Fahy, Steel & Martin, 2009

Fahy, P. J., Steel, N., & Martin, P. (2009). Preferences of Residents in Four Northern Alberta Communities Regarding Local Post-Secondary Programming. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.673

Abstract

The western Canadian province of Alberta has used some of the proceeds from exploitation of its extraordinary natural resources to make available a range of post-secondary training and education opportunities to residents. While these provisions appear comprehensive, this study examined how well they actually suit the express needs of the residents of remote, Northern areas of the province, many of them Aboriginal. The literature shows that while Aboriginal people are underrepresented in Canada in university enrollments, they are no longer underrepresented in college or other institutions, suggesting that gains have been made for some residents of rural and remote parts of Canada. Further, when Northern residents (especially Aboriginal males) complete advanced training, Statistics Canada reports they are highly successful in employment and income. Access is the pivotal issue, however: leaving the local community to attend training programs elsewhere is often disruptive and unsuccessful.

Keywords:

Distance delivery, remote education, northern Aboriginal education in Canada, socioeconomic factors in learning

In an era of increasing availability of online learning, what are the preferences of Alberta’s northern residents for education and training offerings, including delivery models?

McMullen and Rohrback (2003) reported being disappointed that while distance education has the capability to provide educational opportunities for Aboriginal students, “To date, distance education has failed to meet this ability” (p. 6). They cited various program failures, including ignoring the needs of the student, the salient characteristics of the environment, and predictable barriers; not considering students’ learning styles and expectations; failing to recognize local political expectations; and reliance on unreliable delivery and communications technologies (pp. 6-7). Overall, the writers charge, few Canadian educational institutions or directors of education know about, or emulate, the successful programs and models, domestic and foreign, that might result in more successes with presently marginalized populations (p. 9).

According to the report, the delivery medium, audiographic teleconferencing (audio plus video), provided the immediacy of visual contact and created “increased rapport” between participants and instructors (p. 1). While complex and costly, experiences such as the above show that projects emphasizing technology to address accessibility can reduce barriers and can prove attractive to residents of remote communities.

In summary, post-secondary education appears to be a promising route for remote residents, especially those who wish to continue to reside in their communities for as long as possible during training. While some successful models of community-based training and education exist, there have also been problems with unsuccessful strategies, lack of support, poor technology selections, and a general lack of consultation with those expected to participate.

Findings

The face-to-face surveys, including interviews, resulted in articulation of the following common themes and concerns:

1.Northern residents preferred to remain in their home communities for post-secondary training. McMullen (2004) previously reported that this preference along with the lack of financial support of a nearby delivery institution and the lack of role models were the greatest barriers to post-secondary participation of northerners. Repetition of this finding, in light of technological advances that make it more realistic in relation to learning, confirms both its enduring importance to residents and its feasibility.

  1. Supportive of the above, a great majority of respondents reported access to a computer and felt they possessed sufficient computer skills to learn online. Whether those without broadband experienced this as a barrier to access was not addressed.
  2. Supportive of community-based learning, over forty percent of respondents said their preferred mode of learning was “computer, Internet.”
  3. Not surprisingly, jobs, inconvenient timing and location of courses, and family responsibilities were the primary barriers to enrolling in or, in the past, completing programs.
  4. Many respondents were concerned about financing their learning while working. (Delivery models were expected to assure that learning and work could coexist.)
  5. More literacy programming is needed, particularly English conversation for speakers of native languages. Lack of conversational skills in English mainly affected older, native residents, but there were also increasing numbers of non-native immigrant speakers of English in these communities who required enhanced language and literacy skills.
  6. Local colleges were generally well respected; along with the community library and the Internet, local college staff members were seen as good sources of information on educational programming, careers, and training.
  7. About half of the residents who participated in the survey had engaged in training of some kind, and a majority reported the experience had been useful. (This suggests the respondents represented those already familiar with and committed to formal institutional learning.)
  8. University and college courses, work-related training, parenting, and safety were primary areas of interest; business management, life skills, basic math and English, music, languages, advanced software, and Bachelor of Commerce were others.
  9. PLAR was thought to be relevant by about three-quarters of the respondents. (Taylor, Friedel, and Edge [2009] reported that lack of PLAR recognition was a common experience of youth in the North, especially Aboriginals.)
  • 92% reported being able to use a computer
  • 82% said computer access was convenient

Discussion

Presently, while the institutions offering programs locally are respected, consulted, and attended, records show that northern residents have increasingly chosen employment over training, as shown by recent enrollment declines. They reported in interviews that they were less willing to interrupt their careers or seriously inconvenience themselves and their families to access formal institutional training programs. The study thus confirmed the potential viability of distance learning as an alternative for some residents, supported by the fact that respondents in all the study communities reported access to and confidence in the use of distance technologies located either in their homes or conveniently nearby as well as a willingness to learn to use technology.

While a majority of the respondents indicated they had access to and were comfortable with computer technologies, had access to computers in their homes, or had convenient access somewhere to a computer, a minority (42%) had actually used computers in learning. Combined with the residents’ express desire to stay in their home communities for training, the flexibility and accessibility of online and distance learning might be attractive if residents knew more about this option and its workings. This interpretation is bolstered by the finding that the reason most often given by respondents for failing to enroll in or complete a program was the usual inconvenience associated with program access. A delivery methodology that reduces inconvenience, or that positively facilitates access to learning, might address a fundamental problem related to enrollment presently experienced by northerners: clashes with job, personal, and family priorities. Local differences aside, the consensus was that a delivery model is needed for the study communities that respects learners’ needs and preferences, rather than requiring them to make most of the adjustments; that recognizes prior learning (formal and non-formal); and that is consistent and compatible with residents’ personal, family, and work-related realities.