Reaching Indigenous Communities Through Online Learning

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May 2nd, 2021 No Comments Features


What is the online learning experience like for indigenous communities across Australia? In a 2020 report from the National Tertiary Education Union, researchers at the Nulungu Research Institute send a message to the sector on just how important it is to address cultural learning differences in remote communities. In this post we explore some of their findings as well as the implications for the future of online education.

Education providers have always faced unique challenges in reaching indigenous communities across Australia. A 2014 survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across 32 universities found the following:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students living in remote communities across Australia believed not enough was being done to engage, support and retain them in their university studies.
  • In addition to being geographically removed from most Australian university opportunities, many Indigenous students experienced the impacts of lower socio-economic status on educational attainment.
  • Very low numbers of rural and remote students transitioned to university education, and although higher proportions of rural and remote students accessed VET, there were persistently low subsequent transitions from VET to university.
  • Block, on-campus teaching (by all universities across Australia) was only financially viable in a small range of disciplines, such as nursing, teaching and community development.
  • Limited equipment and internet coverage hindered the accessing of external studies programs.
  • Outreach to Indigenous people in remote regional areas, being costly, was progressively being cut back, not expanded, with the result that students had less chance of experiencing university prior to attending it, for example, through orientation programs.

While some of these challenges have been resolved, new issues have cropped up, along with new recommendations. The 2020 report from the National Tertiary Education Union uncovered the following themes:

Cultural security

The researchers found that students required cultural as well as educational support. For example, many Aboriginals attending school on-site did not feel comfortable occupying the dormitories until the building had been smoked. As one student explained:

“Aboriginal people are very superstitious especially with the houses on campus. Those houses I know they have been smoked before; Aboriginal students they get really nervous sleeping in them houses. I know for a fact because I know it myself, I have experienced this, like a spiritual thing happened to me, like I know a lot of people don’t believe in these things, but I believe in it and it happened to me and to my knowledge other students too. I had to drag my mattress and sleep in the lounge area with others, because when you sleep altogether with family, in one you then feel safe and comfortable. And for me I think that staff really need to get the right people to smoke the place out. Someone who knows and who is very much right into that belief system.”

Although this isn’t a concern in online learning spaces, the fact remains that Aboriginals need cultural support in ways that can only be anticipated by communicating with them directly to discern their needs. To this end, the researchers recommend keeping the following themes in mind:

  • Trauma-informed practice, anti-racist teaching.
  • Aboriginal teaching/learning strategies and culturally responsive frameworks.
  • Remote teaching induction.
  • Aboriginal English and culturally secure communication.
  • Culturally respectful practices.

Partnerships with communities

The report also describes the importance of building relationships between Aboriginal communities, learning institutions, and workplaces. Online educational organisations can take direction from the report in this sense:

“All communities are different in terms of their educational and collective lived experiences; thus all remote education contexts are unique and have differing priorities. In effect what this means is that every remote community needs pathways to higher education that have been negotiated with and are understood by community-based Aboriginal organisations and schools. The complex nature of pathways from remote community to the place of higher education, and the benefits of higher education, need to be clearly defined and accessible for students and communities alike.”

The same goes for pathways to online education.

Assessment of learning

Since indigenous communities may have different learning preferences, this needs to be taken into account when designing assessments. Cultural background and prior knowledge should be reflected in curriculum design in general. The researchers write:

“It was clear from the feedback received from the educators that universities and education providers in remote locations need to be way more flexible and creative in the ways in which learning is assessed, so that students are not impacted by language restrictions, for instance, when demonstration of other-than-language learning outcomes are required. Similarly, cultural strengths need to be enabled by the assessment, so that students can demonstrate their learning in a holistic way, for example orally, rather than subjected to the limitations of Western knowledge frameworks where so much is based on written assessment.”

Online learning providers might do well to consider these points when designing assessments.

Reaching indigenous communities through online learning isn’t simply a matter of supplying a good internet connection. It’s also about understanding the needs of students by directly engaging them in the learning design process and adjusting the online learning experience to meet their preferences. Reports like this one will continue to be a critical part of serving this population as online education evolves.


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Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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