Increasing access to higher education for Indigenous learners through online education.


In the Canadian context, one of the most pressing needs for justice is embodied in the lives and communities of the Indigenous peoples, who have stewarded this land since time immemorial. Indigenous people in British Columbia (B.C.) attain fewer post-secondary credentials compared to non-Indigenous British Columbians. Based on the latest available data, 48% of Indigenous people in B.C. have attained a post-secondary certificate, diploma, or degree compared with 65% of non-Indigenous people in B.C., a difference of 17% (Statistics Canada, 2017). This disparity is accompanied by Indigenous people earning lower salaries, having fewer options for career advancement, and being less able to participate equitably in Canadian society. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published 94 calls to action, seven of which directly address education for Indigenous people including the elimination of educational and employment gaps within one generation; improving educational attainment; providing equitable funding; developing for-credit, culturally appropriate curricula; enabling parental and community responsibility, control, and accountability; and ending the backlog of Indigenous students seeking post-secondary education.

Online education has the potential to increase access to higher education, but may not increase rates of attainment or satisfaction for those who do choose to participate if it does not align with the unique cultures of Indigenous communities and learners (Morong & DesBiens, 2016; Simon, Burton, Lockhart, & O’Donnell, 2014). Online education, which is necessarily digitally mediated, seems at first to be at odds with the traditional principles of learning practiced by Indigenous peoples. Two examples of this, according to Tessaro et al. (2018), are that Indigenous education is heavily dependent upon being situated in a specific community context at a specific time, whereas online education is designed to transcend place and time and be accessible to anyone regardless of their location. Also, Indigenous education should be carried out in a context where educators are very attuned to their students personalities, histories, needs, and goals. In those online educational contexts that are not intentionally designed to encourage interaction, however, educators may never meet or even speak synchronously to any given student, making it less conducive to developing meaningful relationships, especially given that Indigenous cultures tend to value oral communication.

It seems that Indigenous students in remote communities who are seeking post-secondary education have two options, each with significant disadvantages. They can either leave their home communities and the support structures of family and friends in order to travel to the campus of one of the post-secondary institutions in B.C., or they can stay at home and participate in online learning offerings which may not align with their values as an Indigenous person. If the only alternate option available to Indigenous students is online learning which is perceived as technologically difficult, isolating, and non-responsive to student needs, then students are left with few opportunities to engage in post-secondary education (Simon, Burton, Lockhart, & O’Donnell, 2014).

Purpose Statement

The purpose of this research is to identify factors which increase indigenous learner adoption, retention, and satisfaction with online courses, so as to increase access for Indigenous students to PSE. A secondary purpose is to identify online learning designs that best support First Nations Principles of Learning (First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2008; Morong & DesBiens, 2016; Tessaro et al., 2018).

Research Questions

Questions arising from the problem and purpose statements which this research will attempt to answer are:

  1. How do Indigenous students prefer to access post-secondary education?
  2. What are the experiences of Indigenous students in remote communities who access online learning opportunities?
  3. Which online course designs best support remote Indigenous learners in post-secondary education?

These questions lend themselves to a mixed-methods approach. Throughout the research, I will aspire to maintain a grounding in the idea of two-eyed seeing, the Mi'kmaw idea of weaving Indigenous and mainstream knowledge traditions together (Bartlett, Marshall, & Marshall, 2012).

My Role and Responsibilities in this Research

I am a settler; a non-Indigenous descendant of Norwegian and British immigrants who traveled to North America in the late 19th century. All of my life, I have been the recipient of the profits of the exploitation of unceded Indigenous land. As an educator, I continue to become more aware of the privilege that I enjoy and I am compelled to become an ally to the Indigenous people of British Columbia who continue to struggle for justice. I want to support their efforts working for a more just system of post-secondary education that is both accessible to and aligned with the values of Indigenous people. My role is to listen respectfully, interpret responsibly, ensure relevancy, to reciprocate by giving back to the community, and to build relationships (Snow, 2018; Tessaro et al., 2018).

This research cannot and will not proceed without the permission and invitation of the proper Indigenous Elders and community, and as such, this outline is presented tentatively and with the knowledge that it is only the first step in a process that may result in a cooperative and reciprocal research relationship.

Advancement of Knowledge

It is intended that this research will provide new insight into how British Columbia post-secondary education (BCPSE) can better serve Indigenous students and their communities with educational opportunities that are accessible in a way that allows Indigenous students to stay rooted in their communities and is aligned with their values and ways of knowing as Indigenous people. This knowledge will primarily benefit Indigenous communities as they work to increase the number of people who attain a post-secondary credential. It will also benefit BCPSE and the non-Indigenous population by increasing opportunity for Indigenous perspectives and worldviews to be expressed in the broader culture.


Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2012). Two-Eyed Seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2(4), 331–340.

First Nations Education Steering Committee. (2008). First Peoples Principles of Learning. First Nations Education Steering Committee. Retrieved from

Morong, G., & DesBiens, D. (2016). Culturally responsive online design: learning at intercultural intersections. Intercultural Education, 27(5), 474–492.

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).

Snow, K. (2018). What Does Being a Settler Ally in Research Mean? A Graduate Students Experience Learning From and Working Within Indigenous Research Paradigms. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17(1), 1609406918770485.

Statistics Canada. (2017, November 29). Data tables, 2016 Census. Retrieved February 14, 2019, from

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

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License except where otherwise noted.