From the start of public universities and colleges in the 19th century, educators have committed themselves to serving the needs of rural and remote learners. After the 1970s, institutions expanded their outreach to include Aboriginal students, many of whom are place-bound in remote communities. Now, with the growth of the Internet (even with notoriously poor service in Northern and remote regions), our ability to reach well beyond the major cities and towns has expanded exponentially.
While there are thousands of individual success stories — Indigenous and non-Aboriginal rural learners who completed advanced study via distance education — the reality is the effort is not working particularly well overall. Most online learners are either regular on-campus students (studying in their pajamas rather than getting to class on time, perhaps?) or from urban areas. Major advances in e-based education may be exacerbating the urban-rural divided rather than addressing it.
Nothing, save for technical challenges, stops Aboriginal and other rural residents from capitalizing on the educational opportunities available. So, what stands in the way of mass participation? I would highlight five key challenges:
1. Poor Prior Experience
Many rural and Aboriginal adults experienced inadequate high school preparation and had bad experiences with schooling. Students who are not well prepared in terms of basic skills and who are not keen to learn are unlikely to approach postsecondary institutions.
2. Shortage of Local Role Models
Most teachers and professionals in these areas come from outside the area. Where small groups of students engage in postsecondary education (PSE), they appear to draw others into the world of advanced learning.
3. Limited Local or Accessible Mentoring
Online, self-directed learning is difficult in the best of times. In remote and rural communities, the absence of mentors, tutors and people familiar with local social realities makes it more difficult for independent learners to progress.
4. Disconnect between Local Realities and Postsecondary Curricula
Rural and Aboriginal communities are unique and fascinating places. Most PSE curricula make scant reference to these socio-economic environments and therefore feel disconnected and less relevant to some learners.
5. Disconnect in Expectations
Many institutions significantly underestimate the challenges associated with launching a PSE program. Because of the limited local or regional engagement, many rural and Aboriginal students do not always appreciate the length, intensity and difficulties of a distance education PSE program.
As a result of these and other challenges, rural and Aboriginal students are not fully engaged in the PSE sector, despite the proliferation of program and course offerings. As a way of creating a conversation about expanding PSE participation among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rural residents, I offer some suggestions that might prompt an expansion of activity.
1. Develop eLearning Familiarity
Build distance education into the last two years of high school so all students in rural and remote communities learn how to study online. Developing a familiarity with e-learning can be really beneficial as they enter postsecondary education and more online learning opportunities.
2. Improve Adult Preparation
Use these same high school courses as the core of adult basic education (ABE) for mature learners, and engage the high school teachers as mentors for the adult learners. Success at ABE lays a good foundation for advanced study.
3. Unite Regional Students
Even if the students are taking different courses, they benefit from recognizing they are part of a larger and local community. Students are great at supporting each other, but this can’t happen if they don’t know about other learners in the same situation.
4. Engage in Proactive Recruitment
Colleges and universities are effective at recruiting for on-campus enrollment. They are less accomplished at finding students for e-learning. Institutions tend to be passive, allowing students to find them. Outreach activities focused on people currently in the workforce, particularly if done personally, can help a great deal.
5. Link Programs with Reality
Institutions must develop regionally-relevant programs with rural and Aboriginal content as appropriate and provide PSE offerings that respond to local employment opportunities. Targeted courses that prepare students for local opportunities are mostly likely to generate enthusiasm and enrollment. There are many such examples across the country.
Canada has some superb rural educators and institutions with exceptional track records for working with Northern and remote regions. Despite a solid track record, Aboriginal and other rural residents are not capitalizing in full on the educational opportunities available, contributing to economic and personal challenges in these regions. Proactive and creative policies can help; in all cases, knowing the people and the region is absolutely essential.
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