Digital technologies help East Central University preserve Native American culture, say Thomas Cowger, Dennis Walden and Scott Barton.

May 24 2010

Using Technology to Preserve and Teach Native Voices

High-tech classrooms improve learning and create new opportunities within the Native American curricula at East Central University.

High-tech classrooms improve learning and create new opportunities within the Native American curricula at East Central University.

How do you look forward and backward at the same time? This may sound like the setup for a riddle, but it is the conundrum faced by many native cultures that are trying to preserve their traditions while integrating technology into their communities and daily lives.

East Central University, where 20 percent of the student body is Native American, is helping to solve this riddle, utilizing new smart-classroom technologies to preserve and share the regional Native American heritage for future generations.

The university, located in Ada, Okla., and in close proximity to five tribal nations, is utilizing technology in several unique ways. Rescuing the Chickasaw and Mvskoke languages from the brink of extinction is one example of how its classroom technologies are being used.

“We're at the midnight hour for Chickasaw and Mvskoke Seminole,” says Thomas Cowger, chairman of the History Department and director of the Native American Studies program. “Students are using digital technologies to make field recordings of the several dozen remaining fluent speakers, most of whom are quite elderly.”

And digital recordings are critical. “Unlike analog tapes, digital recordings offer the flexibility to develop courses for students who want to learn the language,” explains Scott Barton, dean of the college of liberal arts and social sciences.

East Central University's role in preserving and teaching these languages was recently broadened when it won a $2.4 million U.S. Department of Education grant for its Native Voices project, which aims to improve Native American student achievement.

A portion of that funding is being used to expand the number of ECU's technology-enhanced classrooms to nearly 40 percent. Of the 14 new classrooms that the university is rolling out, six came online last summer and another eight are slated for this summer.

“To minimize disruption, we deploy new classroom technology during the summer break,” explains Dennis Walden, AV engineer for ECU. “The project's second phase includes more classrooms because we're installing some additional technologies and café-style furnishing configurations to evaluate their learning impact.”

Inside the Gear

In each new classroom, standard gear includes an Epson video projector, an Elmo document camera, a Draper projector screen, a Sony high-definition audio receiver, a Toshiba DVD/VCR machine and a Logitech presentation remote control.

ECU's Native American students represent about 25 nations and tribes. The top five are Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole.

Source: East Central University

Some classrooms will also receive video cameras and lapel microphones as part of the rollout of a capture-and-retrieval system (see below).

Rounding out the list in every classroom is a desktop computer with a touch-panel device. This lets users select different inputs for the ceiling-mounted projector, while the desktop computer is connected to ECU's network and the Internet.

“Educators are increasing their use of high-definition content, and they want the quality of both the audio and the video to be high,” Walden says.

Connecting from Afar

One of the side benefits of the wired classrooms is that they are spawning new Native American curricula. For one such course, Tribal Politics, tribal elected officials use video conferences to participate as guest lecturers.

“Previously, travel barriers were too high. But now we can even work with multiple tribal governments,” Cowger explains. “For example, we conference in western Oklahoma tribes to explore how their approach to social work and legal interactions differs from the approach used by the southeastern Oklahoma tribes in our region.”

Even national political leaders are accessible. Cowger says the college is negotiating with Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of theNational Congress of American Indians, to join the class next semester from her office in Washington, D.C., something that was impossible in the past.

Plus, all video conferencing sessions are retained. “Anything we do via conferencing we save,” Barton comments.

More Enhancements Ahead

Other Native American Studies courses also will take advantage of the new technology in similar ways. “In a healing rituals course, tribal elders will conference in to discuss various rituals,” says Barton.

Similarly, a Native American health course will rely on conferencing with out-of-state presenters as well as utilizing video content and information projected via the doc cams.

The smart-classroom technology is also being used to update course content. Cowger is planning to resurrect Hollywood Indians, a comparative studies course that he taught several years ago. “Originally, I tried using VHS tape, but the time-consuming process of locating the appropriate segment was disruptive,” he says. “Besides, the reproduction was too degraded for classroom learning. With the new equipment, I can quickly bring up a high-quality clip from a DVD or a computer file.”

In fact, the short clips afforded by the new technology are proving educationally superior. “Watching an entire film or TV episode is too passive,” stresses Barton. “With clips, you play small segments and then immediately start discussions for a richer, more engaging experience.”

New classroom technology is fulfilling another unique function by introducing and preserving irreplaceable Native American artifacts.

“Document cameras permit us to borrow, display and save images of one-of-a-kind historical, artistic and cultural objects,” Barton says. “Recently, we obtained a hand-drawn Seminole clan map dating back to the 1830s, shortly after [the Seminoles'] removal from Florida to Oklahoma. Like this map, many items are on loan from the National Archives and have never been copied for education or preservation before.”

From the student's perspective, technology in the classroom is reducing a uniquely Native American hurdle. Because native cultures are typically private and communal, Cowger says “raising your hand in class calls attention to yourself and is considered showy.” To work around this, the university is piloting student response “clicker” devices, which let students participate anonymously.

In one pilot project, an ECU math professor projects problem sets onto the classroom screen. As students finish problems, they signal with the response device. By monitoring responses, the professor knows which concepts students understand and which still give them trouble.

Beyond improving student outcomes, the impact of wired classrooms on Native American culture is also being felt off campus.

“For a course we offer in conjunction with the Chickasaw Nation, we're making videos of tribal elders doing beadwork,” Barton says. “This ensures learning quality and consistency for our students. And it's become so important to the Chickasaw that they are working on a federal digital collections grant based on their experiences with us.”

That ability to provide learning quality and consistency, enhanced with new technology, is what allows ECU to serve the surrounding Native American communities – helping them keep an eye on the past as they look toward the future.

Lectures to Go

To improve the quality and consistency of teaching and learning for all of its students, the classrooms at East Central University will include a leading-edge capability known as lecture capture and retrieval.

The technology records videos of classroom activities, catalogs the content and permits formatting for various types of reuse, whether on campus or as a component of a distance education course. For security, most systems limit access to enrolled students and specifically invited contributors or other guests.

At ECU, lecture-capture technology will be used in numerous ways – for example, to present course content to Native American students in a format more suitable to their learning style. “This population comes from an oral storytelling tradition where learning involves all of the senses,” says Thomas Cowger, History Department chairman and director of the Native American Studies program. Therefore, the ability to replay classroom sessions can be particularly beneficial compared with reviewing notes or written handouts.

In addition, ECU will expand its already extensive online learning opportunities while using intellectual assets more effectively.

“For example, I'll be using our lecture-capture system for a graduate research course, where research methodologies and statistical procedures don't change much,” says James Burke, professor of human resources. “Then, I can build blended online and classroom courses, where precious classroom time is allocated to the most beneficial activities.”

<p>Scott Raffe</p>

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