Saturday, May 23, 2009

Flexible learning, eMentoring, cultural differences and sustainability

Flexible learning has been a theme for me this week as I have been progressing with my eMentoring project and also thinking about the Flexible Learning Course I am taking at the moment. One aspect we have been asked to consider is cultural inclusiveness. How accessible is education to people of different cultures and how can educational services be improved?

eMentoring and indigenous and Torres Straits people
To cut a long story short, one of the remits of the eMentoring project I am managing for Aged Care Queensland (funded by the Dept. of Health and Aging) is to recruit indigenous and Torres Straits people as eMentors and eMentees. This is because they are identified as a group of people who require support in the workplace, but do not get it as much as they should. eMentoring is part of an ongoing strategy to recruit and retain more indigenous and Torres Strait people in the aged care workforce.

However as yet, I have been unable to recruit any one from that cultural group into the project.

Barriers to eMentoring
I went to Cairns this week and spoke to several people involved with providing education and employment services to indigenous and Torres Strait people and asked them why they thought the eMentoring project has not attracted participants from that cultural group. The main issues were lack of access to the Internet, especially in remote areas such as Thursday Isalnd. Internet coverage is very unreliable in rural/remote areas. Lack of computer skills was one of the other main issues.

Cultural considerations

But things were a little more complex than the usual lack of access and skills. Other feedback I receieved was:
  • Indigenous people are very unlikely to engage with any form of electronic communication because they much prefer face-to-face communication;
  • Building a rapport and feeling of trust is vital when working with indigenous people -this would be very difficult with computer-mediated communication (CMC);
  • Literacy levels are very low in indigenous communities so text-based communication would be problematic;
  • Communication tools such as video and audio would not engage indigenous learners because of the complexity of the technology;
  • People would not want the shame of 'failing' if they could not get their heads around eMentoring;
  • Partners could put up barriers because of jealousy, especially if the mentors/mentees were of the opposite sex;
  • The lack of privacy due to living in a close community could prevent people using community computers.
Need for mentoring
Having said all that, the people I spoke to emphasized the great need for mentoring, especially for indigenous people entering the workforce or moving to a new job. It was felt that face-to-face mentoring was by far the most desirable mode of delivery. And there would need to be intensive work done to build rapport and trust (5-6 meetings are required before trust begins to form), especially when the indigenous person begins a new job or education program.

Making assumptions
I am not altogether sold on the idea that indigenous people would not engage with video or audio technology. If it was provided and made very easy to use, people may find it a much more user-friendly mode of communication, especially as their culture is of oral communication.

Somehow I feel very uncomfortable with the feedback I received. It felt to me as if indigenous people are being prevented from having the opportunities to engage with technology because a number of assumptions have been made. Sure, we need to pay considerable attention to the feedback I have discussed, and make sure people get the face-to-face support and education they need. Yet at the same time, I also think we should do all we can to provide opportunities for online learning and networking for those who are interested. If we do not provide alternative modes for learning, how can people say whether they like them or not?

I have become more and more convinced that small rural communities need to work together to provide access to computers and Internet, as well as training. As educators, we need to think about how we can hook into local libraries, schools and learning networks and collaborate to provide education opportunities to the wider community. So, for example, if I go to Chinchilla to provide a blogging workshop to staff in aged care I should make sure it is open to the whole community. This increases flexibility of learning, and it also goes some way to address the issue of sustainability.

This may mean that we have to do things for 'free'
which could prove to be a stumbling block for administrators and accountants. But I truly believe that thinking about the 'greater good' is one way of dealing with flexibility and sustainability in education.

I would love to hear from anyone involved in providing education to indigenous communities. What would be your advice to me about how I can engage indigenous people in my eMentoring project?


Bronwyn hegarty said...

Sarah you have outlined some sticky challenges to be overcome if you are going to provide access to e-mentoring or any kind of mentoring for indigenous communities. Some of your solutions could be workable, e.g., community Internet kiosks but as you say the need to build rapport with local people is key. There may be another way.

Several years ago in the 90s, the Canterbury College of Education ran a programme training teachers in Northland. Key to this venture was the need to upskill Maori women as teachers so they could teach the people in the community. The academics in charge of the teacher training faced many of the same issues as you did. The women could not leave their families so they had to train in their communities. Other issues were lack of computer and Internet access and skills, low levels of literacy, and building of trust. So....
they employed local people to act as tutors and mentors, people who were trained specifically for this role. The programme was a success, and eventually even the menfolk who had previously worried about missing their wives home cooking became very supportive and helped their wives finish the programme by picking up some of the chores. I will try and dig out more information about it for you. Is this approach possible for the groups you mention?

Sarah Stewart said...

Yes, absolutely, I think this is key approach to implementing eMentoring or any sort of skills program, not just to indigenous communities but to wider rural communities or even organizations.

If I have learned anything over the last few months in this eMentoring project, it is that people will only engage with technology if they see value in it for themselves on a personal and at a work level.

John Delany said...

Hi Sarah (and Bronwyn - this post in response to your email)
I worked closely with the flexible learning programme Bronwyn refers to, the Christchurch College of Education POLO programme (Primary Open Learning Option) - essentially distance learning for pre-service teacher education. Similar programmes ran on the East Coast (Te Araroa) and on the West Coast of the South Island and the most long-lasting of these initiatives is still alive and well in Rotorua, in conjunction with Waiariki. In all these cases the factors Bronwyn alludes to were vital, and in particular the blended approach which used local people as expert mentors teaching face-to-face classes for the core professional studies components of the programme. I doubt that a purely distance delivery would have succeeded, for reasons both pedagogical and cultural, and ten years down the track I would still argue the importance of a blended approach despite ongoing changes in technology which on the surface may seem to make a fully distance/online option more manageable. A full discussion can be found in "Delany J & Wenmoth D. Local Teachers for Local Schools: Empowering an Indigenous Rural Community. Education in Rural Australia. Volume 11 Issue 2 2001." This paper was also published in the DEANZ Journal of Distance Learning, Vol 7, No 1, 2003. Also of interest might be John Delany, Bill Cockram, Rob Stowell. Against the Odds: Teacher Education in the Hokianga. Video documentary, Christchurch College of Education Video Production Unit, January 2003. Copies may be available from the College of Education, University of Canterbury. Hope this is some help :-)

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you so much, John, for this lovely detailed answer. Again, what you're saying is evidence for my own conclusions from the eMentoring project.

Clearly, there are many people who will engage in nothing but face-to-face learning opportunities. And on the other hand, I have said nothing about the telephone. I have a couple of teenagers in the project & the only way I can communicate with them effectively is by text - they do not respond to emails and will not use the phone for talking because it costs credit, whereas texts are very cheap and easy to manage when they are school.

Thanks once again, Sarah