A literature review focused on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and e-Learning in the context of Te Reo Māori and Kaupapa Māori education

Publication Details

The Ministry of Education has identified the need to further explore the use of Virtual Learning Environments particularly in the context of te reo Māori and kaupapa Māori education. This literature review was sought to provide further understanding for the Ministry of Education in this area.

Author(s): Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai and Hans Tiakiwai, Kiore Enterprises Limited. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2010

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Section 4: e-Learning principles and practices 

e-Learning principles and practices within indigenous education contexts


NZCER's (2004) section on e-Learning and indigenous peoples is a useful synthesis of the literature and initiatives pertaining to indigenous peoples' experiences with e-Learning. The two themes identified in their report: benefits of e-Learning and barriers to access and participation were consistent with the findings from other indigenous literature reviewed for this report and are useful frames for this section. NZCER (2004) drew most of its literature on e-Learning and indigenous peoples from the experience of Australian Aboriginal peoples which, while useful, provides a limited perspective and understanding of how e-Learning has impacted on and is perceived by indigenous communities. This section has located a small selection of other indigenous peoples' experiences which reflect the findings of the NZCER report. However, it illustrates the dearth of research in this area thus preventing the ability to make or posit any conclusive statements.

Benefits of e-Learning

Similar to the Māori experience, indigenous peoples are torn between the perceived benefits that e-Learning can provide and what barriers it might create. The NZCER (2004) report identified that much of the literature on the Australian Aboriginal context was focused on addressing low participation rates by Aboriginal communities in higher education. It was noted that e-Learning was able to break down "the tyranny of distance" that hindered remote Aboriginal communities from accessing higher education (p. 56). NZCER (2004) also identified that e-Learning enabled Aboriginal students with more flexible learning options, which meant that work or family commitments were in some cases better managed because of the flexible learning environment that e-Learning created. Wall (2008) acknowledged that the "utility of computer-mediated communication" which allowed Canadian Aboriginal students to continue studying at home "in a familiar social context while able to link electronically to other Aboriginal communities and institutions" supported not only student learning and engagement, but the ability for communities to capacity build without losing their students to larger cities and campuses (p. 74).

Scott (2006) found in her study of Canadian First Nation students using technology that many students liked the creative ways in which technology enabled them to search for, compile and present information. Scott (2006) suggested that these creative ways also assisted students to engage in more recursive and reflective styles of learning, similar to the cyclical, interconnected way that characterises American Indian philosophy. NZCER (2004) identified that indigenous communities were increasingly able to control how their knowledge would be disseminated and accessed, recognising the need to identify ways in which they could strengthen their culture and traditions while also seeing the use of technology as a way of advancing their position in the wider, global society. Hodson's (2004) review of a Canadian Aboriginal online programme on Aboriginal Learning and Healing highlights how such traditions could be shared meaningfully through a virtual learning environment. He noted that the "successful integration of ancient tradition into a contemporary educational setting" revealed for many of the participants an "underlying longing in their lives to be connected to a similar traditional experience in the context of their studies" (p. 115). However, Hodson (2004) also queried whether these virtual environments were the right forum to effectively promote indigenous culture and traditions. Through the programme, Hodson (2004) observed how deliberations with elders who were sharing their knowledge through stories that were then uploaded for wider access grappled with this issue. He noted that in collaboration with these elders, it was agreed that ceremonies or references to ceremonial content would not be included as an online resource because of the sacredness of these practices to them.

Teaching practices

Bowers et al (2000) suggest that much can be learned from computer technology if the teacher understands that they are a "culture-mediating technology" and assert that teachers "must understand how computers amplify certain cultural ways of knowing and how they reduce or eliminate others" (p. 193). In particular, they warn against computers being seen as culturally progressive if it is at the expense of traditional Native knowledge forms and teaching practices including the oral transmission of knowledge.

Ereaux (1998) acknowledges that Native communities are not averse to technology itself, but note that the wariness has come from experiences with people using technology inappropriately. As Warner (1998) notes:

How technology shapes its users (students, teachers, and parents), as well as the voice, is a central issue in understanding the transformation at hand (p. 79).

Scott's (2006) study, on how First Nation students engaged with multimedia technology to present stories grounded in their own histories, provided an example of how computers could co-exist comfortably alongside cultural knowledge forms without compromising cultural practices and values. Scott felt that the support of elders in the students' project was critical. According to Scott (2006), technology was seen as a way of bringing in and involving the community, where elders support of what the students were doing were reflected in how they could see the projects contributing to what they valued for their children: "knowledge of culture and ways of being as well as providing a bridge between cultures" (p. 54). Furthermore, the collaborative focus of this type of initiative ensured that the role of the teacher changed to a more facilitative role, enhancing community engagement in learning.

Creating learning opportunities through e-Learning

Jacobs, Tuttle and Martinez (1998) suggest that using digital technological forms, such as CD-Roms, can be a useful way of preserving traditional indigenous knowledge. Their project, the Tewa Language Project CD-Rom, "intended to preserve, restore to use, and repatriate cultural capital" with the overriding objective being to encourage young people to engage in language and Tewa cultural production (p. 45). Similarly, the Four Directions project (Roy, 1998) sought to bring together Native students, teachers and community members to train them in using a range of technologies in the hope that such a model might provide leadership in helping Native communities use technology. According to Roy (1998), the project was focused on developing culturally relevant and appropriate learning resources that incorporated the lived experiences of Native students; on integrating the use of technology throughout the curriculum and on using technology to "enhance, explore and initiate culturally relevant curricula" according to locally developed curriculum (p. 61).

These opportunities to collect and store traditional knowledges were always accompanied by cautions about ensuring such knowledges had adequate measures in place to protect them from inappropriate access or manipulation of the information. Hodson's (2004) study questioned whether the integrity of Canadian Aboriginal knowledge could survive the transition to the internet, noting that a search of the internet for websites relating to Canadian Aboriginal peoples and healing "reveals myriad Web sites that are clear appropriations of Aboriginal cultures and spiritual traditions" most of which are a "mishmash of new age nonsense" that may "pose a threat to Aboriginal peoples, especially our young people as they access the technology" (p. 117). This was of particular concern to Hodson (2004) who was aware of the increasing interest younger Canadian Aboriginal people who were using the internet as a way of trying to reconnect with their culture.

Challenges to cultural practices

Bowers et al (2000) ask a critical question about the impact of technology on Native communities, which has relevance to understanding e-Learning for indigenous communities. They ask, "what changes in cultural ways of thinking, values, and interaction are reinforced when Native students engage in computer-based learning?" (p. 189) Specifically, they refer to how communication via technology is "abstract and reductionist" which changes cultural ways of communicating, including face-to-face and intergenerational communication and learning approaches "essential" to Native American communities (p. 191). These processes "reinforce the Western pattern of  'individual-centred relations' " which:

Undermine local knowledge and create a special challenge for cultures attempting to maintain their traditions of community and spiritual connectedness. (Bowers et al, 2000, p. 185).

In particular, they caution against the view that computers are culturally neutral, arguing that "when students use the computer their patterns of thinking must adapt to the requirements of the machine and to the thought patterns of the people who wrote the software" (p. 189). This view harks back to the impact of the printed word on Native communities which was also represented as a "culturally neutral technology" but which in reality was an example of the "progress" of assimilating Native peoples into the dominant culture (Bowers et al, 2000, p. 186). Bowers et al specifically question the "claim that computers will help Native students learn about their cultural traditions" (p. 184).

At another level, Ereaux's (1998) examination on the impact of technology on tribal colleges queries the extent to which technology should be used by such institutions if technology facilitates the destruction of "societies and philosophies that are key to their missions and philosophies" (p. 118). Two Horses (1998) provides a useful example to illustrate why Native communities should be cautious in embracing technology uncritically. Talking about the facelessness of technologies such as the internet and telephones, Two Horses (1998) argues that the ease and convenience of communication facilitated through these types of technologies creates false senses of connections:

Westerners, and to some extent the rest of the world's population, have learned to say, "I talked with my Grandma on the phone," and "I saw some camels on the television," when the reality is that "I spoke into a machine that encoded my voice into a series of electrical impulses that then traveled a thousand miles and were de- coded by a similar machine my Grandma owns so that she could hear a representation of my voice," and "I saw billions of electrons striking a phosphor-laden screen in a machine in my living room, and the picture produced thereby was of some camels". (p. 32)

This 'de-contextualising' of learning disconnects learners thus creating "unreal experiences for real ones due to our training as media consumers" which set up "flawed interactions that occur all too often online" (Two Horses, 1998, p. 32). The concern here is that such interactions not only create disconnections for indigenous peoples and their communities but also can serve to reinforce stereotypes about indigenous communities, a viewed shared by Warner (1998) and Howe (1998).

The message of caution about the destruction and decontextualising of indigenous knowledges (as noted above by Ereaux, 1998 and Two Horses, 1998), is reinforced by Carr-Chellman (2005) who implores indigenous peoples to be more fully aware of "the ways in which technology itself may be robbing us" (p. 7). Carr-Chellman (2005) advocates a return to "an indigenous understanding of what learning is about" where, by respecting the learner in the process of creating online learning environments, "we are probably one step closer to more democratic forms of online learning" (p. 6). In particular, Carr-Chellman (2005) challenges indigenous peoples to think about the impact that technological advances have on indigenous cultures and ways of knowing and doing. Carr-Chellman is not against the role that technology can play in indigenous communities. Rather, she questions the way in which such technology seeks to capture and commodify, if allowed and left unchecked, indigenous knowledge forms and practices.

Much of the literature in this section has highlighted the dilemma facing indigenous communities as they try to adapt to the changes that technology brings without losing control of their traditional knowledges and cultural practices. The examples given in this section highlight that while indigenous communities are not averse to accepting and using new technologies, they are constantly wary of how these technologies relate to indigenous peoples' aspirations for cultural preservation.


  1. Canadian indigenous populations have been described in the literature as both First Nations and Aboriginal, and this is reflected in this section of the report. Where appropriate, effort has been made to distinguish references to Canadian and Australian Aboriginal communities. Reference is also made to indigenous and/or Native communities – all of which, in this section, refer to indigenous peoples including First Nations, Aboriginal and Indian.

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