In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada reported a systemic lack of culturally relevant education available to Aboriginal peoples and a lack of awareness in the general public about Aboriginal cultures, knowledge systems, and perspectives. The Commission issued a number of calls -to-action to Canadian post-secondary educational institutions to support healing, dialogue, learning and renewed relationships.
Since 1987, Cape Breton University (CBU), in Sydney, Nova Scotia, has engaged in broadening Mi’kmaq and Aboriginal courses and programming. Stephen Augustine is Associate Vice-President, Indigenous Affairs & Unama’ki College, which is responsible for meeting the needs of Mi’kmaw and other First Nations students at CBU. He is also a Hereditary Chief of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council.
Together with a colleague, Ashlee Cunsolo, Stephen launched an open, online, and free-access course called “Learning from the Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki” (MIMK2701) in January 2016.
The course, co-taught by Stephen Augustine and Ashlee Cunsolo, was offered both as a for-credit course and as a free, open educational offering. Students could register for the in-class CBU course for credit with the requisite academic assignments. The class was also open to the public, who participated on campus, face-to-face in an auditorium. In addition, participants could also receive a certificate of completion for the course by completing an assignment based on personal reflections from each course and paying a $75 fee.
The 13-week course was made available free of charge, online, globally via live-streaming. Bell Aliant, CBU’s local telecommunications provider, provided and managed the live streaming of the course, in conjunction with CBU’s video production department, at no cost to CBU. The estimated value of the equipment loaned to CBU was approximately $15,000-$25,000.
The course was designed in such a way as to share Mi’kmaq oral history and traditional knowledge, as presented by the knowledge keepers of Mi’kma’ki. The content and knowledge was shared through a series of lectures, presentations, and dialogues with Indigenous persons in the community. Each class began with a traditional sweetgrass or sage smudging ceremony and ended with drumming and singing. This spiritually set the tone and ambiance for the rest of the evening and the entire course.
Each course was live-streamed once weekly for 11-weeks, with each session two-and-a-half hours in length. One of the in-class sessions was cancelled due to a snowstorm. However, the make-up class was streamed synchronously on a different day.
The course was augmented by participants’ use of Facebook, Twitter (#taliaqCBU) and e-mail. Participants were invited to choose how, and to what extent they wanted, to interact with other course participants. Altogether, more than 11,000 questions were submitted from participants.
The for-credit students provided blogs and a final paper for their assessment for credit towards their university degree. Open access participants could pay a nominal fee of $75 to cover administrative costs and submit a reflective essay in order to receive the certificate.
Benefits and Outcomes
A total of 26 students completed the course for credit and 5,326 individuals officially registered for the course. Bell Aliant logged as many as 15,000 visits to the site while the course was running, with online participants from 26 countries. More than 800 participants signed up to register their interest in taking the certificate and 250 completed the requirements for a certificate. The course experienced high enrolment numbers and spontaneous development of a community of practice that extended well beyond the 13 -weeks of the course and surpassed both the instructors’ and the university’ expectations.
Many of the people who registered for the course indicated this kind of education and information, coming directly from the Mi’kmaw knowledge keepers, was never available free, online in such an organized fashion. Participating Indigenous people indicated they have never learned about their culture, language, and history and that it is wonderful to hear their own people sharing their personal experiences through story-telling. For many, it was learning never before experienced.
The course design integrated Indigenous pedagogy and traditional knowledge and learning. As one instructor said, "It was an opportunity to take really seriously the responsibilities around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls-to-action."
Challenges and Enhancements
The instructors were not prepared for the large number of participants. More resources, especially people, are needed to deal with such large numbers. One instructor noted, "The design and delivery of large-scale online courses requires a team – or a village – in order to succeed."
In particular, resources are needed to quickly register large numbers of participants outside the normal university registration process, and if certificates are offered, academic support for marking or grading assignments is necessary. For this particular course, though, the instructors called on Elders and Indigenous peoples to help review the contents of the students’ essays.
The sessions were too long. Instead of being two-and-a-half hours, the sessions should be 30 minutes.
The course was only offered once to date, but the sessions are archived and freely accessible through Bell Aliant.
Canada faces a tremendous challenge in finding ways to successfully implement the findings and calls-to-action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Open education initiatives, offered by and with Indigenous people in a respectful form, backed by the validation of a public university, is one important means by which Canadians can come to understand and respect the importance of the Indigenous heritage.
Associate Vice-President, Indigenous Affairs & Unama’ki College
Cape Breton University,
Sydney, Nova Scotia