Interim Report 2: The Views and Preferences of Residents Regarding Post-Secondary Programming in Four Remote Alberta Communities
Fahy, Patrick J.
Martin, Patricia A.
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The western Canadian province of Alberta possesses extraordinary resources in agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, and tourism. Because of its geography (its area is over 255,000 square miles, 661,000 square kilometers), it also confronts daunting challenges in educating and training its diverse residents, especially its aboriginal population. The 2006 federal census recorded that 6% of Alberta 3.3 million inhabitants self-reported themselves as “aboriginal” (including Metis). Many of these live in remote northern regions. The literature shows that in Canada, aboriginals are underrepresented in university enrolments, but not in college or other institutions, suggesting that large gains have been made in educational and training participation by this group. When aboriginals (especially males) complete advanced training, the Statistics Canada reports they are highly successful in employment and in relation to income. Education and training, then, are clearly of economic value to aboriginal people. However, this report also contains evidence from aboriginal recruitment officials at a wide range of Canadian universities that recruitment must be a process, not an event, to be successful (Laucius, 2008). Locally available training and education also address a persistent and serious social issue for aboriginals: the dislocating effects of leaving the local community to attend training programs elsewhere. Distance education programs capable of delivering learning opportunities flexibly and locally are regarded officially in Alberta as desirable policy objectives. The Alberta government has articulated a policy (Campus Alberta) which states that Albertans are entitled to register in courses and programs from any Alberta institution, regardless of their place of residence. The policy also identifies that flexible distance education delivery methods will be adopted wherever feasible, to support the broader objective of access. Supporting the Campus Alberta policy are specific vehicles to promote distance access, including eCampusAlberta, SuperNet, Alberta North, the ALIS on-line information system, and Athabasca University, who by its trademark is “Canada’s Open University.” The study reported here was conducted by Athabasca University’s Learning Communities Project, and intended to provide information about the views of northern residents concerning the present post-secondary training and education offerings locally available. The study was regarded as needed: little information was available addressing the actual preferences and interests of northern residents, especially aboriginals, a fact that had embarrassed Canada in comparison with its OECD partners. The study involved interviews, observations, written surveys, meetings, and other consultations with northern residents in their home communities, conducted in 2007 and 2008. The researchers who conducted the inquiries found the local residents, whether they were potential or actual learners themselves or not, to be open and willing to provide the requested information. Findings of the study included the following: 1. Enrollments in public colleges in northern Alberta were affected by the economy – the opportunity for employment made studying an uneconomic option for some students, if they were forced to choose one over the other. a. The public colleges were the most affected: enrolments at Alberta’s two institutes of technology and its universities rose 16% and 14%, respectively, over the same period. b. Distance education grew during this period: Athabasca University experienced growth of nearly 30% in this time frame. 2. Four northern Alberta communities were studied here: Wabasca, Fox Lake, Ft. McKay, and Ft. Chipewyan. These totaled just over 6,000 residents, ranging from 521 (Ft. McKay) to 2,847 (Wabasca). 3. Respondents to the study’s surveys and interviews willingly provided information; participants cautioned, however, the researchers should not confine their inquiries to the larger settlements only, ignoring the “back” regions; there, the population is smaller, residents are in even more need of education and training resources and opportunities. 4. Respondents to the study were a mixed and varied lot. It was clear from their descriptions of their lives that programming, to be realistic, needed to be flexible. The respondents were not particularly concerned whether instruction was group-based or one-to-one tutorial, so long as flexibility existed. 5. Several sources commented on the emotional and economic burden that having to leave the community brought on families and individuals. There were emphatic requests for a delivery model that did not impose the requirement of relocation of students. 6. Distance education was seen by many as addressing the roles of employee, parent, and community member better than group instruction, and markedly better than training that required learners to relocate to another community. 7. Respondents suggested that learning motivated by both social and personal purposes, as well as pre-employment training, should be made available. 8. Some communities were more successful than others in providing for the living expenses of learners. The cost and expenses associated with fulltime study were mentioned several times as barriers to learning. 9. Respondents who were parents frequently asked questions of the researchers about innovative education and training opportunities for their children. There were requests to reconsider the public education model in some of the communities, to increase the success rate of children and adolescents. 10. Technology did not appear to be a problem to most respondents: they were familiar with online technologies, had convenient access to them, and most had access to broadband. Attitudes of respondents were also positive toward the option of online learning. 11. Overall, attitudes of respondents toward distance education ranged from neutral to positive. There was little direct experience with distance education or online learning; however, even lacking detailed information and direct experience, respondents were prepared to consider distance methods, on the assumption they might provide greater access and flexibility.