September 22, 2018

Important developments in indigenous online learning

Esquimalt singers and dancers celebrate the partnership. Image: RRU

Royal Roads University (2018) First Nations Technology Council and Royal Roads University celebrate partnership in education, innovation Victoria BC: Royal Roads University, press release, 23 February

The First Nations Technology Council of British Columbia and Royal Roads University have recently announced a partnership that aims to leverage RRU’s expertise in digital learning with the First Nations Technology Council’s ‘comprehensive digital skills program designed to support the full, equitable participation and leadership of Indigenous peoples in the province’s fastest growing economic sector.’

Melanie Mark, BC’s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training at the announcement commented:

By providing people with the right training and education to work towards jobs in the tech sector, we will support the success of students, job seekers and technology companies throughout our great province, and build a strong, sustainable economy that works for everyone.

The First Nations Technology Council’s program will include training modules that provide skills in

  • web development/coding,
  • GIS/GPS Mapping,
  • communications,
  • software testing,
  • network technician and office basics and
  • professional practice skills.

Royal Roads University’s Centre for Teaching & Educational Technologies will provide the tools and platform to deliver the program scheduled to launch in fall 2018.

The First Nations Technology Council provides direct technology related services through fee for service and earned income programs that create less reliance on government funded programs and grants, while continuing to advance the use of digital technologies in First Nations communities. The First Nations Technology Council is a central convener between government, industry, academia and First Nations communities to ensure comprehensive, sustainable and appropriate technology based programs and services are developed and funded.

Comment 

I think this is exciting news and is just the kind of initiative Canada needs if it is to go any way towards meeting the goals of reconciliation with its indigenous population.

I don’t have any more details than what was announced in the press release, but I noted the careful wording. This is about supporting First Nations’ communities in BC through the design of digital learning, but not necessarily distance learning. Royal Roads University uses a blended model of campus-based and fully online (although more recently for financial reasons its strategy has been to reduce the campus component on a number of programs). Thus RRU is well placed to combine design and delivery of digital materials with local-based community support within First Nations communities around the province.

My hope from this partnership is that we will start to see some new designs for digital learning emerging, that incorporate indigenous ways of learning with best online learning design practices, resulting in unique and culturally appropriate learning designs for indigenous learners that at the same time prepare them for life and work in a digital society.

Further reading

Simon, J. et al. (2014) Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 15, Number 1 

Bates, T. (2017) Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron? in ‘What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, 23 October

What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning

The conference

I’ve just got back from Toronto where last week I was one of more than 1,400 participants from 95 countries in the International Council for Distance Education’s world conference on online and distance education, with the theme ‘Teaching in a Digital Age – Rethinking Teaching and Learning.’

What did I do at the conference?

This conference was a bit different for me as I was heavily engaged in a number of different activities, including:

As a result, I met lots of people from all over the world, as well as from Canada and the U.S.A. (good), but unfortunately I was able to attend only a few of the other sessions (bad).

This was a pity, as there were over 150 sessions with more than 500 presenters, with some key one hour sessions with speakers such as Stephen Downes, Phil Hill, Stephen Murgatroyd, Richard Katz, Simon Nelson of FutureLearn, and many panel sessions. Therefore what I observed was just a small fraction of what was going on, but here, for the record, is what I took away from the conference.

The future is scary

The conference did nothing to allay my concerns about the future of post-secondary education. It is clear that post-secondary education will eventually be targeted on a significant scale by global, highly commercial, digital Internet companies, such as Amazon, Alibaba, and Facebook, and by technologies such as big data, massive online courses, and artificial intelligence. (This was particularly clear from the presentations by Richard Katz, and by Simon Nelson, the CEO of FutureLearn).

The only thing that is holding them back at the moment are successful business models for mass higher education, but it is only a matter of time before these start to emerge. These business models are likely to include partnerships with or the eventual acquisition of existing ‘branded’ universities and colleges.

There is no doubt in my mind that the elite institutions such as Oxford and Harvard will survive by offering a completely different, campus-based experience for those rich enough to afford it, and/or through commercial partnerships, but the impact of the digital commercialisation of higher education will probably drive into the ground many less prestigious private and public universities and especially two year colleges.

Smaller, independent but less prestigious private universities and colleges are surprisingly perhaps most at risk from global digital companies. Adnan Quayyum in his review of distance education internationally reported for instance that in Latin America it is the children from poorer families who go to the private universities, while children from more wealthy families tend to go to the public institutions, because their admission standards are higher. Students from poorer families will rush to lower-priced global digital companies, particularly if their degrees or diplomas are internationally recognised.

In a world where billions do not have a chance of post-secondary education, why would the dominance of global digital institutions be a bad thing? There is clearly a huge gap that large, commercial companies could fill. The issue though is whether such commercial ventures will be able to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Ironically, by focusing on the immediate demands of employers, they may not produce the skills and knowledge that students will need into the future – because new work and new needs will emerge.

There is also the issue of cultural imperialism. The most likely countries to develop such global commercial enterprises will be China, India and the United States. It will be their visions of what constitutes higher education that are likely to prevail.

The other danger is more technological. The use of big data and AI may help reduce costs, but will they focus on particular types of learning and students? Will such technologies be focused on learning that is more easily or more cost-effectively automated – while ignoring or driving out more expensive and more ‘human’ forms of learning? Indeed, will we know whether we are interacting with a teacher or a machine? Will the use of analytics screen out students with a higher risk of failure, rather than giving them a chance? 

….but there is hope, too

At the same time, I heard two more hopeful messages at the conference. The first came from Richard Katz, who pointed out that the future is not inevitable; institutions can create their own future. Becoming experts in digital learning as distinct from digital delivery provides a possible competitive advantage for public institutions but that means paying much more attention to effective teaching than at present. Public universities and colleges will certainly have to be more nimble and move faster than at present in changing their teaching methods if they are to survive. 

The second message is that the globalisation and digital massification of higher education is just one, relatively small, part of a much wider problem, and that is the impact on competition, freedom of choice, national and regional cultures, and privacy issues resulting from global, hegemonic digital businesses. In order to protect their citizens against financial exploitation, an increasing loss of choice in the marketplace, loss of national or regional cultures, and above all the loss of jobs and tax revenues, governments will need to start regulating these global companies more rigorously and more effectively, probably through international inter-governmental agreements. The European Union has already started down this road.

It will be important to ensure that such regulation also includes the protection of home-grown public education systems, both k-12 and post-secondary, against the commercialisation and globalization of education. However, these larger macro issues were beyond the scope of the conference but will need to be addressed if public post-secondary education is to survive.

Although this was the most overwhelming concern I had coming out of the conference, there were several other small nuggets that were more positive.

Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron?

The reason I ask if online learning for indigenous people is an oxymoron is because I am not convinced that indigenous ways of learning (or pedagogy), heavily based on oral and inter-personal communication embedded in a strong ‘local’ culture, are compatible with online learning, or at least the standardised online learning design models that currently predominate.

Put another way, what indigenous models of online learning would be needed to reflect indigenous pedagogy and cultures? Or is online learning just not compatible with indigenous pedagogies?

These were questions I had before attending the conference. Thus one of the most interesting sessions I attended involved speakers from four different organisations offering or researching online education for indigenous people.

The first was a presentation by Jennifer Wemigwans of York University about a Canadian indigenous web site, fourdirectionsteachings.com, which may be considered a digital [knowledge] bundle because it is a collection of teachings by respected Elders and traditional teachers who share indigenous knowledge.

Corinne Finnie discussed a needs assessment framework for enabling rural and indigenous communities in Alberta to respond to economic diversification and community development, using synchronous, multi-site delivery models.

Lyn Petersen discussed a set of online tools designed to provide effective transitions into postgraduate study for Indigenous (Māori and Pacific) health professional students entering the University of Auckland from diverse workplaces and regions across New Zealand. The tools aim to build culturally responsive transition practices and pedagogies, mediated through technology.

Aline Germain-Rutherford of the University of Ottawa discussed a multi-institutional project, Language Integration through e-Portfolio (LITE): A plurilingual e-learning approach combining western and indigenous perspectives.

If I add the two Pockets of Innovation I did involving a Mi’kmaw MOOC and a course on aboriginal literature, it can be seen that there is a growing if uncoordinated interest in online learning for aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Maybe it’s time to set up an online community of practice on this topic, so experience can be shared. However, I did come away believing that it may be possible to develop online learning in ways that are compatible with indigenous culture.

FourDirectionsTeachings

Printed books are still popular

Maxim Jean-Louis (the President of Contact North) and I had a disagreement before the conference. He thought it would be a good idea to print out lots of copies of my open, online textbook for the conference and get me to sign copies of the book for participants. Since the book is 500 pages+ of A4 size, I though this was a dumb idea. Who would want to carry a book weighing 2 lbs or more on a plane half way around the world when they could download it at home for free?

Well, as always, Maxim was right and I was wrong. I signed over 600 copies of the book at the conference. However, this enabled me to meet and talk briefly with many people that  would otherwise have been impossible in such a large conference, where one tends to drift towards those you already knew before the conference. So thank you, Maxim. It’s nice to know my book has made it all the way to Papua New Guinea! And many people clearly like to have a printed copy as well as online access.

An excellent conference

Although I am a research associate at Contact North and hence might be expected to sing hurrahs for the conference organisation, I must doff my hat to Maxim and his colleagues who put on one of the best large conferences I have ever attended.

Everything worked like clockwork: all sessions started and ended on time and more importantly almost all the speakers turned up, a great deal of care had been made to put together several presentations within each session that had a common theme, the main one-hour presentations were of high quality, and the mix of people at the conference was exhilarating.

And I’m getting to like Toronto as I get to know it better.

Rebuilding the First Nations University of Canada

How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

Tamburri, R. (2015) First Nations University poised to take on larger role in Canadian society University Affairs, June 2

As a follow-up to my last post on the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education, I’d like to draw attention to this excellent article on the First Nations University of Canada.

This unique institution has evolved into Canada’s only aboriginal, university-level institution. It underwent a near death experience in 2009, but with a new President and Board, new funding arrangements, and a new partnership with the University of Regina, it has now almost fully recovered. It has 750 full time students and a balanced budget. In addition, 4,700 students, mainly from the University of Regina, take courses at FNUC.

The issue is whether we need more institutions of this kind, as there are different aboriginal races, cultures and nations within Canada, or whether the focus should be on building up the First Nations University of Canada as a centre of excellence in indigenous post-secondary education, or whether indigenous education should be part and parcel of conventional universities in Canada (which is highly questionable, given the past failures at ‘integration’). Whatever outcome or outcomes are most desired by the indigenous peoples of Canada, the fundamental issue of ensuring greater success in high school for aboriginal students needs to be addressed for any post-secondary education policy for indigenous peoples to succeed.

What is the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education?

First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

Universities Canada (2015) Universities Canada principles on Indigenous education Ottawa: Universities Canada, June 29

Yesterday was Canada Day, and I am very proud to be Canadian. But Canada as a country has made an awful mess of its relationship with its aboriginal peoples, as the recent devastating report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made abundantly clear. The big question is where Canada goes from here, not just in making restitution for past mistreatment, but more importantly in ensuring that aboriginal people can develop in ways that benefit both them and the country as a whole.

The education of aboriginal people is a key but difficult issue, as it is not just about making sure that aboriginal people have the same educational opportunities as other Canadians, but that their education reflects aboriginal values and needs. In recent years, there has been very important progress in developing aboriginal lawyers (especially important, given the many outstanding land claims and resource development) and aboriginal doctors and health workers, but I have not seen the same progress being made in aboriginal education. In particular, aboriginal education, which constitutionally is a Federal responsibility, is poorly funded, and more importantly, badly managed, partly because education is a provincial responsibility for everyone else, and partly because the Federal government oscillates between ham-fisted intervention and neglect.

I was somewhat heartened then to see that Universities Canada, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, has issued a set of 13 principles of indigenous education. However, on closer examination, I find this yet another example of a well-meaning but ineffective response to a national disgrace. There is nothing to disagree with in respect of the 13 principles, but the document goes nowhere near to the heart of the problem.

In Canada, less than 10 percent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree, compared to 28 percent of non-Aboriginals, but the main challenge of indigenous education is the very low numbers successfully completing high school, which results in far fewer aboriginal students qualifying for university or, more importantly, for vocational and technical education. Canada spends far less per child on aboriginal education than it does for non-aboriginal children.

Thus there are two things I would like to have seen from Universities Canada:

  • a clear statement of the reasons why there are fewer aboriginal students in universities, and what needs to be done to bring the numbers up, including more money being spent on aboriginal k-12 education and reforms to the management of aboriginal k-12 education. Without such steps, aboriginal people in Canada will continue to miss out on higher education;
  • a plan of action to improve aboriginal post-secondary education, involving a partnership between the universities and aboriginal people, in the form perhaps of a high level task force, with a defined period in which to report, and with a mandate to propose a budgeted program of actions for provincial, federal and aboriginal governments, as well as recommendations for the universities themselves.

Until then, the 13 principles will remain a pious but ineffective response. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask the main political parties in Canada, in the run-up to the election in October, what their policies and actions will be to improve aboriginal education? (Please feel free to use this space.)

What do Boards of Governors need to know about online learning?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference

The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference

CUBA

I was in Ottawa on Friday, attending the Canadian Universities Boards of Governors Association annual conference (CUBA). Boards of Governors at universities, at least in Canada, play an important role in ensuring that universities are run in a responsible and accountable manner. They consist mainly of external people, with strong connections outside the university in business, government and community work. They are usually unpaid volunteers who bring with them valuable experience of the wider world and a strong commitment to public higher education.

The conference

The conference participants consisted mainly of Chairs and Secretaries of Boards of Governors. The conference theme, appropriately, was: Universities – Partners in Canada’s Future. I was speaking on a sub-theme: new trends in learning, but first I want to report on some broader issues about Canadian public higher education that were raised by some of the speakers, because they are important of course in their own right, but also because they provide the context to the question in the title of this post.

Paul Martin

The former federal prime minister and finance minister is probably best known for his prudent management of the Canadian economy, helping to reduce Canada’s large financial deficits in the 1990s and leaving Canada better prepared than most countries to weather the financial crisis of 2008. However, he also was a strong supporter of higher education, helping create the Canada Research Chairs program and in particular increasing federal funding for the research councils.

His speech at the conference about the role of universities , although short, is probably the best I have ever heard from a politician – or indeed from anyone else. I can’t hope to capture in a few words all the points he made, but here are the main points I took from his speech.

1. Universities must continue to support and defend the humanities. He pointed out that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused as much by a failure of ethical behaviour as by technical or economic issues. The humanities are valuable in their own right, in helping prepare citizens for a diverse and rapidly changing world. Universities are not speaking out loud enough about the importance of the humanities.

2. He also spoke passionately about the need for Canada to reach out to its aboriginal peoples, through stronger and more equal partnerships. In particular, while recognizing that universities are doing a good job integrating and supporting aboriginal education at a higher education level, Canada as a whole is failing to support adequately aboriginal First Nations education in the k-12 sector. First Nations students are increasing at four times the rate of non-aboriginal students in Canadian schools, and in some provinces aboriginal students now constitute almost 40% of all new k-12 school enrollments, yet less than half graduate from high school. Greater efforts must be made to ensure that indigenous culture and identity are accepted and integrated within the Canadian educational system. Constitutionally k-12 education for aboriginal students on reserves is a joint Federal/First Nations responsibility. However, even the current proposed agreement between the federal Government and First Nations still leaves aboriginal k-12 education grossly underfunded compared to the rest of Canada. Massively improved aboriginal education is an economic as well as a moral necessity for Canada.

3. Universities must press for greater funding for basic research. Without basic research, we will not make the innovation breakthroughs that Canada needs for economic development. Funding basic research is a federal government responsibility, because there is no short-term benefits for industry in funding this.

The panel

A panel consisting of Jeffrey Simpson, the national affairs correspondent of the Globe and Mail newspaper, Perrin Beatty, the President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and David Mitchell, President of the Canadian Policy Forum, discussed whether universities were ready to be partners. It was suggested that Chairs of Boards should spend at least 50% of their time on external relations, helping to forge stronger partnerships between university, business and community. David Mitchell spoke of the need for Boards to act as drivers of change and innovation within universities, to counter-balance the conservatism of faculty. Jeffrey Simpson pointed out that subject areas that are thought to be redundant or no longer valuable today can turn out to be really useful in the future. The example he gave was of Russian 19th and early 20th century history, which now tells us much about Russia’s current strategy regarding Ukraine.

David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty

David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty

Chad Gaffield 

The President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada argued that there is a major paradigm shift occurring in university teaching, a gradual move away from knowledge transmission to student engagement and the development of competencies. This better supports the development of skill and expertise in research, through student-centred learning and inter-disciplinary, ‘topic’ focused teaching. Digital technologies also support and enhance these developments.

New trends in learning

The previous speakers helped set the context for what I wanted to talk about: why and how teaching and learning were changing, and what the role of governors might be in supporting such change. My presentation focused on the following:

  1. The demands of a digital economy
  2. The growth and development of new learning technologies
  3. New teaching approaches that result
  4. The impact on the campus
  5. Improving the productivity of teaching

After each section I posed a set of questions for the Board governors, which included:

  • are changing labour markets and changing student demographics built in to your institutional planning?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for learning technologies and methods of delivery?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for open textbooks or open education?
  • how can the institution professionalize university teaching – or should it?
  • how is excellence in teaching rewarded in your institution? Is it enough?
  • what are the markets and the enrollment plan for your institution? Does the programming match this?
  • can we make university teaching more productive and if so how, without sacrificing quality?
  • what kind of campuses do we need when most learning is open and online?

If you want a copy of the slides send me an e-mail and I will send you an invitation to download the slides.

Are these the right questions?

I’m a little bit nervous about these questions. My view is that Boards of Governors should help steer the ship in the right direction but shouldn’t get into the engine room. I’d be interested in your reaction to these questions. Would they push governors too deep into areas that are best left to administrators or faculty?

Also there is the issue as to how much governors posing such questions might impinge on academic freedom. However, that will be the topic of my next post.