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Davey, R.C.E. (2019) “It will never be my first choice to do an online course”: Examining Experiences of Indigenous Learners Online in Canadian Post-Secondary Educational Institutions Kamloops: M.Ed. Thesis, Faculty of Education and Social Work, Thompson Rivers University

I came across this master’s thesis while searching for other material. However, I was interested in this thesis because of concerns I have about the appropriateness of ‘standard’ online learning for Indigenous learners, particularly in terms of its relevance or otherwise to Indigenous pedagogy, and also because of the paucity of research on Indigenous learners in online education. I found this to be a very interesting, indeed, valuable, contribution to the literature.

The author

Robline Davey is partly of Métis origin and has worked for the Métis Nation British Columbia, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in the Educational Technology and Learning Design program at Simon Fraser University.

The study

Davey conducted in-depth open interviews about their experience of online learning with 21 volunteer Indigenous students from 15 different First Nations across Canada who were at the time studying online. The majority (15) were resident in British Columbia.

Davey used Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry (2000) as an organising framework for the study. As well as cognitive presence, instructor presence and social presence, key aspects of the CoI model, the study explored a wide range of topics including financial challenges for the students, student support and advising, and administrative arrangements. 

Davey does not identify the institutions at which the participants were enrolled, but it is clear that many were following self-paced independent study courses, rather than online cohort studies (which in my view is the dominant mode of online learning). 

Main results

It is really important if possible to read the actual thesis because Davey makes a forceful attempt to embed the study within Indigenous culture and thinking. Her focus is therefore somewhat different from a colonialist or dominant research perspective. Nevertheless she presents clear evidence of the strengths and particularly the disadvantages of online learning for at least these 21 indigenous learners.

In general most students felt particularly a lack of teacher presence, and to a lesser extent a lack of social presence (which is not surprising as most of the students were studying relatively independently):

The significance of relationships emerged as an important theme: participants indicated that a connection was lacking in most courses that were discussed.

Other themes that emerged from the interviews were:

  • misconceptions and perceptions of online education,
  • institutional supports and barriers,
  • a desire for a stronger teaching presence,
  • and numerous factors that related to resources, content, assessment, workload, and pedagogy.

Although the participants appreciated the flexibility of online learning, dissatisfaction was expressed by 19 out of the 21 participants:

The dissatisfaction seemed largely to center on

  • a lack of relationships with other students and instructors,
  • summative assessment not matching assignments or course content,
  • experiences of heavier workloads than in other F2F classes,
  • relevance of course content or discussions, 
  • disjointedness regarding exam scheduling: for students taking self-paced independent study courses, the rigidity of set exam times – and often the sheer administrative difficulty of getting an exam – was particularly frustrating.
  • a sense of separateness, or lack of integration with campus, was mentioned if the student was solely enrolled in online courses;
  • although individual staff members and instructors were sometimes helpful, the institutions themselves often did not provide the personal support, and feeling of belonging to a student community, that many of participants felt they needed. This is especially important given the history and background of residential schools
  • participants needed extra tutoring and help for math and statistics in particular

There are many other results, but this should give a good indication of the challenges being faced by these Indigenous students.

My comments

First, this thesis should be required reading for all administrators responsible for online courses, for Indigenous issues, and for student support services. In Canada, there are bound to be Indigenous students taking at least some online courses. As Davey writes:

In the era of Truth and Reconciliation (TRC), educational administrators have a responsibility to answer the Calls to Action to transform post-secondary education, to increase access for Indigenous learners and decreasing education disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners (TRC, 2015a).

Davey’s thesis lists a whole range of issues that need attention. If these are taken seriously and addressed, this will benefit not only Indigenous students but all online students, but some of these issues are particularly important for the success of Indigenous students.

Second, it would be a mistake, despite the title, to suggest that online learning in general is not suitable for Indigenous students on the basis of this study. I have always been sceptical of the suitability of self-paced, independent online learning for many students. This is a particularly demanding form of online or distance education, and suits mainly students with great self-confidence and good self-management skills. It will work better for a student who needs to complete one or two courses at the end of a program than someone who has never studied online or is new to post-secondary education. Well-designed cohort-based online learning is more likely to enable a sense of community or social presence – even teacher presence – than a self-paced independent study course.

Also, the author is careful not to over-generalise from this study of just 21 students. The experience of Indigenous students in other programs at other institutions may be quite different.

Nevertheless, institutional leaders and online program managers need to be aware of the challenges faced in particular by ‘first generation’ Indigenous online learners. Because many Indigenous people live in remote areas, online and distance education has particular relevance, so it is important for institutions to get it right. Reading this thesis should at least start the discussion going.


Garrison, R. Anderson, T., Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education Vol. 2, Nos 2-3


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