US tribal colleges: Adapting to the Era of Information

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 26 13:17:55 UTC 2008

   *Adapting to the Era of Information*

by Reginald Stuart
Nov 27, 2008, 15:00 **

*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

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

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

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


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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