CORVALLIS - Recent innovations in distance education at Oregon State University are demonstrating how remote learning can not only serve students at the place and times they need, but also allow more use of customized educational programs that are tailored for specific audiences.
A recent GTE FOCUS grant that the university received in 1997 to support educational initiatives in science, for instance, helped to create an unusually successful educational program for undergraduate Native American students at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in central Oregon.
Students there who are pursuing an OSU bachelor's degree in natural resources and environmental sciences have been able to takes courses on everything from oral history to Native Americans in cinema and a historical view of treaties made with the U.S. government.
"The grant has provided a wonderful window of opportunity for both traditional and customized education at the reservation," said Diane Bohle, grant coordinator. "It's a 126-mile round trip for students to travel to an OSU class at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, and these on-site courses made higher education both more accessible and more relevant to a wider segment of the Warm Springs population."
Educators say that similar programs may be possible in many areas through OSU Distance and Continuing Education, whether the audience is a special cultural group, high tech workers in the Portland metropolitan area or teachers around the state who need new training or certification. Often in partnership with community colleges around Oregon, a wide variety of degrees and study options are already available and more can be created to fit the needs of select audiences, they say.
In the Warm Springs initiative, for instance, one of the first courses offered was an oral history workshop taught by Deanna Kingston, an Alaskan Native and visiting instructor with the OSU Department of Anthropology.
It taught the fundamentals of gathering and recording oral history, an approach that tapped into the strong connection between oral history and natural resource management at Warm Springs.
In similar fashion, Judith Vergun, director of the Native Americans in Marine Science program at OSU, taught "Ecosystems of Pacific Northwest Indians." Other courses included "Tribes, Treaties and the U.S. Government"; "Native Americans in Cinema"; and other topics that supported tribal efforts to reclaim a sense of history and empowerment.
"All of these courses provided students with an opportunity to enrich the subject matter with the native perspective," Bohle said. "A number of off-reservation baccalaureate students also benefited from courses taught at the reservation, because the native perspective was embraced and incorporated."
The GTE grant, which included funding for scholarships, tuition, advising and program development, also helped begin an initiative for certification of lay tribal language teachers. It provided for a needs assessment in collaboration with tribal managers and supervisors to identify tribal workforce educational priorities. A grant writing workshop helped tribal members improve their skills at seeking support from other agencies.
The range of initiatives created by the Warm Springs "Distance Education Team," which included both educators and tribal members, has been so successful that a presentation on the activities was made to the Oregon State Legislative Committee on Education. "We presented this concept to the committee with the goal of demonstrating the need to think about higher education differently and the significance of having courses that are available either by distance delivery methods such as the web, video courses, or in a traditional manner," Bohle said. The Warm Springs approach even supported a number of natural resource instructional activities that formed opportunities for OSU graduate students. Armelle Denis, an OSU graduate student from France working in applied anthropology, spent the spring of 1999 working at Warm Springs on ways to design language acquisition computer games for young children. The goal was to incorporate within the game appropriate cues so the children would learn their native language within a cultural context. In one "fishing game" event about traditional fishing grounds on the banks of the Columbia River, young students would learn that "fish is not just something you eat - it is to be treated with respect. If you do not pay respect, the fish will not come back."