COVID-19: How Universities Can Support Indigenous Learners Online


Indigenous people with experience leading culturally safe talking circles in an online environment can work with students to create safe virtual spaces

This article, written by Josephine Auger, Athabasca University and Janelle Marie Baker, Athabasca University, originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished here with permission:

As the second wave of the pandemic continues, Indigenous students face challenges. At Athabasca University, we conducted a study to find out how Indigenous students at our university are doing with online learning during the pandemic. Our colleagues Martin Connors, professor of space science / physics and Barbara Reis, master’s student in education, were part of our research team.

Athabasca University specializes in and was one of the early adopters of distance learning, so contemporary Athabasca online learners have not been faced with an abrupt switch to online learning. online due to the pandemic. We asked students who identify as Indigenous to explain the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges and barriers they face in an online learning environment, and the adaptations they have made.

While this project investigated the immediate impact of the educational disruption of the pandemic at our university, the findings are relevant to all Canadian universities whose responses must consider the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous learners.

Financial barriers and the Internet

Athabasca University has 3,849 Aboriginal students who identify as First Nations, Métis, non-status and Inuit. These students live in towns, villages and Indigenous territories across Canada, the northern part of Turtle Island. This specter of indigeneity was evident among the respondents to our survey.

One hundred and forty Indigenous students responded to the online survey, six participated in a focus group, and 16 participated in interviews. Of the 16 students surveyed, 11 had to request class extensions or drop out of classes due to stress. Five experienced difficulties but were able to complete their studies.

Students weather an economic storm in the midst of a pandemic. Alberta’s decision to implement a performance-based funding model affects the budgets of post-secondary institutions and, as a result, Athabasca University has increased tuition fees by seven percent in 2020 and announced an increase. five percent for 2021.

Before hearing about the recent increase, an Indigenous student who is also a parent explained her predicament, saying, “I really care about my money when I get the funding because I never know if it’s going to be. a problem. next time. “There are many steps in getting a student loan from the province of Alberta, and some students experience a gap between the time they need to pay the tuition fees and when the funding arrives. .

Of the 140 students who responded to the survey, 14 percent found it difficult to complete their assignments due to financial stress, and more than half (53.5 percent) experienced financial fluctuations and had to difficulty in completing their work. Many other barriers to completing the work included competing for the home internet or living in a remote location where internet use must meet the needs of many people living in the same household. Some students indicated that the costs of the Internet were very high.

Athabasca University’s online format reassured some Indigenous students. One student said it was helpful to know that he was already ready for online learning ‘when everything else was going crazy’:

“We had stability at [Athabasca University] because we didn’t have to worry about how we were going to do our lessons, we just kept going because we knew how to do it… now everyone has to do it, ”he said.

Understanding historical illness and trauma

Indigenous students fear they will be infected with COVID-19 and pass it on to others. Over the winter, the numbers rose, hitting aboriginal communities in Alberta hard. In the one-on-one interviews, we asked about infectious diseases because the past affects the present and there are lessons to be learned.

We asked students about their knowledge of the historical past of smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs and the historic treatment and neglect of Indigenous children in residential schools where tuberculosis and neglect caused illness and death.

One student explained:

“My mom’s dad had 13 siblings, and he lost 11 to tuberculosis… they were from northern Saskatchewan. And just as the TB epidemic was going on, they had to get closer to Prince Albert to be closer to their kids who were in the hospital, and they ended up getting stuck there, because that ‘ It was at this point that the Indian agent instituted the need to have a pass to travel. They had to have a pass to go anywhere. So we ended up getting stuck on [another] reserve that we now call home, but it was not their original home.

The historic traumas caused by infectious disease and displacement are not something indigenous peoples overcome; it is something transmitted that we learn to understand and go through.

How to support students

The pandemic has changed the way post-secondary institutions must support Indigenous students and provide essential learning services. Through student responses, we have heard of several ways to do this.

In an emergency, communication is very important. Keeping lines of communication open while answering student questions is essential for learner success. Indigenous students suggested that it is important that university phone lines remain open and that emails should be returned promptly.

Students need mental health support for anxiety and depression exacerbated by the pandemic. One student commented that our society tends to “put so much emphasis on acute care,” while dragging its feet on long-term investments in services to address health inequalities for Indigenous peoples. It was referring to the distribution of vaccines in Canada. Elderly members of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities were vaccinated during the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccine deployment in Canada.

The majority of students who spoke with a member of our team shared their experiences and challenges. It helped them to have someone to listen. During the focus group, when the Indigenous students first met virtually together, it was mentioned how new it was to meet online to share personally together as Indigenous people. Technology in an online environment allows for some human connection through Microsoft Teams or Zoom, but it’s not the same as being grounded in the ceremony and on the pitch together.

When indigenous peoples meet on earth, a fire is a symbol of sacred bond. Online, it’s also important to create a sacred space for Indigenous students to connect. Indigenous peoples with experience in leading culturally safe discussion circles in an online environment can work across distances and time zones to create such spaces. In an online sharing circle, it’s about listening from the heart and sharing experiences. Each person holds space for each other and remembers how much they belong by being present with each other.

Creating a sacred space in an online environment requires building a relationship of trust and trust. Listening to students with a loving heart builds trust and relationships in the age of reconciliation.

Josephine Auger, Associate Professor, Indigenous Studies, Athabasca University and Janelle Marie Baker, Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Athabasca University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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