Simon, Burton, Lockhart, & O’Donnell, 2014

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).

Article Review


Post-secondary distance education gives students and their families living in remote and rural regions the option to stay in their communities while they study instead of moving closer to the universities in cities. Post-secondary distance education is an option in many rural and remote First Nation (Indigenous) communities in Canada; however there are many challenges to successful adoption in these communities. There are also many opportunities for post-secondary institutions to expand their abilities and capacity in developing and delivering appropriate content supporting these unique, self-governing environments in Canada. We explore the experiences of students from a rural First Nation in Canada with post-secondary distance education, focusing on how different delivery methods offer both opportunities and challenges for community-based students. The study is situated in the context of contemporary colonialism in Canada.


distance education, higher education, online learning, Post-secondary distance education; videoconference; web-based; learner preferences; First Nation; Indigenous; Aboriginal; communities; rural; Canada; colonialism

In 1972, First Nations outlined the requirements for their own education system in their “Indian Control of Indian Education” paper. This document was updated by the AFN to be First Nations Control of First Nation Education (AFN, 2010b). Key requirements for a First Nations education system include First Nations languages, cultures, histories, philosophies, worldviews, and values (AFN, 2010b). These objectives ensure that First Nations people will be leading the development and operation of their schools and education programs.

In this context, distance education can mitigate the destructive effects of government policies designed to remove remote and rural First Nations people from their lands. Distance education using broadband networks allows First Nations to assert their sovereignty over their lands and resources and develop their communities with residents staying local (Beaton & Campbell, in press). Post-secondary distance education has also been characterized as an opportunity to “decolonize cyberspace” (McAuley & Walton, 2011).

McMullen and Rohrbach (2003) have identified “politics” as a primary barrier to distance education in remote First Nations. The political barriers include government underfunding of First Nations education and miring education programs in unnecessary bureaucracy. Within the university institutions, politics also plays a role in how educational programs are shaped to meet the needs of the instructors rather than the learners.

A second key barrier to distance education in remote First Nations is access to appropriate technology and delivery models (McMullen & Rohrbach, 2003). By researching the needs of the students in First Nation communities and “adapting curriculum and technology to meet those needs, it is possible to correctly incorporate the appropriate technology” (McMullen & Rohrbach, 2003, p. 61). However the political context just mentioned – including underfunding educational programs and designing programs to meet the needs of the institutions rather than the students – can present considerable constraints to successful distance education programs in remote and rural First Nations.

Research on First Nation Students and Post-Secondary Distance Education

A study conducted by Davis (2000) assesses distance education in Aboriginal communities in Canada and highlights future research possibilities. Her recommendations include: being clear on what distance education means; First Nations control over the distance education content and delivery of courses in their communities; and ensuring delivery modes with higher levels of interactivity (such as two-way audio and TV-conferencing) that support learning for students who prefer that mode. First Nation communities need to define their own educational priorities and determine the values and perspectives informed by their educational experiences.

The authors concluded that communities need to be involved in curriculum development and course materials need to be adapted for First Nation communities otherwise social work could contribute to continued cultural imperialism and colonization. Many other studies that consider the wider social and political contexts of First Nations have come to the same conclusion.

Researchers emphasized the overall positive student experiences of remaining in their home communities for their educational programs. They also found challenges such as a loss of personal interaction with instructors, leading to diminished respect for the instructor, learners perceiving they were not learning but merely being programmed, and faculty members’ lack of familiarity with the unique culture of distant sites (Russell, Gregory, Hultin, Care, & Courtenay).

In a more recent study of Aboriginal post-secondary distance education based on course evaluations, McAuley and Walton (2011) looked at a novel M.Ed. program delivered only to Inuit students. Four of the 11 courses were delivered exclusively online. Technical challenges made it almost impossible to deliver the courses using synchronous videoconferencing because the bandwidth was not adequate and so the online component was asynchronous web-based delivery. A unique web platform was developed: Nunavut MEd Knowledge Forum environment. The student evaluation of this new platform was extremely positive. The authors attribute its success as a learning tool to its ability to share knowledge among learners and teachers in a seamless environment.

Students taking post-secondary distance courses benefit from local support, primarily support from family members (Steele & Fahy, 2011).

The analysis concluded that for these women to be successful in their distance education courses, education must not only be community-based, flexible, and holistic but also foster and nurture relationships between and among students and instructors. Teachers of successful students are themselves respectful of Aboriginal values and work to create interpersonal connectedness using the technology to bridge the geographical distances.

Study Methodology

  • researchers interviewed 12 community members
  • selected as a convenience sample
  • structured interview guide
  • 38 questions including prompts for discussion
  • interviews were recorded with consent of participants
  • Sample interview questions include:
    • What did you like about these distance education courses?
    • Can you think of any way that the course could have been improved to increase your engagement with other students?
    • Of the distance education courses you have taken how involved did you feel in the life of the classroom?
  • recordings were transcribed and transcripts were analyzed w/ N-Vivo

The research protocols were reviewed by the research ethics board of the researchers’ home institution and follow the ethical guidelines for conducting research with First Nation communities outlined in the Tri-Council Policy Statement, TCPS2 (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 2010).

Students’ Experiences with Post-Secondary Distance Education in Elsipogtog First Nation

Overview: Current Use of Post-Secondary Distance Education in the Community

Universities attended include:

  • St. Thomas University
  • University of New Brunswick
  • Dalhousie University
  • Mount St. Vincent University
  • University of Arizona

Programs included:

  • B. Social Work
  • B. Education
  • B. Nursing


  • math
  • English
  • history
  • technology
  • Aboriginal education


  • New Brunswick Community College
    • high school diploma via DE
Experiences with Course Delivery via Web-Based Online Systems


  • accessed with desktop or laptop computers
    • WebEx (web conferencing)
    • Moodle (open source LMS)
    • Blackboard (proprietary LMS)
  • "virtual meeting place"
  • more flexible than videoconferencing due to being able to work from home and control scheduling
  • Ss did not have to commute to access video-conferencing in a community classroom and could spend more time w/ family

    “So at home you can’s you and your computer and there’s no distractions around you” (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member).

  • able to meet w/ peer groups in a community lab set up for DE
  • WebEx was challenging for some students

I was so alone. Oh my, I was so alone. Sitting by the computer and by the phone and, you know. No, I was literally sick to my stomach, that’s how much I...I’m not a computer learner at all. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)

There’s no face-to-face. There’s six people in that course I’m taking now. It’s impersonal, I guess. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)


Refers to room-based conferencing rather than personal desktop tools

  • allows for personal, f2f visual and audio contact
  • connects university with one or more FN communities
  • students are together in a classroom in each community
  • prof 'delivers' content
  • video through TV, audio through mics
  • requires on-site technical support
  • allows for connection between communities...building a network and support system

To me we were closer in videoconferencing so more of community than [WebEx] because ... Like we’re all doing the same thing… we were closer. Like WebEx, to me, there’s space there blocking. It’s not as personal I don’t think. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)

The courses just seemed as though I was on my own for the whole thing-the whole six years. When it came time for....Thank God for one my classmates for math because that was one of my worst experiences-taking a math class through videoconferencing as I have a really hard time with math and the professor was really rude, for one. But, you know, he didn’t take it into consideration that we were all adult students and who haven’t been in school for years and didn’t take into consideration that some of us had trouble with math. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)

  • video conferencing can be annoying due to tech difficulties and delays

    “it depends on your Internet signal. If it’s not good, then you’re going to get a lot of pauses in between or the professor will sound different” (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member).

Input to Course Delivery Methods and Perceptions of Control of the Process

None of the students believed they or other community members had any input into the way the courses were delivered or had any control over the process of post-secondary distance education. One student said:

Oh that would be excellent if they [the university] actually came and asked us. If they responded to our emails, even… because nobody ever really asked us for our input, like ‘how could we make this better; how could we better serve you’. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)

Several of the students interviewed believed that if the community members had more input into the course delivery, the community would feel more ownership of the process, and more community members would be taking the courses and be more comfortable using computers. One explained:

It’s the same with children, if you get them involved in a process of developing it, they’re more anxious to get involved. So I think if they had a say in how it’s going to be delivered or what’s going to be delivered, I think they would feel more like ownership towards [the courses]. (Elsipogtog First Nation Community Member)

Discussion and Conclusions

  • video conf may be more suitable for Ss with limited computer experience

None of the Elsipogtog First Nation community members interviewed had a choice about which technologies to use to match their learning preferences. The universities make the choices about the technologies used to deliver courses to First Nations community members, and the students felt they have no say about the choices the universities make.

We would expect a similar range of experiences in other First Nations communities in the Atlantic region, although this exploratory study cannot be generalized more widely to other communities.

  • difficulties w/ bandwidth can be overcome with upgraded network infrastructure
  • Elsipogtog was in the process of installing fibre optic connections
  • delivery of DE needs to respect preferences of adult learners rather than asking them to adjust to technology

First Nations need to take part in the information society on their own terms to be able to shape their future according to their unique needs. The current study strongly suggests that this would include making decisions about the ways distance education is delivered to meet the needs of diverse community members.

  • study suggests unreached pool of students who would participate if there were more DE options available

In future, Elsipogtog First Nation could work with the universities to explore possibilities for courses that blend not only web-based and videoconferencing technologies but also distance education with in-community options. It is entirely possible, for example, for a university instructor to travel to different First Nations in the Atlantic region and provide the instruction using both distance and in-person classroom education at different times during the academic year. This has even been tried in a limited way in the past.

Clearly there is significant room for the Elsipogtog First Nation community to take a more active role in determining how the university courses are offered by distance to their community members, including strategies to ensure that the different learning preferences and styles of the students are accommodated. Taking control of their own post-secondary learning opportunities, establishing partnerships with interested post-secondary institutions, and providing the required learning environments and student support systems are examples of successful distance learning models adopted in other First Nations. Each of these steps requires access to financial resources, people, and facilities that support local economic development. These local efforts help to move both the community and its partner institutions beyond the traditional colonial relationship and support local and regional development in a province that requires new innovative strategies to address its rural challenges.

Our study suggests that more support for and attention to the students’ preferences for learning styles will lead to more successful distance education programs in these communities. This suggestion aligns with the concept of “First Nations Control of First Nations Education” advocated by the Assembly of First Nations. It also suggests that more appropriate post-secondary distance education options will allow more families to remain in remote and rural First Nations while they study instead of moving to the cities, contributing to the long-term sustainability of their communities.