Indigenous learners face more challenges with virtual learning, says report

A report about the impacts of remote learning on children includes a section specific to Indigenous youth, including perspectives from a Nipissing First Nation educator.

Technology is part of the future of Indigenous education but conventional classes still needed, says educator

Many parts of Indigenous curriculum cannot fully translate to an online format, says Jenn O'Driscoll.

A report about the impacts of remote learning on children includes a section specific to Indigenous youth, including perspectives from a Nipissing First Nation educator.

On Dec. 9, The Information and Communications Technology Council published 'Uncharted Waters: A World-class Canadian E-learning Paradigm.' The 56-page report explores virtual learning in Canada and the ways in which it may be useful beyond a COVID-19 context.

For one subsection, 'Indigenous Youth Experiences with E-Learning,' the authors interviewed Jenn O'Driscoll, acting vice-principal at Nbisiing Secondary School in Nipissing First Nation, who shared how students had responded to online learning.

"As much as we're online every day and we see each other's faces and we try to have those conversations and build those relationships, it's not the same as when we're in person," she said.

The report's information came from interviews with experts and a survey of 1,063 students and parents.

Online learning more difficult in First Nations

The report said just 17 per cent of on-reserve households in Ontario have access to high-speed internet. Attendance rates have long been a challenge at First Nation schools, and O'Driscoll said absenteeism rates grew during the first shift to online school.

Also a problem is that some parts of the curriculum, such as traditional knowledge sharing from elders, cannot take place online, either due to technological barriers or the belief that sacred knowledge should only be shared orally.

Simply accessing high-speed internet required for online learning is a challenge in many communities. O'Driscoll said Nipissing First Nation, close to North Bay, is an outlier because most households have sufficient internet access.

However, when some students visited families in remote communities, there was occasionally not even a cell signal available to access the internet.

"When we're talking about remote learning, Nipissing is not the norm," she said.

Reaching students can be challenging

The report said that students who have traditionally succeeded in school did not face as many challenges with remote learning. However, those who had already been struggling tended to fare even worse.

O'Driscoll said this was partly because those students tend to be less likely to ask for help. In an online context, the likelihood of them asking for support dropped further. 

"You're just trained to know who needs help and who doesn't. And you really can't can't figure that out online if the students aren't actively asking for it," she said.

The challenges Indigenous students face with online learning are reflective of larger, systemic barriers, O'Driscoll said, including an assumption that every student has adequate access to the internet, technology and a suitable workspace at home.

Indspire, a national charity that advocates for Indigenous education, uploaded a report in May 2021, showing that Indigenous post-secondary learners also faced many barriers in remote education.

Considering more perspectives

O'Driscoll said it was positive that the report looked specifically at Indigenous learners. There are also subsections that focus on Black children and students with disabilities.

Virtual learning cannot be a substitute for the conventional classroom, especially within Nipissing First Nation, O'Driscoll said. Her community relies heavily on relationships between people and a connection to the land, both of which cannot easily translate online.

"Tech is going to be a part of Indigenous education and kids need to learn how to navigate technology and use technology, but I would say strictly virtual learning is not the ideal for Indigenous education," she said.

A key message from the report was that e-learning likely has a role to play in the future of education, but it will only be effective if it can reach all students equally.

Students at Nibiising Secondary School will return to virtual classrooms for at least two weeks after the holidays, due to growing numbers of COVID-19 infections in Ontario. O'Driscoll said it would be tough for students, but it's the right course of action at the current time.


Warren Schlote is a reporter at CBC Sudbury. Connect with him via email at, or on Twitter at @ReporterWarren.