First Nations High School Education on Canadian Reserves: An Alternative Approach
Norm Vaughan, Mount Royal University

Recently, there have been numerous reports in Canadian news agencies about the crisis in First Nations Education, especially on rural and remote reserves. Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that more than 60% of First Nations students on reserves drop out of high school. This is particularly disturbing given how quickly the First Nations population is growing in Canada – 20% growth nationwide between 2006 and 2011, compared with 5.2% for the rest of the population. 28% of Canada’s Indian, Métis and Inuit populations are now under 14 years of age, compared with 16.5% for non-Aboriginal populations.

Unfortunately, there are many barriers to completing high school for First Nations students on reserves. These include the absence of positive role models, poor housing, single parent families and high unemployment rates. In 2000, a group of solution-minded founders decided alternative methods were required to address these challenges in order to help students and established the SCcyber E-Learning Community programme (formerly Sunchild E-Learning Community), which combines high quality face-to-face and online learning support – a blended approach to learning. First Nations students are able to study at learning centres on their reserves, which are supervised by mentors who are familiar with the local culture. In addition, online teachers provide personalized ‘real-time’ tutorials through the use of a web-based conferencing system.

This combination of local mentors with online teachers has resulted in a significant increase in high school completion rates for the First Nations students enrolled in the SCcyber E-Learning Community programme. An evaluation study of this programme was conducted during the 2011-2012 school year. The Seven Principles of Effective Teaching (Chickering & Gamson, 1999) framework was used to conduct this programme evaluation. The study consisted of a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods. All students enrolled in the SCcyber E-Learning Community programme were invited to complete an online survey in the fall 2011 semester. Follow-up online interviews were conducted in December 2011 with four of the students who completed this survey. In the winter 2012 semester, these online interviews were expanded to include seven mentors, two online teachers and the principal of the programme. Two site visits were also conducted, to Chiniki Adult Education Center and the Calgary First Nations Futures Center.

The findings from the evaluation of the SCcyber E-Learning Community programme suggest that the key to academic success involves implementimg a blended approach through the deliberate and intentional integration of mentors at local learning centers, combined with online teachers. The study participants emphasized how this blended approach helped First Nations students overcome major learning challenges such as living in remote locations, lack of access to digital technologies; high speed internet access and quality teachers. Framing the results through the lens of the Seven Principles of Effective Teaching (Chickering & Gamson, 1999) clearly demonstrates how this task is being accomplished.

Principle 1: Good Practice Encourages Student-Teacher Interaction

Synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies are being used by students in the SCcyber E-Learning Community to increase access to their online teachers and mentors, help them share useful resources and provide for joint problem solving and shared learning that is being combined with face-to-face mentoring at the learning centres. These communication technologies are strengthening online teacher interactions with all students, but especially with shy students who are reluctant to ask questions or challenge the teacher directly. These students find that it is often easier to discuss values and personal concerns in writing rather than orally, since inadvertent or ambiguous nonverbal signals are not so dominant.

The roles and responsibilities of the online teacher in this programme can become overwhelming. A recommendation has been made to have each of the online teachers log their daily activities for a one week period. Then, at one of the monthly team meetings the results can be shared and strategies developed for managing the workload of an online teacher in the SCcyber E-Learning Community.

Principle 2: Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation among Students

The SCcyber E-Learning Community strategically works at creating a cooperative learning environment amongst students, parents, mentors and online teachers. The focus of the programme is on self-paced learning, but the study participants suggested that communication and information technologies could be used to support additional opportunities for study groups, collaborative learning, group problem solving and discussion of assignments.

In addition, many of the students and mentors emphasized how important it is to create a sense of community at the learning centres (i.e., displaying student work on the walls, creating a student council, creating a lunch and leisure space). A recommendation has been made to have senior mentors travel to new sites to help the new mentors establish their learning centres.

Principle 3: Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques

The range of technologies that the SCcyber E-Learning Community uses to encourage active learning is extensive. In the past, apprentice-like learning has been supported by many traditional technologies: libraries, laboratories, art and architectural studios, athletic fields. Newer digital technologies can now enrich and expand these opportunities – especially for those students located in rural and remote parts of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. For example, digital technologies can:

  • Support apprentice-like activities in fields that require the use of technology as a tool, such as statistical research and computer-based music, or use of the Internet to gather information unavailable in the local library.
  • Simulate scientific techniques, for example through helping chemistry students develop and practice research skills in “dry” simulated laboratories.
  • Help students develop insight. For example, students may be asked to design a radio antenna. Simulation software not only displays students’ designs, but also the ordinarily invisible electromagnetic waves the antennae would emit. Students change their designs and instantly see resulting changes in the waves. The aim of this exercise is not to design antennae, but to build a deeper understanding of electromagnetism.

Many of the students enrolled in this programme also have their own mobile devices and a recommendation has been made to have them use these devices to document and record their learning in their local communities. For example, they could use their phones to take pictures and record videos that could then be used in the creation of digital stories for course assignments (Center for Digital Storytelling –

Principle 4: Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback

The combination of a learning center mentor and online teacher for each course ensures that all students enrolled in the SCcyber E-Learning Community receive timely and regular feedback about their academic studies. Computers also have a growing role in recording and analyzing personal and professional performances. Teachers can use technology to provide critical observations for an apprentice; for example, they may use video to help a novice teacher, actor, or athlete critique his or her own performance. Teachers (or other students) can react to a writer’s draft using the “hidden text” option available in word processors. Turned on, the “hidden” comments spring up; turned off, the comments recede and the writer’s prized work is again free of “red ink.”

In addition, as Alberta Education moves toward portfolio assessment strategies, computers can provide rich storage and easy access to student products and performances. Computers can keep track of early efforts, so teachers and students can see the extent to which later efforts demonstrate gains in knowledge, competence, or other valued outcomes. Performances that are time-consuming and expensive to record and evaluate— such as leadership skills, group process management, or multicultural interactions— can be elicited and stored, not only for ongoing critique but also as a record of growing capacity.

Principle 5: Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

The SCcyber E-Learning Community programme allows students to work at their own pace in a safe environment with constant monitoring of their progress. The mentors and online teachers interviewed indicate that some students have problems completing their assignments in a timely fashion and thus, have to hastily complete a large portion of them at the very end of the semester. Strategies have been put in place to enforce regularly established deadlines that encourage students to spend time on task and help them avoid procrastination. These deadlines also provide a context for regular weekly contact with the mentors and online teachers.

Principle 6: Good Practice Communicates High Expectations

This programme does an excellent job of communicating high expectations and publicly praising students through the Wall of Success (a wall displaying student course completion certificates) at each learning centre. Communicating high expectations for student performance is essential. An additional way for teachers to do this is through giving challenging assignments. For example, teachers may assign tasks that require students to apply theories to real-world situations rather than remember facts or concepts. This case-based approach involves real world problems with authentic data gathered from real world situations.

Another way to communicate high expectations is to provide examples or models for students to follow, along with comments explaining why the examples are good. Teachers can provide samples of student work from a previous semester as models for current students. Additional commentary can be provided to illustrate how the examples met the required expectations. In addition, the online teacher can share examples of the types of interactions she or he expects in the discussion forum. For instance, a teacher may supply an exemplary posting and explain its strengths, as well as sharing an unsatisfactory posting and highlighting trends from the past that she or he would like students to avoid.

Principle 7: Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

The SCcyber E-Learning Community clearly demonstrates how communication and information technologies can be used to support different methods of learning through the use of :

  • Powerful visuals and well-organized text
  • Direct, vicarious and virtual experiences; and
  • Tasks requiring analysis, synthesis and evaluation, with applications to real-life situations.

These digital tools are also being used to encourage self-reflection and self-assessment. In addition, the range of technologies utilized in this programme help students learn in ways they find most effective and broaden their repertoires for learning. With the mentor and online teacher’s support, these tools are supplying the structure for students who need it while leaving assignments more open-ended for students who don’t. Students can move quickly through materials they master easily and go on to more difficult tasks, or slower students can take more time and get more feedback and direct help from the online teachers and mentors.

Finally, every SCcyber E-Learning Community student who participated in this study commented on the “passion and commitment” that the mentors, online teachers and administrators involved in this programme devoted to student success. They all emphasized that the SCcyber E-Learning Community was “making a difference in their lives.” This enthusiasm for learning is definitely infectious and it is strongly recommended that more government departments, educational institutions and corporations partner with the programme in order to expand the positive impact on the lives of First Nations students in Canada.

The SCcyber E-Learning Community programme can now be accessed from over 25 learning centres in Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Ontario. Further information about the programme can be found at:


Chickering. A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1999). Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. New Directions for Teaching & Learning. 80, 75-82.