generalize from this community's experience to other communities, then they would have needed a larger, representative sample, but that was not the case.

A further strength is that the authors make solid recommendations based on both the past literature and their own findings. Primary among these recommendations is the need to involve Indigenous communities in the decisions that affect them. They also note the importance of deploying and investigating courses with different blends of technology and methods of interaction, a task only possible with sufficient funding and support for remote students.

Areas for improvement

The authors include, both in the title of the article and their commentary during the literature review, that colonialism is an issue for remote Indigenous communities and that DE can be a way that they can remain in their communities and assert sovereignty over their land, yet there isn't any indication that they asked participants any questions related to this idea, nor is there further discussion after the literature review. They might argue that their discussion of having more input and control over the process of DE might be related, but I think it could have been made more clear.

The inclusion of the concept of 'learning styles' in the report is understandable if students volunteered the information about their own understanding of their preferred learning style. However, it may have been better to use that information as an opportunity to talk about the concept of learning styles being under-supported in the literature rather than a somewhat strained connection to the idea of First Nations control of their own education.

A final recommendation has to do with the fact that the authors recruited students who had seemingly stayed in their communities for DE and those who travelled to attend PSE on the campus of a regional university. It would have been appropriate to discuss the differences between the experiences of those two different groups.

Conclusion

This is a helpful article, describing the results of a modest but effective investigation into the experiences of a particular First Nation in remote New Brunswick. The strengths of the article are significant and the weaknesses do not detract from the solid recommendations arising from the project.

My own questions about DE for remote Indigenous communities are related to the tension between inviting Indigenous students to attend classes on campus, thereby enriching the campus community with a greater diversity of perspectives but potentially impoverishing their home communities, and providing technologically challenging and potentially isolating learning experiences via DE in Indigenous communities. I know researchers have found that attending to the 5Rs of Indigenous education (respect, responsibility, relevance, reciprocity, and relationships) can enrich the experiences of Indigenous students in remote communities (Tessaro et al., 2018), so I believe that it is possible, even obligatory, to offer rich and meaningful learning opportunities in remote communities. I am also interested in how the model of multi-access learning might inform the deployment of DE learning opportunities in remote Indigenous communities (Irvine, Code, & Richards, 2013).

Finally, the authors of the article point out that the technological barriers that were in place during their investigation were in flux. In fact the community was, at that time, installing a fibre-optic network connection, which would serve to drastically increase the bandwidth available for residents and open up greater opportunity for those wishing to attain a PSE credential. If DE can be a tool that promotes decolonization and the ability of Indigenous people to become more fully realized in their own identity, then I would like to work to help make that happen.

References

Assembly of First Nations. (2010). First Nations Control of First Nations Education. Assembly of First Nations. Retrieved from https://www.afn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2010-AFN-First-Nations-Contol-of-First-Nations-Education_sm.pdf

Irvine, V., Code, J., & Richards, L. (2013). Realigning higher education for the 21st-century learner through multi-access learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no2/irvine_0613.htm

Simon, J., Burton, K., Lockhart, E., & O’Donnell, S. (2014). Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v15i1.1357

Tessaro, D., Restoule, J.-P., Gaviria, P., Flessa, J., Lindeman, C., & Scully-Stewart, C. (2018). The Five R’s for Indigenizing Online Learning: A Case Study of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 40(1), 125–143. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328289320_The_Five_R%27s_for_Indigenizing_Online_Learning_A_Case_Study_of_the_First_Nations_Schools%27_Principals_Course

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