The Role Online Schooling Plays in Education for Native American Students
Native Americans face a unique set of challenges, as Native populations strive to maintain their history, traditions and cultural identity while keeping pace with developments in the country around them. With Native Americans historically ill-served by the traditional education system, new initiatives hope to leverage the flexibility of online colleges and universities, as well as other virtual education programs, to make the difference.
In 1992, a Northern Arizona University study found that American Indian and Alaska Native students had a 30% chance of dropping out before completing high school, both on reservations and in cities. That’s about double the national average, and the gap has proven stubbornly difficult to bridge.
Part of the problem is that Native populations are kept somewhat apart from an education system that never made including them a priority. By law, tribal sovereignty recognizes the distinct status of Native populations as being outside the typical structure of American government, with reservations operating according to customs and rules that vary according to each individual nation. And bringing the diverse cultures of America’s Native peoples, most of whom are highly geographically localized and isolated, into a comprehensive education system could be problematic.
More seriously, educators with little exposure to Native history or culture may be regarded as condescending or dismissive toward the issues important to Native students. This can drive a wedge between student and teacher, and help to undermine faith in the school as a whole. Recognizing the importance of Native American educational topics, can be an important part of reaching Native American students.
Over the last decade, some schools have responded by offering specialized programs that focus on local issues important to Native populations. An Evergreen State University Program has been promoting instruction about cases involving tribal affairs in the Northwest, which has shown success in engaging Native students. Faculty who participated in the initiative unanimously reported that students gained a greater awareness of Native perspectives and their work improved the curriculum for Native students.
Not coincidentally, this is the sort of specialized instruction that online education programs are ideally suited to deliver. Online courses can provide students access to instructional material that their local college may not have the personnel or resources to provide. In addition, online education can make it economically viable for educators to offer such specialized programs in the first place.
Reliance on the Internet does come with its own problems. As a Federal Communications Commission report noted in 2010, Native American communities have historically been chronically underserved when it comes to Internet access. The number of subscribers on reservations is half the national average, and only 47% of Native households even have telephone service. Online education can provide an unprecedented range of opportunity to Native populations, but unreliable or unavailable Internet service is often standing in the way.
However, extending more robust telecommunications infrastructure to the reservations may be considerably easier than redesigning the traditional American education system. Online schooling bypasses the even trickier set of logistical challenges that can come with attending a brick-and-mortar school, and gives students access to an education they can feel invested in. When high-speed infrastructure is finally extended to the broader Native community, one of the most stubborn challenges in American education could finally be overcome.