How Laurentian’s School of Indigenous Social Work Reimagined Distance Education to Reach Students in Remote Communities

Author: Hermona Kuluberhan

Outside of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre at the Sacred Fire pit –  picture taken of the Helping Relationship Class – (Basic Intervention Skills)

The ultimate purpose of a distance education program is to make education accessible to those who cannot be physically present on campus. Whether or not an individual receive an education, as well as the quality of education they receive should not be defined by something as arbitrary as geography. Yet even within these models of education, students are in danger of losing out on something equally as important as the education itself: face-to-face interaction with their instructor. This was the dilemma faced by Arlene Johnson and the team at Laurentian University of Indigenous Social Work – how can students in remote locations be provided with the same quality of education as their counterparts on campus, despite the existing geographic barriers?

The School was already operating a distance education program that met the needs of the majority of the enrolled students, however these students were still missing out on the benefits of having a professor physically present in the classroom. The answer to this dilemma? Another question: why not physically bring the course content to the students instead? Students might not be able to come to campus but there is nothing preventing professors from going to their students. Starting from this idea, the School of Indigenous Social Work embarked on a partnership with the community where they sent a professor to Kenora, Ontario to teach the core courses of the Bachelor of Indigenous Social Work program.

The program brought a live professor to students who were unable to be physically present at the Sudbury campus. Johnson’s role within the project was to act as the Partnership Coordinator for the program as well as a point of access entry for students studying within the School partnership agreement with the Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI). Within this partnership, SGEI provided the School’s faculty member with the space and administrative support needed to teach and support the students enrolled in the program. It was this partnership between SGEI and Laurentian University that piqued the interest of Professor Emily Wills of the University of Ottawa’s Political Studies department. Wills invited Johnson and the executive director of SGEI Bill Perrault to come to CMIC’s conference. At the conference, Johnson and Perrault shared how the School of Indigenous Relations (SIR) collaborated with SGEI to bring education to students in rural and remote communities.

“Students who may struggle with mainstream service system interface or other problems preventing them from utilizing other university systems provided to the greater university community,” Johnson says are the program’s target population. “Having the program with a person there is much less intimidating, and for those who may be first generation university or higher education students, this is huge,” she continues. “A person to talk to versus over the internet: face to face.”

What can community mobilization initiatives accomplish that other more official channels of political participation fail to? Johnson says it boils down to three things: building trusting relationships with communities, allowing room for self-determination, and including culturally appropriate practices. The distance education program brings into the fold those that have previously been unable to take part in higher education. While the program is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike, Indigenous communities are implicated in the structure of  the program because of the way Laurentian’s Indigenous Social Work program is guided by Laurentian University Native Education Council (LUNEC). LUNEC provides a direct link to the communities served by this program. Its purpose being to assist Native self-determination by providing the necessary insight in issues concerning Native education at the University (link to site: https://laurentian.ca/lunec)

“Our program works to empower those who have been oppressed through self-determination and decolonizing theory,” Johnson says. “As well as teaching others to be self-sufficient and providing support to those who may question their own ability or readiness for university,” she adds. “Our students are provided with cultural safety, and wrap-around support that includes traditional supports and Elders . Our graduates continue to be offered employment upon graduation – many before graduating in the field.”

The program did experience its fair share of bumps in the road. When asked where she feels the program may have failed; Johnson admits that while students enrolled in the distance education program received increased levels of support, some were not as successful as they had hoped. However, she is quick to add that lack of success shouldn’t be classified as failure. Students learn at their own pace and the ability to engage with the literature is a capacity that is developed over time. Rather than defining students’ struggles as failure, Johnson says that: “It may not have been the right time for those individuals to be engaged in education, and may require healing, or other academic prep work prior to university.”

While the distance education program is still up and running, the School has put a hold on its partnership with SGEI due to financial constraints. “Students from rural and remote communities would rather our program continue to be offered in their greater community of Kenora,” admits Johnson. Yet the School found that they couldn’t justify sending a professor to Kenora within that capacity while still operating an online distance education program that provided similar services. “It was very expensive to send a professor to offer the courses in person,” she admits. “ “It was very expensive to send aneeding and benefitting from having a live professor. To develop a relationship and a discussion as per traditional ways of teaching and sharing knowledge, which is much harder through an online distance education program.”

While financial limitations led to the end of the partnership, there is still a lesson to be learned in how the School of Indigenous Social Work re-imagined distance education in a way that kept intact the personal, individual relationship between instructor and student. The gramy that kept intac dynamic between communities and the institutions that seek to aid them is a dangerously paternalistic understanding of the actual needs of these communities. Laurentian’s School of Indigenous Social Work engaged in partnership with these communities by including them in the implementation of the educational model and providing them with the tools they needed to become the primary agents of change within their communities.

There’s a general consensus that while there may be certain complexities and nuances that call for a case-by-case analysis, the search for equity is fundamentally one about access. Access creates a bridge between over here and over there, between advantage and disadvantage, privilege and marginalization. Access to education, combined with access to those who can teach, guide and mentor provides individuals with the tools necessary to challenge the limitations that surround them.

 

Arlene Johnson is a Sessional Professor within the School of Indigenous Relations. She is currently the Access Manager for the SIR where she works in field placement coordination and providing academic advice and support for School of Indigenous Relations.