Offering an honours degree program focused on becoming a teacher with the specialization of teaching students of Aboriginal ancestry at Lakehead University
Aboriginal education is a priority at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and in the Faculty of Education, evidenced by the recent creation of a Department of Aboriginal Education, the inclusion of five Aboriginal scholars, and a significant research agenda among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal faculty members. The University’s mission statement articulates the need to serve the educational needs of the Aboriginal population in Northern Ontario and, through the campus in Orillia, Central Ontario. One of the five priorities in the Academic Plan 2012-2017 is “enhance our support of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (Aboriginal) students.”
Aboriginal communities need teachers from their communities who understand the cultures and the specific learning needs and styles of the learners. Often teachers in Aboriginal communities are recent graduates from outside the community and they have a high turnover rate. To address this challenge, a new Honours Bachelor of Education (Aboriginal) Primary/Junior has been designed.
The new degree program, started four years ago, is offered through two models – as an on-campus, full-time four-year program and as a part-time program delivered through a combination of online courses and six week summer session on the Thunder Bay campus. Through online delivery, the program reaches students in communities in what Judy Flett, the Coordinator of Aboriginal Education Programs, describes as a “classroom the size of France” in Ontario alone, throughout areas of Treaty 9, part of Treaty 5, Treaty 3, and the Robinson Superior Tract. Students studying part-time can complete the degree in six and a half years.
The program is designed for teachers of Aboriginal ancestry who will be teaching students of Aboriginal ancestry. Indigenous pedagogy and learning needs dominate in the choice of curriculum and delivery methods, as well as the core specialization in literacy and numeracy and attention to children with special learning needs. Each year of the program has courses in Aboriginal education.
Moodle, the learning management system at Lakehead University, is used for access to the course outline, communications, discussion groups, and group work. This semester, a Facebook study group is being used for announcements and communications as it opens easily without the need for high bandwidth. Tutors can be reached through phone, e-mail, and via Facebook. Course materials are distributed via air cargo and are sent to the students before courses begin.
The Department of Aboriginal Education works with the communities so that the timing of the courses respects the key times in the cultural and economic life of the communities, such as goose hunting season. Working collaboratively with the communities is essential to the success of the program and students, as the whole community supports their learning. The majority of the students are working full-time, many of them as educational assistants and Native language teachers.
Outcomes and Benefits
The student response has been very positive as they are grateful to have access to fulfilling careers and to be able to help their communities. The program was developed in cooperation with the Matawa Tribal Council, the members of which are very impressed with the flexibility of the program, the supports offered to the students, the high retention rate, and the community- and Aboriginal-focused design and curriculum.
The first cohort will graduate in two years.
Challenges and Enhancements
The most difficult challenge is bandwidth as many of the Aboriginal communities do not have sufficient bandwidth for the students to download course materials and assignments. Loading pages from the web site can often ‘time-out’ before the download is completed. As much as possible, course materials are distributed through air cargo while announcements and quizzes can be sent by fax. The bandwidth challenge requires creative solutions.
The students also have to become familiar with a wide variety of technology for the creation and delivery of digital assignments, as well as working with the learning management system
The Department of Aboriginal Education and Lakehead University are considering the development of an Honours Bachelor of Education (Aboriginal) for potential teachers at the junior and intermediate levels.
Starting in Fall 2012, Skype will be used for teaching, learning, and communication.
A partnership between Lakehead University and Keewaytinook Okimakanak Network (K-Net) provides the program with access to information and communications telecommunication infrastructure and bridging support in First Nations communities across a vast, remote region of northwestern Ontario. Nishnawbe Aski Nation has received a grant to install fibre optics in northern Ontario First Nations communities, starting from west to east, and the installation will be completed in 15 years. The arrival of fibre optics in each community will greatly facilitate communication and learning opportunities.
Aboriginal Education Programs