Internet Strategies for Empowering Indigenous Communities in Teaching and Learning

Ron Aust, Brian Newberry
Kansas University

Paul Resta
University of Texas


The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) supports 187 schools serving 46,600 students in 23 states. Most of the BIA schools are located in remote areas that are further isolated by their limited access to information technologies. Census Bureau statistics rank most BIA school communities as severely economically impoverished. Despite these geographic and economic limitations, the communities are striving to reform their schools while maintaining their rich cultural heritage.

The Laguna Department of Education coordinates the Four Directions project in conjunctions with its partners: the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP), Intel, Microsoft, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute and the Universities of Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. The eight pilot learning communities include Ahfachkee (Florida), Dilcon (Arizona), Fond du Lac School (Minnisota), Indian Island (Maine), Laguna (New Mexico), Nah Tah Wahsh (Michigan), Quileute (Washington), and Takini (South Dakota). Each of these communities is currently being supported with equipment, technical support, and direct Internet connectivity. Over the next five years, the initial sites will be expanded to 24 sites involved in outreach to impact the 187 BIA schools located in 23 states and on 63 reservations. Partners from business, industry, post-secondary education, museums and libraries will join the networking in creating a virtual network of Native American schools and communities.

When teaching and learning strategies have been imposed from outside the Native American communities, they have generally been unsuccessful in enriching the culture or the local economy. This paper describes goals and strategies associated with the Four Directions initiative, which is one of 19 Technology Learning Challenge projects recently supported by the U.S. Department of Education. The focus is on systemic strategies which use the Internet to build learning capacity and empower the students and community with advanced information technologies. These strategies include:

  1. Improving collaboration among the schools and communities through the use of electronic mail, teleconferencing, and other collaboration software;
  2. Developing easy-to-use tools for community publishing on the Internet;
  3. Developing a common structure for indexing educational resources according to thematic cycles and emerging national standards for American Indians education; and
  4. Encouraging life-long learning by extending Internet access in the schools' communities.

The Four Direction partners

The Laguna Department of Education coordinates the Four Directions project in conjunctions with its partners: the Bureau of Indian Affair's (BIA's) Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP), Intel, Microsoft, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute and the Universities of Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. The Four Directions proposal initially identified eight learning communities representing unique tribal groups in eight states from geographic distinct regions in the north, south, east, west, and central United States. Over the next five years, the initial sites will be expanded to 24 sites that will impact all 187 BIA schools. Partners from business, industry, postsecondary education, museums, and libraries will join the networking in forming a virtual network of Native American partners and schools across the United States.

The Four Direction schools

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) supports 187 schools in 23 states on 63 reservations. There are three different types of BIA supported schools: grant, contract, and BIA operated. Each type of school receives funding from the BIA, but is controlled and operated differently. Of the 187 schools, supported through the BIA, 85 schools are directly operated, 97 are "grant schools" funded through PL 100-297, and the remaining 5 are "contract schools" funded through PL 93-638.

BIA-operated schools receive funding according to the number of students enrolled through the Indian School Equalization Program (ISEP). The BIA is directly responsible for the daily operation of these schools. All employees of a BIA operated school are federal government employees. The administration of these schools works in cooperation with a locally elected school board, but is directly responsible to an Agency Superintendent for Education who responds to the Central Office located in Washington, DC. Additionally, all personnel practices and accounting procedures are monitored at the federal level.

Grant schools also receive money from the BIA for their operation according to the ISEP. Fiscal support is given directly to the school, or in some cases the tribe, then controlled by the tribal council or elected school board which are vested with complete authority over the school's operation. The elected school board is the authoritative body controlling the school. Thus, monetary decisions, such as staff salary, benefits, etc., are made solely at the administrative and school board levels. While grant schools are autonomous organizations, they are often chartered by a tribe, or operate under an authorizing resolution from the local tribe.

Contract schools also receive funding from the BIA through the ISEP formula. However, instead of the school getting the money directly, the money is often controlled by the tribe, which then funds and operates the school. Employees of the school are tribal employees. Tribal controlled contract schools may make use of tribal resources such as payroll and accounting systems.

The BIA schools are typically located in rural, often remote, and isolated areas. Such schools are usually the largest employer in their areas; and many times these schools play a significant role in reflecting their community's culture. Oftentimes such community activities as ceremonies, dances, bingo, pow wows, and rodeos are held in school gymnasiums or on school grounds.

Of the 187 BIA-supported schools, 8 schools were selected to pilot Four Directions activities.

  1. Ahfachkee (Florida). Ahfachkee is a grant school which operates under a contract with the Seminole tribe in Florida. Ahfachkee currently has approximately 80 students in its kindergarten through eighth grade facility and is in the process of creating an alternative high school.
  2. Dilcon (Arizona). Dilcon Boarding School is a BIA-operated school, operating a kindergarten through eighth grade facility with approximately 400 students. Dilcon is located in Northeastern Arizona on the Navajo reservation.
  3. Fond du Lac (Minnesota). Fond du Lac Ojibwe School along with the Little Black Bear Elementary School serve approximately 200 students in its kindergarten through twelfth grade facility. Fond du Lac Ojibwe School is a tribally controlled school on the Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, approximately 30 miles from Duluth.
  4. Indian Island (Maine). Indian Island School is a contract school with approximately 100 students located on an island in the Penobscot River in Maine. Indian Island School serves the students of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes along with students of non-federally recognized native groups including some from Canada.
  5. Laguna Elementary and Middle (New Mexico). Laguna is located in New Mexico, approximately 40 miles west of Albuquerque. Laguna is a grant school with approximately 190 students. The schools of Laguna are proud of their close connections with the Laguna tribe and work closely to integrate the educational opportunities of their schools with locally developed priorities.
  6. Nah Tah Wahsh (Michigan). Nah Tah Wahsh School or Hannahville is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Operated as a grant school, Hannahville serves approximately 150, mainly Potowatomi, students. Hannahville is noted for its technology education and is slated to begin providing Internet access to tribal offices and their community in the near future.
  7. Quileute (Washington). Quileute is a grant school 140 miles from Seattle in Washington State. The Quileute School operates under an elected school board through an enabling resolution from the Quileute Tribe. Quileute Tribal School serves approximately 100 students in its kindergarten through twelfth grade facility and approximately 50 students in its tribally funded Head Start program. The Quileute Tribal School primarily serves students from the Quileute, Yakima, and Muckleshoot tribes.
    Interestingly, the Quileute Tribal school claims two distinctions as the westernmost school in the contiguous United States and possessing the westernmost elevator in the contiguous United States. The Quileute Tribal Council just gave support to a proposal that will bring Internet service to the school, with plans to then have the school provide Internet access to the tribal government, tribally operated businesses, and the community.
  8. Takini (South Dakota). Takini is a grant school located on the expansive grassy plains of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in central South Dakota. Takini is chartered by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The name Takini is a Sioux word meaning "survivor" and the school and the communities it serves take great pride in this because the population is primarily composed of descendants of survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre which occurred in 1890. Takini School, with approximately 300 students, is proud of the school rodeo grounds and the annual community events it sponsors.

Initial school site visits

During the winter of 1995 and spring of 1996, a team representing the Four Direction partners visited each of the eight pilot schools. The pilot schools had previously identified a Four Directions facilitation team that typically includes: teacher representatives, technology facilitator(s), student(s), parent(s), and community representative(s). The site visitation team consisted of representatives from the Laguna Department of Education (overall coordination), the Office of Indian Education Programs (establishing local and wide area connectivity), the University of New Mexico (assessing and maintaining network connectivity), Kansas University (network community publishing) and the University of Texas (curriculum integration and network collaboration). Although the partners have some distinct roles, they also draw on their combined expertise in cooperating to achieve many of the Four Directions goals including: assessing the technical skills of the schools' faculty and students, addressing needs for instructional software support, planning for the summer institute, and other training activities.

During each of the two-day site visits the Four Direction teams met with school's administration, facilitation team, and faculty to discuss the goals of Four Directions, the role of the partners, and assess needs. A typical visit involved meeting the first day in an opening session with the school's administrators and facilitation team to discuss project goals and arrangements for site visit activities. The team then visits several of the classrooms to talk with teachers and students about their use of educational technology and networking. The team met in the afternoon with all teachers to present the Four Directions goals and the unique capabilities and roles of the partners. Day two of the site visit involves more individualized sessions with key personnel associated with such issues as establishing local and wide area connectivity, local administrative and cultural concerns, constructing locally based World Wide Web (WWW) pages, curriculum integration/thematic cycles, and maintaining electronic mail and server support.

Current educational technology capabilities in the pilot schools

The schools in the Four Directions project, as would be expected given their geographical separation, have different approaches to integrating educational technology. While all participating schools are interested in pursuing the advantages of high quality educational technology, each school has different levels of human and technical resources available for accomplishing their goals. The schools incorporate both Macintosh and DOS operating systems along with at few Unix platforms. Although some of the schools are dedicated to primarily one platform, other have a nearly equal mix of platforms.

Training and capabilities in the use of educational technology also varies considerably among the eight pilot schools. Some of the pilot schools currently employ one or more technology personnel who assist their schools in training and the selection, acquisition, and maintenance of software and equipment. Teachers in these schools, are often able to call upon local staff for ongoing training. In some cases, schools have also been successful in drawing upon area resources such as community colleges and local universities for technology training. Other schools do not have personnel who are dedicated to maintaining their educational technology infrastructure and are without convenient technical support in their local region. Consequently, the level of educational technology expertise across the school is diverse. Some schools have only a few older computers in classrooms, while others have demonstrate their commitment to educational technology by maintaining well equipped labs, comprehensive instructional software collections, and/or their own Internet presence.

The significant challenges presented in the pilot schools include the presence of different technology platforms, the diversity in technical resources, the different levels of on-site technology expertise, and training resources. These challenges provide a rich testbed for applying the Four Directions goals of using network information technologies to build collaboration and support. Rather than mandating top-down strategies for addressing the challenges, we seek to create a systemic environment for building learning capacity and empowering the schools in their local educational reform initiatives.

Connecting the pilot schools to the Internet

Because the Four Directions project seeks to link each of the participating schools together in a virtual community, Internet connectivity is an especially high priority. Initially, each of the schools has been provided electronic mail access through the Educational Native American Network (ENAN) which is the oldest Native American educational bulletin board in operation. ENAN has also provided dial-up electronic mail and Point-to-Point Protocol/Serial Line Internet Protocol (PPP/SLIP) access to the participating schools. Beginning this year, each of the schools has also been provided access to the First Class bulletin board, with an array of services including electronic mail, usenet resources, software libraries, and online chats.

The next phase is to provide direct Internet connectivity for all of the Four Directions pilot schools. The Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) has provided a network installation team that is currently installing both local area network (LAN) and direct internet connectivity in the pilot schools. By August 1996, all pilot schools are slated to have direct access to the Internet in most of their classrooms. They will also have servers installed that include software for establishing a WWW host site. These are significant undertakings that represent OIEP's commitment to the Four Directions project. Each school is a different challenge for the cabling team. Some schools have multiple, physically separated classroom facilities, many of the buildings are older, and lack the dropped ceilings that make cabling somewhat simpler. Finally, some of the facilities are quite large, making careful network topology planning crucial for successful wiring.

As one example of this effort, during the week of March 25 through 29, the OIEP team laid in excess of 8,000 feet of category 5 twisted pair and 1500 feet of fiber optic cable in, under, and between three of the buildings at the Dilcon School facility. The six-man team, assisted by as many as five Dilcon employees, worked 12- and 14- hour days during Dilcon's spring break. They completed installation in 33 classrooms, 10 offices, 1 conference room, and the school's community resource room. The OIEP team also provided a network server, four intelligent hubs, fiber optic transceivers, considerable expertise, specialized equipment, and training for local personnel.

Four Directions Summer Institute

Ongoing training is a crucial component of the Four Directions activities. In addition to training and assessments made during the initial site visits, the Four Directions partners will hold an annual Summer Institute that will be followed by additional on-site training. The first Four Directions Summer Institute will take place during the last two weeks of July 1996. This institute will bring together a minimum of eight participants from each school. These facilitations are formed at the school level and generally include teachers, students, administrators, school board members, community members, and parents.

This year's Summer Institute will consist of a number of activities to help participants better understand and integrate both technology and local culture into their schools and classrooms. Both large and small group sessions will be offered featuring a variety of noted Native American keynote speakers. Intensive technology training will include community Internet publishing, Web page design, educational mining of the Internet, digital audio and video, multimedia presentation development, and digital image processing. All participants will also engage in a variety of team building activities including technology mediated collaboration, peer discussion and focus groups, mentored presentation, and production experiences, as well as site visits to local culturally important locations.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Summer Institute, plans will be made to conduct follow-up site visits. These site visits will aid the Summer Institute participants in bringing what they have learned to their community, school, and classroom. This will be done by providing additional training, classroom assistance, large scale training, and presentations. The on-site training will allow more of the school's staff to benefit from training conducted at the Summer Institute.

Network collaborative learning environments

Four Directions is creating a virtual learning community between the project schools and consortium partners using network-based tools for collaborative learning and intellectual work. Virtual workgroups will be used so that students gain both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in working in the powerful collaborative networked environments. This collaborative learning aspect of Four Directions draws from the "Project Circle" which was funded by the Department of Education to explore the use of networked environments to support collaborative learning.

The Four Directions collaboration activities seeks to dissolve many of the stereotypes that have evolved over the last 200 years in America. For example, staff development will concentrate of the formation of cross-grade/cross discipline teams, made up of university and K-12 educators, students, Indian community leaders, and parents. These teams will create thematic curriculum units as the framework for interactive, connective learning projects.

The Four Directions process of curriculum development is designed to ensure that all learners experience the connections between traditional knowledge and all academic disciplines. Teachers, in conjunction with community elders, university professors, graduate students, K-12 students, subject matter experts, business, and corporate participants, will develop meaningful experiences in learning through integrating community-based curriculum with rigorous scientific inquiry and discovery using electronic network resources. These lesson products will be the basis for assessment and evaluation and will be infused into other BIA schools as their value is established.

Electronic mail, community postings, and chat groups

Four Directions schools have recently been provided with accounts and training in the use of First Class software. First Class offers very extensible connections to the Internet. That is, it is available for both Macintosh and Windows platforms and it can initially operate with dial-up connectivity then later be configured for use with direct TCP/IP connections. Students and teachers are using the First Class software to become familiar with collaboration tools such as electronic mail, multimedia bulletin board postings, and chat groups. The network mediated discussions among teachers currently center on establishing common thematic cycles for integrating technology applications and activities across the curricula. The teachers are using the network collaboration tools to refine the thematic cycles and develop educational resource that exemplify various phases of the cycles. As the thematic cycles and resources mature, they will be placed in a more permanent data base structure that is accessible in cross-platform formats through both browsing and query mechanism in the Four Direction's electronic library on the WWW.

Two other network tools that we plan to use in collaborative activities among the schools are Lotus Notes and Daedulus.

Lotus Notes

Lotus Notes provides a powerful networked environment to support collaborative intellectual work across a range of tasks and projects. It permits an extension of classroom learning, where you can make a contribution that others see and can respond to. It also offers rich media types, security, object-link maintenance, and other capabilities not well supported on today's Internet. Currently, it provides the most comprehensive networked support for collaborative intellectual work and provides a full range of applications and tools to enable students and educators to work on shared documents, graphics, and files and to comment and build on each other's work. It also provides desktop video capabilities.

Lotus Notes may be used to support curriculum development. Curriculum development is an inefficient process that typically involves bringing teams of teachers together for a period of a several weeks during the summer to develop new curriculum. The network will make it possible for participating teachers to discuss and collaborate electronically with teachers in other schools in planning and developing curriculum projects.


Daedalus is an integrated suite of programs that encompasses all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming and prewriting to drafting and revising to final production. The Daedalus Write component is a simplified word processor which serves all other components. It is suitable for writing papers and is offered as freeware to the students in order to make their work on the system portable. The Daedalus Invent component presents the student with heuristic prompts, or questions, to guide their writing. Daedalus Respond guides critical reading by asking critiquing questions of a displayed text.

Teachers may customize the prompts to fit their own purposes in both Invent and Respond. Mail is an e-mail program specifically designed for use within a class or between many classes. InterChange is a real-time conferencing program in which an entire class can simultaneously write to a single document. Each student has his/her remark labeled with his/her name, and may reply to specific remarks that appear in the dialogue. The resulting document may be compiled so remarks are in chronological order or sorted by student name. A hypertext function permits students to follow specific reply threads in the document. Daedalus versions are available for both DOS and Macintosh platforms, however, the Macintosh platform permits the use of the special characters found in languages such as Spanish and German, making it applicable to foreign language classes. A new version of Daedalus will allow students to integrate of QuickTime movies in documents.

Community publishing

Two complementary approaches are being used to support community publishing on the Internet. The schools will maintain their own WWW site for publishing pages that represent their community's interest and they will also contribute to a consistently structured library of multimedia educational resources. Together, these approaches offer a consistent means for cataloging educational resources to be shared, while maintaining local autonomy in designing information resources that reflect the community's unique cultural and pedagogical perspectives.

Ultimately the schools' WWW page and educational resources will be designed by teachers and students in the schools. Teachers will guide students in integrating various aspects of the curriculum as they produce materials that reflect the children's real life experiences in their communities. Thus, a multimedia report on a local environmental issue might involve students in collecting and analyzing data, require math competencies, and the ability to construct charts and graphs, as well as the visual, verbal, and written communication skills needed to produce the report. A report on community traditions might involve students in investigating the history of their community and relating that history to national or global events. We anticipate that there will be considerable exchanging of ideas and skills development as capability in WWW publishing occurs among the schools.

Through the processes of creating school WWW pages and educational resources the students will be gaining skills in the use of computers and other information technologies. Younger students will learn keyboarding and word processing skills as well as techniques for scanning pictures and recording sounds. More advanced students will learn data organization and analysis tools involving the use of data bases and spreadsheets as well as tools for recording and editing video images. These skills will help to prepare students for competitive positions in an information-based economy.

School-based WWW publishing

The first phase of building capabilities for publishing WWW pages began during the initial site visits. The Four Directions representative met with technology facilitator at each of the schools and provided basic introduction and instructions for publishing on the WWW. Because most of the schools do not yet have direct Internet connectivity, the demonstrations focused on developing pages that are stored on their local computers. After completing the site visits, a meeting was held at Kansas University where the WWW pages for each school were reviewed and augmented. The results of this initial development can be viewed at Note that the Fond du Lac school in Minnesota is already well advanced in network publishing and maintaining a WWW server.

The school's facilitation team will attend the two week Summer Institute in late July where the participants will receive more in-depth training in the development of WWW pages and maintenance of WWW servers. As the school-based teams become more experienced, they will define a basic structure for the school's home page that will cover such topics as the school's history, events, activities, expected outcomes, assessment procedures, and curriculum. The school home pages will also offer perspectives of the local community including description of traditions, cultural events, local geography, environmental issues, profiles of community leaders and artisans, and businesses, and institutions that contribute to the local economy.

The Four Direction electronic library of educational resources

A typical approach to curriculum development is for a committee to develop curricula and instructional strategies that the teachers, students, and community are expected to adopt and implement. The Four Direction model is a more systemic and flexible approach that is designed to be responsive to the evolving needs and strategies of educators, students and their communities. To achieve this systemic approach, the support system for collecting and distributing educational resources must evolve through a systematic processes, (things that the students and teachers do) and a structure (ways of organizing resources) that is flexible enough to accommodate community needs.

The creation, management and distribution of large collections of educational resources on the Internet is a significant task. Kansas University's UNITE group is developing extensible networking tools for distributed contributing, indexing, and maintaining multimedia educational resources. Concurrently, the pilot schools are beginning to refine common thematic cycles for integrating activities across curricula. These thematic cycles, along with standards being developed by OIEP, will serve as a foundation for controlled vocabularies used in indexing educational resources.

Indexing documents with controlled vocabularies (thesaurus) allows for the development of server tools for automatically constructing a variety of browsing structures tailored to the needs of the target audiences. They also provide a more precise query mechanism for targeting educational resources for specific needs (e.g., a resource that is suitable for grade 3 students that compliments a thematic cycle on "water" targeted for a particular geographic region). Other educational specific indexing may include: Grade Levels (thesaurus), Curriculum (thesaurus) and Process Skills (thesaurus). General indexes will be used for Author, Availability, Comment, Cost (US Dollars), Description, File Encoding, File Format, File Name, File Size, Geographic Focus (zip code), ID Number, Owner, Physical Media (thesaurus), Publication Date (date), Publisher, Resource Type (thesaurus), Series, and Title. A current example of the capabilities of this type of indexing is the Explorer collection (

The virtual museum

Participating schools will develop virtual tours of important and historic places within their communities. The Apple Quick Time VR software enables the viewer to move seamlessly in all directions and to zoom in and out of areas of interest. The same kits will also enable viewers to seamlessly view an object from any angle. Objects that are included in a school virtual museum will be selected by the students, and teachers in close consultation with elders from the community. Only sharable objects and information will be included. In many instances, in addition to seeing the object, the viewer will be able to hear an elder describe the use or history. The virtual tours and virtual museum will be made into a CD-ROM at UT-Austin for use in the school curriculum and community. In addition, selected aspects may be made available on the home page of the schools.

Two virtual reality kits, comprised of a camera with a wide angle lens and a tripod with special calibrated mountings for precise settings for each rotation of the camera, have been assembled for use by the schools.

Online mentoring

Judith Harris at UT-Austin has developed the Electronic Emissary project that is designed to facilitate effective online collaboration between students and an outside expert. A searchable database of subject matter experts in a wide range of fields (who have indicated their willingness to mentor classes or students in learning projects) has been compiled and is continuously updated. The Electronic Emissary home page enables teachers to quickly search for needed experts and to submit a request for a specific mentor. To support online mentoring in the Four Directions project, an additional database of Native American experts in many disciplines is currently under development. The database is being developed in collaboration with the American Indian Graduate Center and the University of Texas staff will facilitate the mentor-student links and provide support to mentors as they perform their important role.

An extensible model

Four Directions forges collaborations among institutions, agencies, and existing highly successful programs, each of which brings unique strengths and fresh opportunities to the consortium. We seek to capitalizes on the potential of networking technologies to build learning capacity through systemic restructuring and empowerment of the culturally rich Native American schools across the nation. Educational components are designed to advance thematic, interdisciplinary curriculum development and provide ongoing professional development for both experienced and first year teachers. Four Directions serves both as a local and national educational networking prototype for integrating current networking technologies to create a seamless educational communication and delivery system from pre-school through post-secondary education.

Four Directions will evolve into an ongoing collaborative community of learners embracing K-12 through post-secondary students, teachers and researchers at all levels within the Native American communities. All community members should have equal access to comprehensive educational and human services. They will learn together as they become actively involved in using knowledge-building tools through a seamless mosaic of authentic activities that support the acquisition of basic competencies while offering significant challenge for all learners. Some of these demonstrations will be successful, others will be lessons learned. We anticipate that many of these demonstrations and lessons will be applicable to a wide range of indigenous and other populations who seek new ways of applying network information technologies to systemic educational reform.