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Adapting to the Era of Information

While some tribal colleges are working to give students access to the Internet, a digital divide persists.

When professors at Northwest Indian College began giving more and more assignments requiring the use of the Internet for study and research, a harsh reality began to set in: More than a few students at the tribal college couldn’t make good use of this increasingly important electronic path to knowledge of the world.

Despite having wireless connectivity to the Internet on campus, the students could not afford a laptop computer of their own to access the Internet. Using the school’s three computer labs was also problematic, as many students were working parents who traveled long distances and had little time to stay on campus after classes to use school computers to go online. There was also the problem of not being able to afford increasingly expensive Internet access at home.

Rather than write the students off or risk seeing them lose interest in a college education for lack of the modern tools, the Bellingham, Wash.-based college that serves students throughout the state and in Idaho came up with a simple solution: use funds from a small federal grant to purchase 15 laptop computers and have a laptop loan program for students, one that runs much like borrowing a book from a library.

“It makes things a lot easier,” says Amber Forslund, a 25-year-old single mom studying Native environmental science. With no computer of her own and no Internet access at home, Forslund says the laptop loan program has made the Internet far more accessible to her and has made a tremendous difference in helping her pursue career goals.

“I had to cram everything in” between classes, work and parenting responsibilities, Forslund says, describing her juggling act before she got a laptop from the loan program.

Now, there’s “less stress” in nearly every aspect of her life, she says, echoing the sentiments of other students in the program. Forslund is using less energy scrambling for time and access to computers in the school computer lab. She’s got more time to use the Internet for study and research, an especially important asset now that she is focusing on her major courses.

“When I don’t understand things, I can go on the Internet for help in understanding some of my textbooks. If you get on the Web, there is so much more that’s available to you.” An added benefit, Forslund says, is the ability the Internet affords her to search for badly needed scholarship money.

Like Forslund, qualifying students are allowed to borrow a laptop for up to two weeks at a time, with loan renewals based on academic performance, how many people are on the wait list to borrow a computer and other similar measures. Student participants also get a thumb drive at the start of the school year on which to store their work.

“We can’t afford to buy everyone laptops, but it’s a moderately effective way to help them access the Internet,” says Chris Flack, director of student support services at Northwest Indian College, where the average student is a 29-year-old female with at least one dependent, according to the school’s Web site. “If we are asking students to participate in Internet activities, that it’s a requirement, it can be problematic,” says Flack.

A small gesture in the larger world of the Internet and higher education, for sure. Yet a giant step for tribal colleges seeking to help their students become competitive in a rapidly changing world.

As illustrated by Northwest’s experience, bringing the Internet to tribal college students is no easy task, tribal college officials have learned. In an era where some colleges across the nation have poured millions of dollars into cutting edge computer and Internet technology as a drawing card for teachers, staff and students, tribal colleges are finding myriad hurdles — financial, technological, geographical and cultural — in their quests to become technologically relevant and thus appealing to increasingly tech-smart, if not savvy, students.


Physical Barriers

“Overall, there is still a wide divide,” says Dr. Loriene Roy, a professor of library science and information at the University of Texas at Austin and immediate past president of the American Library Association. “It exists in several ways — basic utilities, rural settings, outdated equipment, accessibility, affordability,” says Roy, an Anishinaabe Ojibew member of the Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

Roy, who has visited several tribal colleges over the years and communicates with librarians all over the country, says affordability is inhibiting the ability of most tribal colleges to flex and grow. When money does come to schools “many grants are short term and narrowly focused,” she says.

Still, the Internet’s ability to dramatically change a tribal college’s capacity to serve its constituents is reflected in the experiences of many of the nation’s nearly 40 tribal


Diné College, the nation’s first tribal college, is an example. Diné is the university of the Navajo Nation, covering nearly 25,000 square miles in three states — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The school has two principal campuses, the main one in Tsaile, Ariz., and another in Shiprock, N.M., plus six small satellite centers in other geographically remote regions around the nation.

A decade ago basic communication service was expensive, as many calls around the reservation were considered long distance and callers were charged accordingly. With most full-time professors and most classes offered at the two main campuses, it was more than a notion getting potential students in remote areas to these sites or getting meaningful instruction to them.

During a visit to Diné in April 2000 by former President Bill Clinton, who talked about the digital divide, the school set up a computer link between its Shiprock campus and one of its remote “chapter” houses. After that, the Navajo received toll-free phone service, making it less expensive to call around the Navajo Nation.

Fast forward to today. Diné has wireless Internet service available on all campuses, although coverage is spotty on the larger campuses because of physical obstructions of signals. Computer labs with Internet connections are located in dormitories at the two main campuses as well as main study and administrative buildings. With each step, school officials have seen an expanding use of the Internet by students for academic and personal purposes.

This month, Diné inaugurated a 20 megabytes per second Ethernet system, a significant boost in transmission capacity from the 6 megabytes T1 line network that previously connected the eight campuses of the college.

“We’re using the point-to-point for instructional television, which means students who cannot come to Tsaile or Shiprock can still take advantage of the courses, see their instructors and interact with their teachers,” says Francesca Shiekh, information services director at Diné since 2002.

Diné students use the Internet for study and research, Shiekh says, and increasingly to visit MySpace and YouTube and shop online (the closest shopping center to Tsaile is 100 miles away). Despite the great leaps, helping all students reach the world through the Internet remains more than just a technological challenge, Shiekh says, echoing others.

“We still have lots of homes with no electricity or water, so it’s not all solved,” Shiekh says. “There are some gaps.”

Like Northwest Indian College, Diné, with nearly 2,000 students, is also taking care of those basic needs. In 2005, it started a laptop loan project for students in its master’s program in teacher education. The class that started in 2007 gets a laptop to keep. A loan program was also started last school year for students in the bachelor’s program.

At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., officials are wrestling with a campus filled with buildings made from cinderblock that are great for withstanding those deadly Midwestern tornadoes. They also wreak havoc blocking wireless signal transmissions, says Josh Arce, the school’s information technology officer, echoing technology officials at several tribal colleges.

For smaller tribal colleges, the road is generally much tougher for the school and student.

At tiny schools like Little Priest Tribal College, a community college in Winnebago, Neb., and Ihanktonwan Community College, a relatively new school in Marty, S.D., started by the Yankton Sioux Tribe, students rely heavily on their school for access to the world via the Internet, officials at both schools say.

Many students cannot afford personal computers or do not have Internet access at home. To meet the challenge, they use their schools’ Internet-connected computer labs when those rooms are not being used for classes. The systems run slowly and there aren’t enough printers to help things run efficiently. Still, these resources are a start.


Resistance to Modernization

Even with computers in hand and unlimited Internet access, there are other limits on what college students can learn, even about other tribes.

The more than 500 Native tribes recognized by the federal government fully embrace the Internet as a learning tool, using it to preserve and teach their tribal language and customs. Some, however, place limits on or totally bar archiving their tribal images, language, heritage, ceremonies and other customs.

The Pueblo of Santo Domingo, a 6,000-member tribal community in New Mexico, does not allow anything to be archived, says a spokeswoman in the tribe’s education department. “Everything is handed down orally,” she says. “Nothing is written or recorded. That’s the way we were brought up and that’s the way we want to keep it.”

That policy is much the same for the Pueblo of Jemez. Many other tribes echo the Oneida Tribe in making off limits the use of its tribal face mask outside the tribe.

While the Internet encourages the proliferation of information, some Native cultural traditions are deemed too sacred to put on the Web. “It’s kind of counter to the whole idea of ‘information is power,’ if you want language and culture passed on,” says Sarah Kostelecky, who is Zuni Pueblo and the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. “The Internet is where kids are. It’s hard to bridge that gap,” she says.

For that reason, Kostelecky cautions that teachers and students “can’t drop the books yet. A lot of collections that deal with Native history are only in books. There’s a disconnect with some of our students. They (students) don’t realize that’s the case. They’re Google kids, and it’s not all online.”

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