Distance education programs

Published 21 Feb 2017

Table of content


The topic of distance learning programs, of those existing in tribal colleges and the concept of introducing DL into other tribally controlled establishments, is the following compilation of information, questing for the answer if distance learning programs have a benefit to those within the tribal and reservation communities. Several subtopics will be discussed throughout the course of the document, covering the topics of tribal colleges and some history in relation to the formation of this academic institution (through examination of two college programs), highlights of distance learning programs and their contents, brief details regarding current reservation life, and the learning styles, based on traditional upbringing and values, of Native American students, along with profound percentages of drop-out rates, proceeding to a conclusion.

Tribal Colleges

Two tribal colleges, of the 24 tribally controlled institutions (2002), Oglala Lakota College and Northwest Indian College, stand out for examination of history, degree offerings, and availability of distance learning programs.

Oglala Lakota College

The first tribally controlled college in the United States, OLC is located in Kyle, South Dakota; this is the main center, otherwise known as Plya Wiconi (OLC website). Since its beginnings, several other sites have been set up throughout the state to facilitate educating tribal communities, of the Lakota nation in particular. This academic institution is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, considered the poorest reservation, by economic standards. Sanctioned and governed by the tribe, the college seeks to meet the needs of the reservation residents in pursuit of higher education. A 13 member Board of Trustees, comprised of nine reservation district representatives, two tribal council members, one OST president or someone of designation, and one student representative, oversee decisions, new ideas, projects plans, etc..

Chartered in 1971 as the Lakota Education Center, OLC started as a non-accredited learning center for tribal residents, working in correlation with Black Hills State College, University of South Dakota, and South Dakota State University with various degree programs. Although considered a complicated educational system, it was functional for students attending those beginning years (OLC website). The first associate degrees were awarded in 1974, and in 1978, the college’s name changed to Oglala Sioux Community College. Degree offerings at the time were: BA Elementary Education, AA Education, General Studies, and Lakota Studies, along with AS Human Services and Nursing.

The 1980s saw many changes for OLC, starting with eligibility for accreditation in 1983, along with another name change which reflected the status from a community college to a four year academic institution, along with using proper terms, according to linguistics and cultural awareness. Oglala Lakota College became the name for the college; there is no word in the community’s language for the word Sioux, therefore the word Lakota, meaning the people, came into use (OLC website). 1987, into the decade of the 90s, specifically 1992 and 1994, saw expansions with existing programs and degree availability. The following degrees became available to students: BA Lakota Studies, BS Human Services and Applied Sciences, and MA Tribal Leadership.

Currently, in regards to distance learning programs, the Information Technology department for OLC uses distance learning/online program tools; otherwise, the idea of creating and utilizing a fully functional and profitable-both for the college and the student body-distance learning program is under examination for consideration of expansion of the college’s available programs. OLC board members believe in the philosophy of on-line courses, because of the concept of self-paced study, can present an opportunity to fit academia into regular life (OLC website).

Northwest Indian College

Founded in 1973 on the Lummi Indian Reservation in Washington State, NWIC began as the Lummi Indian School of Aquaculture; to this day, this academic establishment stands as the only accredited tribal college covering the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (NWIC website). Since the beginning, the philosophy of NWIC has been to provide post-secondary education within the reservation community and that self-awareness serves as the foundation for achieving confidence, esteem, a true sense of pride, focuses on building a career, creating a self-sufficient lifestyle, and promoting life-long learning through the study of culture, values, and history of the people of the tribal community (NWIC website).

The Lummi Indian Business Council recognized the educational needs of the community in 1983, and therefore chartered the school as the Lummi Community College. Five years later, the college was approved for accreditation by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges but was not granted full accreditation until 1993. 1989 saw the name change once again, and the academic establishment became known as the Northwest Indian College, becoming recognized as a four year academic establishment (NWIC website). The degrees and certificates available through the college are: AA Native American Studies, Oksale Native Education, and General Direct Transfer Degree; AS Life Sciences; AT Chemical Dependency Studies, Computer Maintenance and Networking, and Individualized Program. Certificate programs are: Native American Studies, Computer Repair Technician, and Individualized Program.

Northwest Indian College currently has a fully functional distance learning program, which covers three different availabilities for learning away from the campus environment. Live interactive video, which utilizes K-20 Network (specifically in regards to the tri-state coverage), and connects the following tribal communities, to learning through the network: Makah, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Chief Leschi. On-line learning uses WebCT (other tribal colleges are turning towards this outlet for learning or experimenting with its availability and usage), which offers web-based courses; this can be entirely online study or implemented as a supplemental content to a standard classroom course. Students with a computer, web browser, and connection to the internet are eligible for this program outlet. Independent learning, taking another direction, is an individual, self-paced study directed by an instructor through the use of written materials or weekly teleconferences or videotapes. Communication between instructor and student occurs through phone, fax, or email (NWIC website).

Distance Learning Programs

As early as 2002, growth in on-line distance programs has been noticed. At the time, over half a million students were enrolled for the 2001-2002 academic year. Turning that into tuition dollars, the investment for on-line enrollment stood at $2.4 billion (Gallagher, 2003). A 40% annual growth was predicted to follow in the 2003-2004 academic year, which signified a 5% increase in distance learning programs.

Distance learning seems to be fueled by the development and technical advances of web-based technology (Gruedemann, 2007). The consistency of serving local communities, and reaching out to long distance learners as well (considered the newest wave in marketing techniques to continue earning profits for colleges offering distance learning programs), making the programs accessible and flexible to adult students, based on quality and cost, while addressing various program requirements, is the basis of distance learning programs, encompassing various methods of accomplishing academic goals (Gallagher, 2003). Although some faculty members and students struggle to learn and teach within the guidelines of altered roles, and there is evidence of lack of face to face interaction, the benefits of distance learning programs are found through the ease of determined time for studying and meeting assignment deadlines for turning in finished materials, active learning is involved in motivating the student to take part in acquiring knowledge, preparation for real-life work is more tangible, critical thinking skills improve with independent study, and a satisfaction with the learning style can be noted among some students (Gruendemann, 2007).

Reservation life-current conditions

Although, since the first contact and over the course of history, European Americans have often distorted the reality of Native American communities through romanticizism, stereotyping, and appropriating spirituality, the opposite is to be found within the tribal community (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002).

There are currently 202 tribes, with 1.5 million residing on reservation land. Native Americans living on reservations still continue to experience high rates of unemployment and low life expectancy among the highest anywhere in the country. Reservations such as the Cheyenne Indian River Reservation, located in South Dakota, lacks water systems, making sanitary conditions nearly impossible, and the tribal members who are employed, survive on less than one-third of the American average income (Gundrum, 2007). The best known example of poor living conditions and the nation’s most economically devastated community is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, also located in South Dakota. This reservation has been the focal point of many events in history; the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 which US cavalry men massacred 300 men, women, and children, the AIM (American Indian Movement) headquarters of the 1970s, several stand offs between traditionalists and the federal government, resulting in historical events such as the Leonard Peltier case of 1977 (Gundrum, 2007).

Native American students and learning styles

In 1979, the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), funded 14, 600 undergraduate students and 700 graduate students; of those numbers, 1,639 received undergraduate degrees and 434 graduate degrees (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002). As of 2002, 24 tribally controlled colleges were serving 10,000 students. Even with the increase in numbers for student enrollment with tribal colleges, there are significantly low percentages of students moving from the high school environment to college academics. Native American students have a high school drop-out rate of over 50%, and are considered the American minority to least likely to enroll and eventually graduate from college (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002). Why are these figures so high? The question arises if distance learning program availability could possibly turn this percentage around and lower it instead of allowing it to remain consistent or worse case, rise in the near future.

The educational traditions of Indigenous peoples

For educating children and adolescents in the native communities, each nation has, according to traditions and beliefs, its own teachings and methods. Oral history and teaching stories, the most noted methodology of teaching for native children, has long been regarded within tribal communities to be a valuable asset of learing; this is followed by ceremonies, such as puberty rites (typically for girls moving into womanhood) and sweat lodge purification (mostly young boys moving into manhood, by way of vision quests or hunting). Apprenticeships, long used before European contact, typically with respected members of the tribal community or with relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc… are still found to be in use, along with learning games, which in times gone by, prepared children for adult roles as providers, protectors and nurturing figures within their tribal communities. The most overlooked educational tool of native children, and considering all children everywhere in the world, is the classic observation of adults, otherwise known as the “see, then do method (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002).”

In tribal societies, from pre-European contact to the present, a member of the people is judged by one’s contribution to the group as a whole, rather than the Euro-centric philosophy of individualized achievements. Tribal members are considered an essential part of his or her community; therefore achievements are accomplished for the benefit of the entire community. More appropriate teaching and learning strategies may be found through role modeling and cooperative learning styles (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002). To compete to win over someone else in the community, without regard for respect for one another, is considered disrespectful and dishonorable. To disregard the entire community for the needs or desires of the individual is to forget being part of “the web of life.”

The concept of “time” may be a difficult part of the distance learning program baseline for tribal colleges, as within the tribal community, activities or actions are carried through until complete; there is no concept of “deadlines (Waller, Okamoto, Hankerson, Hibbeler, Hibbeler, McIntyre, and McAllen-Walker, 2002).” Rigid schedules of certain distance learning programs could possible cause conflict with traditional teachings within the tribal communities, although schedules are consistent with the concept of obtaining and maintaining Satisfactory Progress within the distance learning program structure (OLC website).


In conclusion, distance learning programs can be an asset to the tribal communities of which the tribal colleges are reaching out to serve. Tribally controlled colleges have been serving their communities since the establishment of such academic institutions, and to move into distance learning programs can only profit students of the tribal community. Native American students, taught within the traditional structure of their individual nations, can adapt to the distance learning structure of flexibility, active learning-facilitating more of a “hands-on” approach to learning, which in turn improves the concept of critical thinking. Working with the “time” factor may create more ease with following through with a study, which in turn results in satisfaction with the learning style being presented, and in turn, creating a more realistic approach to preparing for the goal of the student: to apply what is learned to real life and to see the rewards of the journey made to real-life work and the ultimate benefits for the betterment of the tribal community.

The concept of more distance program availability within the tribal college structure can also possibly give back to the community in the way of bringing the percentage of high-school drop outs down, creating a motivation to keep those figures down and for Native American students to excel in the academic world to achieve goals that, even though may appear to be based on individual satisfaction and achievement, the results can be taken back into the tribal communities to benefit the nation as a whole.

Distance learning programs are also reaching out to adult learners in the tribal communities, as more and more adults are returning to achieve or finish educational goals. Adults within the community still carry influence as to what children and adolescents will choose to do with their own lives, continuing to foster the “see, then do” methodology of learning. If adults within the tribal community can achieve success within the academic structure, then the influence upon the youth of the community can be a positive one.

Also, as more and more colleges are experiencing lower enrollments for the more traditional programs, be they tribal colleges or academic institutions not in correlation with the reservation communities, a method of keeping enrollment figures consistent is being examined, experimented with, trialed through success and failure, and seeing results in obtaining and maintaining student numbers. Not all students have the ability to attend more traditional programs, either as full-time, on campus students, or even as part-time, extended over a loner period of time. More and more students are noted as individuals with families, full time employment, life changes that have facilitated seeking out continuing education, and wanting to improve the quality of their own lives, along with the lives of their families and communities. Education is moving away from the classroom environment to a more realistic approach to being able to apply acquired knowledge to real life and to be able to implement that very knowledge to every day life.

Works Cited

  • Gallagher, S. 2003. Maximum profit and ROI in distance ed: Planning to refine or launch your online learning programs? University Press, May 2003.
  • Gruendemann, B. 2007. Distance learning and perioperative nursing. AORN Journal. March 2007.
  • Gundrum, Gretchen. 2007. Indian reservations: Land for the Indian? MLA formatted research paper. April 2007.
  • Wallner, M.; Okamoto, S.; Hankerson, A.; Hibbeler, T.; Hibbeler, P.; McIntyre, P.; and McAllen-Walker, R. The hoop of learning: A holistic, multi-systemic model for facilitating educational resilience among indigenous
  • students. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. March 2002. Northwest Indian College Oglala Lakota College
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