Indigenizing Online Learning

I got incredibly excited when I picked up our class reading last Monday: The 5 R’s for Indigenizing Online Learning: A Case Study of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course.

Finally. Something that directly, 100% related to the work that I was doing every day.

When I came to UVic a year and a half ago, I came to develop and implement a new online orientation program for incoming students. Through a lot of research, consultation with subject matter experts throughout the university, a close partnership with Technology Integrated Learning (TIL), and some of my thoughts and feelings about what I thought was best, we created a 3-4 hour program containing eight different topic areas and a number of different activities.

It was fascinating to see how many of the approaches they took in the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course (FNSPC) resonated with how we had approached our work.

Rationale for going online

Our reasons for creating an online orientation program were obviously very different from the researcher’s reasons for creating a course for First Nations Principals (that shouldn’t surprise anyone), but our reasons for making the decision to go online were very similar: online courses help to break down geographic barriers to participation. First Nations Principals are scattered all over the country, often in geographically remote areas, and learning online gave them a way to participate with disrupting their daytime principal roles. Similarly, UVic’s incoming students are scattered all over the world; over 70% of incoming students come from outside the Greater Victoria area. Creating an online program gives all students (more or less) an equal opportunity to participate, without the need for expensive flights, or disrupting their normal day-to-day life to attend an in-person program.

People involved

In order to develop the FNSPC, two separate-but-related teams were developed. First, there was the course design team at OISE. This was the team that would be doing most of the work in pulling the course together. Then there was the expert advisory panel, who met with the design team twice. The 22-member advisor panel consisted of leading educators, curriculum developers, academics, and principals.

Our process had a similar approach. We had a small design team that consisted primarily of myself and two members of the TIL team, with a little bit of support from our wider teams. Then we had our own version of the expert advisory panel- a subject matter expert group for each of our topic areas, that consisted of people who knew a lot about the topic, or could represent a specific student demographic in relation to the topic. Similarly to the FNSPC, we recognized that knowledge wasn’t simply held by one or two individuals, and the more perspectives we brought to the table initially, the more likely we were to create a product that worked for the most students.

Modules organized around a query

One of the ways the FNSPC designers tried to ensure the course content was relevant to learners was by organizing each module around a query related to principals’ everyday experiences; all content and activities within the module related directly to supporting the exploration of this query. These queries included “What are our school resources and how can we use them?” and “How can data be used for school improvement?”, among others.

I was initially struck by the similarity in titles between the FNSPC modules and our program’s activities; we had also chosen to frame every activity (although not every larger topic) as a question. In reflecting on the rationale provided by the FNSPC, I realized our rationale was largely the same. We posed a question to students (“How can I maintain academic integrity?” or “How can I build and maintain relationships?”), and then the activity allowed the students to explore the question, learning skills, expectations, strategies and resources they could take forward to answer the question. 

Ongoing feedback

It’s obvious throughout the article that receiving and responding to feedback was an important component of the FNSPC. For them, in the context of the 5 R’s, this allowed them to show respect for the local community’s values and perspectives and allowed them to apply the principle of reciprocity, making teaching and learning a two-way process.

Due to the short nature of our course and the high number of students enrolled, we’re not able to make changes throughout the course, but we have incorporated features into the course and into our assessment process to ensure we are receiving feedback. The course is set up with a pre-post test so we can determine the program’s impact and make changes accordingly; students are required to submit a feedback survey before the course is considered to be complete, and we have plans to run additional focus groups in the fall to gain more information. Based on feedback we received in our January pilot, we have already made changes to the program, adding a learning outcome and activity about navigating the campus that we originally had not thought was necessary. Further, student input, through surveys, focus groups, and the staff working in our office, was solicited and incorporated throughout the development of our program.

As they stated in the paper: “Student voices should be actively listened to, and their needs and goals should be accommodated.” This is a statement we firmly believe in.

Horizontal sharing

Due to the importance of reciprocity in Indigenous education, and the importance of relationships, many elements of horizontal sharing were introduced into the course design, allowing learning to take place not simply via a transmission model of teaching, but via sharing between participants.

Our program admittedly doesn’t have a lot of sharing between participants outside of a few polls whose responses are shared; this is partly due to concerns about monitoring and responding to anything posted in the course, and partly because participants haven’t had the experience of coming to university yet, so there is a limited amount they could share to be helpful. However, we have incorporated the stories and learnings of upper-year students throughout the program, through student profiles, student tips and the videos we created. These upper-year students are giving back to their community through their participation in our program.

Oral communication

Indigenous education and ways of knowing are largely based in community and in oral communication; therefore, the FNSPC incorporated lots of video chat rooms and video lectures.

The connection to our program here may, admittedly, be a bit of a stretch. While each of our topics did have a video component, they also had lots of non-video components. However, many of our activities were scenario based, where students had to help a “fellow student” navigate, for example, their first term at UVic, or the banking system. While students had to read text on a screen in order to do this, the text was written in the form of an oral conversation, and the entire scenario was based on a helping relationship with the character.

Direct application

To help ensure relevance, the design team for the FNSPC wanted to ensure that course participation was incorporated into participants’ working lives as much as possible, and wasn’t simply seen as an external activity. We had the same thought process when designing our course; we wanted students to see the direct application of our activities to their lives as students, and to identify strategies and behaviours they could directly apply to their lives. To do this, we added what we called a “Think Forward” activity at the end of each topic. These activities required students to think about what they had just learned, and set an intention for applying that content to their lives. For example, they were asked to choose, from a list, three new study strategies they wanted to implement, or to set three health and wellness goals for the fall.

An overall look

As someone who came into the design process with a lot of thoughts and opinions, but, realistically, very little experience in developing an online course, finding all these parallels between our process and approaches, and those of this program was extremely validating. Our preliminary assessment data has been quite positive, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our program is received by our September incoming class.

I want to be clear: I don’t write any of this to make an argument that we have Indigenized our online orientation program. While there may be parallels between some of our approaches, there are also lots of gaps. Because we offer additional, in-person orientation programming, the online program doesn’t focus on relationship building; our program doesn’t heavily involve the tradition of oral communication; and while we talk a fair bit about building community of campus, we do neglect the community back home.

But it was interesting to see how well the Indigenous core values of education (experiential, holistic, personal, orally transmitted and uses narrative and metaphor) lined up with what we had identified as best practices in online learning.

And I have to say: Knowing this Five R framework exists makes me much more comfortable with the idea of potentially designing activities specifically for Indigenous students down the road.

Featured image by Bram Naus on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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