The use of ICTs and E-learning in Indigenous Education
Kevin O’Connor, Mount Royal University

With the increase in land claim agreements, renegotiation of treaty rights and local control of resource development, many Indigenous[1] communities are engaging in the use of new media and information technologies in the process of self-determination. This direct control and involvement leads to issues of preservation and sustainable development of their resources. Education becomes a major factor in this process as many Indigenous communities support the inclusion of these technologies in the students learning:

  • To encourage students to be aware of and feel responsible for the lands their ancestors have occupied.
  • To assist in the intellectual, emotional and social development of students.
  • To better prepare and encourage the students for employment opportunities that exist within Aboriginal territories and beyond.

Through this short issue paper, I investigate the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) and e-learning in a First Nations education context and make the case for their educational, pedagogical and cultural benefits within a system that many believe is failing its students (AFN, 2005; Kirkness, 1998). As I describe some exemplary e-learning educational organizations, I believe that we are currently well situated within political, economic and social systems to increase support for ICTs and e-learning in First Nations education policy and programming at both the local and national levels.


The current state of Indigenous education in Canada is unacceptable (AANDC, 2011; AFN, 2005). “The majority of Indigenous youth do not complete high school and rather than nurturing the individual, the present schooling experience typically erodes identity and self-worth” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996, p. 434).

The lack of Indigenous cultural knowledge and perspectives in the school curriculum has been identified as a significant factor in school failure amongst Indigenous students (Cajete, 1994; Deloria & Wildcat, 2001; Kirkness, 1998). The hideous legacy of residential school experience has had devastating effects on generations of Indigenous students. Cultural conflict, alienation, poor self-esteem, lack of preparation for jobs and for life in general and disengagement from schooling can be traced back to residential schools (Ing, 1990; McPeek, 1988; Swanson, 2003). This affects not only those directly associated with residential schools but their children, grandchildren and communities (Kirkness, 1999).

While it is not my intent to over-exemplify the challenges associated with Indigenous education, I am compelled to list some contributing factors, as it is often the case to “mislabel…the conditions of poverty as the conditions of culture and its incongruence with the school environment” (Clarke, 1997, p. 63). It is these very assumptions that blame the victim and assume that the cultural values of Indigenous people are what hinder their upward mobility into the relative affluence of society (Adams, 1998). Most specific to this issue, the wish is for the Aboriginal student to finally be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a healthy and well-supported educational system. Some of the current challenges are:

Socio-economic challenges

  • Factors outside the classroom can account for 40-50% of a student’s performance.
  • There are high levels of poverty, health issues including substance abuse and special needs and mobility on and off-reserve.

Historical challenges

  • The legacy of assimilation, residential schools and the effects of the Indian Act remain pervasive challenge for Aboriginal peoples to contend with.
  • Education is viewed by most First Nations as key to self-determination, with emphasis on local control and language and culture.

Systemic challenges

  • Currently there is no legislative framework in place to support education on-reserve.
  • K-12 education is delivered primarily within a stand-alone, “school house” model.
  • Chronic funding pressures persist within each First Nations community in Canada.
  • There is confusion in terms of assignment of roles and responsibilities between:
    • The federal government that funds education
    • Provincial governments that have the expertise in overseeing the delivery of education and
    • First Nations that deliver education services on-reserve (O’Connor, 2012).

Government of Canada’s role in First Nations education

The Government of Canada has primary responsibility for the elementary and secondary education of Status Indians living on-reserve. The following are some key statistics that provide some context to First Nations Education in Canada.

  • There are 520 First Nations schools across Canada, often in remote, socio-economically challenged communities.
  • Approximately 117 500 elementary/secondary First Nations students live on-reserve.
  • Of these, approximately 40 percent attend provincial or private schools off-reserve for which the Government of Canada pays tuition fees through tuition agreements.
  • In 2011-12 approximately $1.5 billion in investments were allocated for First Nations K-12 education, plus about $300 million for post-secondary education (O’Connor, 2012).

These findings reveal the complexity of education for Indigenous students. There is an urgency to develop alternative education approaches that incorporate Indigenous cultural knowledge and methodologies with on-reserve and public school curriculum, to enhance and support classroom learning for Indigenous students. There is also a need to discover effective ways that indigenous and non-indigenous (English and/or French) educators can integrate such cultural knowledge into their teachings of the regular curricula at formal schools (Barnhardt, 1999; Kanu, 2005; McCue, 2009).

ICTs and E-Learning

Certain alternative education practices offer solutions to some of the problems many Indigenous students face in formal educational institutions and have created positive outcomes with respect to Indigenous student needs (Grande, 2004; O’Connor, 2009). The use of ICTs and e-learning in Aboriginal education has shown positive results in addressing many of the aforementioned barriers to success for Aboriginal students (Industry Canada, 2005; Sharpe, D. et al, 2011; Vaughn, N. D., 2014). The following is a description of some of those benefits.


Accessibility and Supports

Many First Nations schools exist in isolated and remote communities within Canada. This geographical separation can negatively impact educational programming, as there is often a lack of:

  • Pedagogical supports.
  • Learning resources.
  • Availability of courses/schools (especially in secondary).
  • Teacher professional development.

Opportunities provided through ICTs and e-learning can assist students in accessing the crucial supports required for learning that are equivalent to many in urban or less isolated school environments. Another positive element to this approach is that educators—many whom are not of Aboriginal descent and who do not have experience in Aboriginal education and/or are new to the profession—can access the applicable supports and information to help them integrate culturally relevant and effective pedagogy in their classrooms. Critics often assume that Aboriginal schools are taught by Aboriginal teachers. This is often not the case as many Aboriginal schools (like many non-Aboriginal rural schools) attract beginning non-Aboriginal teachers looking to build their professional experience. ICTs and e-learning can provide positive cost-effective supports to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers without having them leave their communities on a regular basis.

Another advantage in the application of ICTs and e-learning is that it allows students to remain in their respective communities to learn. Studies have consistently reinforced the fact that active family and community involvement does have a considerable impact on student achievement (Booth & Dunn, 1996; Epstein, 1995; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). The profound and comprehensive benefits for students when parents, family and community members become active participants in the educational process is undeniable (Diss & Buckley, 2005)

If Aboriginal students must leave their communities for schooling, they lose this crucial support, not to mention the cross-cultural challenges that can occur in a non-Aboriginal educational environment. Melnechenko and Horsman (1998) identify family influence as one of the major factors contributing to the educational success of Indigenous students: “Educators have come to know that there is a positive correlation between success at school and positive family influence, support, and relationships” (p. 9). A student with a strong sense of community and a rich understanding of his or her culture is someone who will be successful in school, remain in school longer and have a positive transition to the post-secondary world (Hampton, 1995; Jardine, 2005; Kirkness, 1998).

Indigenous Pedagogies

Aboriginal e-learning organizations can provide an experienced and supportive pedagogical approach that is grounded in Indigenous epistemologies that have the potential to engage students in the process of their learning. The current framework that guides our provincial schools is based upon colonial thought (Harding, 1998; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999) and, I argue, places the learner in a recipient position which is contrary to many Aboriginal beliefs and epistemologies. Learners in our provincial schools are often seen as passive recipients of knowledge and teachers are purveyors of that knowledge (Goodlad, 1984; Sizer, 1984).

All too often young Aboriginal students who are full of creativity, curiosity and active wonderment enter the school environment and become submissive and passive participants, because they are lad to believe that they must learn and act according to what the curriculum, their teacher and school reward them for learning and becoming (Jardine, 2005). Critical theorists (Greene, 1995; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999) recognize that the present educational system places students as “passive receptors in a fact-based memory game” (Kincheloe, 2001, p. 90). They instead envision a system that teaches young people to become active participants in the world. It is only through dynamic engagement that we can see the relevance and necessity to learn about it.

Many Canadian-based Aboriginal e-learning organizations encourage students through introducing a multiple-perspective curriculum and active exposure to social, cultural and political issues in order to venture ‘outside the box’ of the conventional education system. Supported through a ‘blended approach’ (Driscoll, 2003), students are asked to develop beliefs that are based on their own critical assessment; differing opinions and ways of thinking are encouraged. Through student-centered learning initiatives and cooperative work, learners develop a cognition that values Aboriginal perspectives.

Skills and Training

ICTs and e-learning can effectively contribute to the economic opportunities available to Indigenous students and communities in general. With the availability of resources and aggressive development of those resources in Aboriginal territories, there has never been a more crucial time to provide a mode of training and knowledge management so as to support Aboriginal employability and community-based economic opportunities. Through skills development and vocational training, e-learning can provide the Aboriginal learner with the skills and knowledge for employment opportunities that exist within Aboriginal territories and beyond.

Current Providers

The now terminated First Nations SchoolNet FNS programme—originally housed within Industry Canada but later migrated to the suite of educational programmes supported through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada AANDC—was responsible for connecting First Nations schools to the internet. Through the creation of First Nations Regional Management Organizations, the FNS programme addressed its connectivity agenda by providing each First Nations school with the necessary resources, such as computers, hardware, licenses, support services and other related infrastructure, to effectively connect online.

While at AANDC-Education, I was very fortunate to chair their national e-learning strategy consultations and as a result was privy to the insight shared by four of the most productive Aboriginal e-learning organizations in Canada, who benefited from the FNS programme. They include:

  • Sunchild Cyber (AB)
  • Wapaskwa Virtual Collegiate (MB)
  • K-Net and their Keewaytinook internet High School KiHS (ON)
  • Credenda (SK).

A summary of some of these findings include:

  • Working definition developed: “E-learning is a method of quality education not readily available to students in the communities that allows each community to have their own school.”
  • All organizations stressed that they provide an educational service that is not currently provided (by band or provincial school) within Aboriginal communities.
  • Retention rates have increased from 30-40% to 70-80%.
  • Student success rates are 50-60%, which is much higher than most local band schools.
  • Various funding models are currently being applied to support their organizations (federal, provincial, private and user fees).
  • Recognition of the diverse (or conversely, lack of) arrangements and/or support currently in place with the individual organizations and their respective provinces
  • Partnerships were seen as a priority to the schools’ sustainability and were (and continue to be) created with various private organizations and post-secondary institutions
  • Connectivity issues exist (urban vs. rural, cancellation of FNS programme).
  • Consensus on a pedagogical approach that is considered “Blended E-Learning,” a combination of asynchronous, synchronous and on-site engagement (applied in K-12, PSE & professional development contexts).

As we move forward, a report by the Conference Board of Canada (2010, p. iii) makes 11 recommendations worth considering to optimize the effectiveness of e-learning programmes and to improve on–reserve First Nations educational outcomes:

  1. Better engage First Nations in the development and implementation of e-learning programmes.
  2. Develop and implement an e-learning strategy.
  3. Increase funding for e-learning programmes and the supporting software licensing, technical infrastructure, equipment and technicians.
  4. Extend funding terms for e-learning programmes.
  5. Assess community needs and educational outcomes.
  6. Build tools and capacity.
  7. Develop and implement a strategy to improve teacher engagement.
  8. Consider the generational differences among students.
  9. Promote student commitment.
  10. Offer expanded and more flexible programmes with holistic programme delivery.
  11. Better integrate e-learning under the overall AANDC education umbrella.

As the federal government continues to make significant investments in expanding broadband network services in First Nations communities (AANDC, 2012) and as it begins to enact its controversial bill on First Nations Education Reform (AANDC, 2013), there has never been a more critical time to increase support for ICTs and e-learning in First Nations education policy and programming at both the local and national levels. It is the hope that through this type of alternative education approach, Aboriginal students are finally in a position to take advantage of the opportunities provided by healthy and well-supported educational systems.


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[1] “Indigenous” refers to the conditions, rights and way of life of many groups, cultures, communities and peoples who have a historical continuity or association with a given region or parts of a region before its subsequent colonization or the formation of a nation-state. I do not wish to insinuate by the use of a single reference that Indigenous people can be classified by one term that excludes each group’s specific and particular identity. I have learned that not only are there definite relations and nuances within Indigenous Nations, but that they are explicitly specific to each community and reserve. The historical specificity and variability of culture and its synchronous interaction with many other diverse environmental and social structures create specific identities amongst groups that are not to be trivialized by a single term.