Education gap hurts rural, Aboriginal communities

Educators have committed themselves to serving the needs of rural and remote learners since public universities and colleges were first formed in the 19th century.

After the 1970s, institutions ex-panded their outreach to include Aboriginal students, many of whom are place-bound in remote communities.

The growth of the internet, even with notoriously poor service in northern and remote regions, has now expanded exponentially our ability to reach well beyond the major cities and towns.

There are thousands of individual success stories — indigenous and non-Aboriginal rural learners‎ who have completed advanced study using distance education — but the reality is that the effort is not working well overall.

Most online learners are either regular on-campus students or from urban areas. Major advances in online education may be exacerbating the urban-rural divide rather than addressing it.

Nothing, except for the technical challenges, stops Aboriginal and other rural residents from capitalizing on the educational opportunities available.

So, what stands in the way of mass participation? I would highlight five key challenges:

  • Poor prior experience — Many rural and Aboriginal adults experienced inadequate high school preparation and had bad experiences with schooling. Students who are not well prepared in terms of basic skills nor keen to learn are unlikely to approach postsecondary institutions.
  • Shortage of local role models — Most teachers and professionals in these areas come from outside the area. Small groups of students who engage in post-secondary education appear to draw others into the world of advanced learning.
  • Limited local or accessible mentoring — Online, self-directed learning is difficult in the best of times. The absence of mentors, tutors and people familiar with local social realities in remote and rural communities makes it more difficult for independent learners to progress.
  • Disconnect between local realities and post-secondary curricula — Rural and Aboriginal communities are unique and fascinating places. Most post-secondary education curricula make scant reference to these socio-economic environments and therefore appear disconnected and less relevant to some learners.
  • Disconnect in expectations‎ — Many institutions significantly underestimate the challenges associated with undertaking a post-secondary education. Because of the limited local or regional engagement, many rural and Aboriginal students do not always appreciate the length, intensity and difficulties of distance education.

Here are some suggestions on how to expand post-secondary education participation among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rural residents:

  • Develop e-learning familiarity — Build distance education into the last two years of high school so all students in rural and remote communities learn how to study online. Developing a familiarity with e-learning can be beneficial as they enter post-secondary education and create more online learning opportunities.
  • Improve adult preparation — Use these same high school courses as the core of adult basic education for mature learners and engage high school teachers as mentors for the adult learners.
  • Unite regional students — Students benefit from recognizing that they are part of a larger and local community, even if they are taking different courses. Students are great at supporting each other.
  • Engage in proactive recruitment: Colleges and universities are effective at recruiting for on-campus enrolment but are less accomplished at finding students for e-learning. Outreach activities focused on people currently in the workforce, particularly if done personally, can help a great deal.
  • Link programs with reality — Institutions must develop regionally relevant programs with rural and Aboriginal content and provide post-secondary education opportunities that respond to local employment opportunities. Targeted courses that prepare students for local opportunities are most likely to generate enthusiasm and enrolment.

Canada has superb rural educators and institutions with exceptional track records for working with northern and remote regions.

However, Aboriginal and other rural residents are not fully capitalizing on the educational opportunities available, which contributes to economic and personal challenges in these regions.

Proactive and creative policies can help. In all cases, knowing the people and the region is essential.

This article was originally published by The EvoLLLution at

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. This article has been edited for length.

About the author

Ken Coates's recent articles


Stories from our other publications