Literature Review, ED 601

The following five articles were identified in literature search using the terms, “Alaska Native,” “online learning,” or variations like “online education” and “online course.” Additionally, the inclusion of search terms identifying methodology, for examples “action research” or “grounded theory,” also helped with discoverability. Certainly using the more inclusive search term “Native Americans” combined with variations of “online learning” resulted in a broader set of studies. For the purposes of this initial survey, broader terms were not employed in the final selection. None-the-less, the point of this initial literature review was to focus on Alaskan Natives and online learning communities. Two of these articles report on the results of research teams engaged in participant action research. One article represents the work of a single participant-observer. One is a conference paper presentation. The final stands as a sharp contrast to the others in its methodologies, methods, and bias.

Wexler, L., Eglinton, K., & Gubrium, A. (2014)(Eisner et al., 2012; Wexler, Eglinton, & Gubrium, 2014). Using Digital Stories to Understand the Lives of Alaska Native Young People. Youth & Society, 46(4), 478-504.

The fundamental research question: “How are Alaska Native young people adopting and adapting ‘traditional’ values, roles, and practices in their everyday lives to bolster resilience?” (Wexler et al., 2014). This project grew out of a suicide prevention project between the Inupiat and University of Massachusetts. Two hundred seventy-one youth participated; fewer than ten opted out, four researchers, two with regional familiarity, and two with expertise in visual analysis. “Digital stories are 3- to 5-min visual narratives that synthesize images, video, audio recordings of voice, background music and text to create personal stories….” (Wexler et al., 2014). The team used NVivo8 to store, organize, analyze, and retrieve the collected stories. Systematic codes were applied to the stories. “Throughout this process, stories that stood out as a thematic exemplar (or, in some cases, as a thematic outlier) were tagged as “noteworthy.” By the end of the first phase, approximately 60 of the 271 videos identified as such. In phase 2, approximately half of “exemplary” digital stories were selected from the 60 noteworthy stories” (Wexler et al., 2014). Finally, thirty-one stories were selected for formal coding:  “The initial coding scheme was developed through a modified grounded theory approach…” Two key techniques were used to build indigenous knowledge and values into the study. First was to incorporate the Inupiaq values into the coding. Second was to build cycles of “member checking” into the inquiry “to explore cultural resonance and inspire new interpretations.” Three key themes were recognized: “(a) perspectives on important relationships; (b) self-representations: and (c) sites of achievement.” I really appreciate that the authors wrote a section on the limitations of the research. They suggest that involving more young people, analyzing more digital stories, and doing more member checking particularly with young people could make the results better. Finally, in their conclusion, they worry about a gender divide where young men are interested in activities that do not transfer to the dominant culture, whereas young women select activities and sites that more easily transfer. They also observed the impact of the Inupiaq values in the young people’s self-expressions while still negotiating peer and self-invention between cultures. This insight inspired the recommendation that community-based practitioners build more occasions for intergenerational dialog into their programs and projects.


Eisner, W. R., Cuomo, C. J., Hinkel, K. M., Jelacic, J., Kim, C., & Alba, D. D. (2012). Producing an Indigeounous Knowledge WebGIS fo Arctic Alaska Communities: Challenges, Successes,and Lessons Learned. Transactions in GIS, 16(1), 17-37.


Six western researchers from three different institutions posed four research problems:  “Is it possible to develop a geographic database that meets the needs of local “lay” communities while still providing important information to researchers? How can scientists from “outside” incorporate a particular community’s requirements in a GIS? How might a GIS become a truly integrated part of the community when outsiders maintain it? What constraints do very limited bandwidth and outdated computers impose on the design capabilities of the GIS?“ (Eisner et al., 2012). This project occurred over five years, “53 Inupiat elders, hunters, and berry-pickers from the North Slope Villages of Barrow, Atqasuk, Wainwright, and Nuiqsut were interviewed.” (Eisner et al., 2012). However, even before methodology and methods are summarized some of the background and cultural self-consciousness of the researchers needs to be highlighted. The researchers list several preceding local efforts to collect and archive indigenous knowledge similar in content to this project. The researchers also recognize both enthusiasm for and suspicion of this kind of research and online presentation, yet despite these tensions a commonality of purpose between researchers and indigenous residents allowed the project to move forward. This article does an interesting job of balancing science and participant-action research speaking to multiple audiences. Both the website and GIS created in this project are quite impressive. Out of respect for local knowledge, the majority of the data is behind password protection. Only a small portion of the collected data is publically accessible and this is to give a sense of the work. The project included creating an elaborate coding scheme to match map and narrative. The project returned to the communities demonstrating the pilot and offering training on the Web GIS. In the face-to-face environments, the community supported and valued the project. However, use of the online elements has been limited and it seems as well that Web 2.0 technologies are not a quick fix to the limited adoption and use. It appears that efforts to increase community use is ongoing and involve multiple tactics. “Strategies to ensure that the GIS is used by the community to fulfill their needs range from partnering with governments, universities’ and schools to provide K-12 teacher training, developing internships, on-site demonstrations and date collection, and hands-on, real world projects. We plan to further develop the web-based GIS into a more fully participatory process, complete with GIS training workshops, training sessions, and a user-friendly web site where the community can access the date while adding to, building upon, and transforming it” (Eisner et al., 2012). The commitment to capturing indigenous knowledge and setting it on equal footing with scientific knowledge in an interactive online learning community demonstrated by this research team is impressive. This project attempts to bridge elders and youth and is ultimately returned to the communities for their use and benefits.

Interestingly both of these articles are results of larger teams, teams of mixed academic fields, and reflect research that took years to conduct. The researcher/community collaborations are different but present in both. Both carefully define methodologies and methods and both are self-conscious of shortcomings and areas for future research. Both struggle with uneven participation in online communities and both struggle with connection youth and elders. Both engage the community and give back in some way to the local knowledge.


Subramony, D. P. (Winter 2007). Understanding the Complex Dimensions of the Digital Divide: Lessons Learned in the Alaskan Arctic. The Journal of Negro Edutaion, 76(1), 57-68.


The author proposes an interesting project:  “While traditional discussions of the {digital} Divide have tended to focus inordinately on access to technology tools and the development of “consumer” level skills, this article argues that for minority groups to truly empower themselves and overcome their digital disadvantages they should make the cultural transition from technology consumer to technology “producer,” thus fundamentally changing the nature of their relationship with technology and the culture of technology itself “ (Subramony, 2007).  Subramony introduces the phenomenon of digital divide briefly and then immediately moves to describe the methodology and methods. Even before that, the author moves to protect participants’ confidentiality by giving town and school system pseudonyms. The author refers to Richard Stakes’ “intrinsic case study approach,” to qualitative inquiry techniques (personal interviews, participant observations, and document analysis), and to Carspechen’s “thick record” technique to record the observation sessions in order to define methodology and methods. The author conducted the original case study during 2003-2004; the author interviewed forty-six informants, twenty-five Inupiat, educators, students, parents, and community leaders, twenty-one Westerners, administrators, teachers, and staff for this project. Six participant observation sessions occurred in, classes, community sites, and events. Documents collected included enrollment records, surveys, syllabi, lesson plans, student work, and school policy documents.

Subramony then defines the role of the research and the personal motivations, beliefs, and values. The parameters of participant observation are defined. The author writes thoughtfully about bias and makes an interesting point, saying: “Also, his study observation in Borealis {pseudonym} provided numerous indication of Western educators appearing to be sincere, culturally sensitive, and responsive toward the Inupiat. Meanwhile, many of the Inupiat this researcher encountered saw him as being not much different from the Westerners since anyone who was not Inupiat was an invader, and thus, unwelcome” (Subramony, 2007). Subramony believed that insight contributed to some of his more formal strategies perhaps limiting bias.

Through data analysis, the author surfaces three important themes: comfort, and proficiency with technology tools, culturally appropriating a technological lifestyle according to gender, finally is evolving from consumer to producer of technology. With an interesting turn of phrase, the author compliments the Inupiat as providing lessons for other cultural minority communities. I think the heart of this lesson is this: “…in the preceding account of Arctic Alaska, it was shown that improved access to technology infrastructure does not automatically lead to increased proficiency at all levels of technology use, but rather achievement of the latter is also contingent on a host of other contextual factors, such a user’s gender, cultural traditions, peer expectations, role models, perception of needs, and opportunities to apply their proficiency”(Subramony, 2007). Another key observation is the author’s encouragement for cultural minority communities to move beyond technology consumption to production.

While this paper represents the ethnographic work of a single scholar it is in many ways as significant as the first two. Particularly when struggling to understand key aspects of online learning in relation to Alaska Native communities. These three articles combined raise issues of content production and reverse mentoring as additional elements of successfully creating online learning communities for Alaska Natives. Between Subramony and Wexler et al., we learn some interesting things about schooling, computer use, and gender. From these first three articles the struggle for cultural preservation across generations is noted, but Subramony and Wexler et al hint at a divide between genders as well, with girls’ schoolroom success pulling them away from boys’ interests in snow machines, and subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping.

Cazden, C. B. (2003). Sustaining Indigenous Languages in Cyberspace. Paper presented at the Nurturing Native Languages, Bozeman, MT.


Distance Education: More Data Could Improve Education’s Ability to Track Technology at Minority Serving Institutions: GAO-03-900. (2003). GAO Reports, 1.  Retrieved from


This paper was read in 2002, published in 2003, and much of the literature it draws on comes from the late 1990s. Accordingly, much of what we take for granted about online learning and schooling had yet to be imagined. Nonetheless, the author raises some important cautionary concerns and provides anticipatory insight into some of the strengths of online learning communities that are bearing fruit now. The author begins recounting the arrival of TV in a Gwich’in community in 1980 and its negative impact on cultural identity, particularly language use. She next mentions some of the technologies that anticipate our current online environment, computer programs, CD ROMS, touching on e-mail and early chat, and points out how these cannot substitute for face-to-face interaction. Some of these technologies like TV are largely consumptive or not networked. Some like e-mail and chat were not ubiquitous and not optimized at that time. That said, her concerns about computer language practice and instruction are important then and now, particularly context, community and natural environment, and lack of literal translations, which might point back to these contexts.

However, in anticipating some of the power of online learning communities, the author offers a brief, interesting case study drawn from Rosie Roppel’s work with a Tligit youth. The young man was deeply engaged with his culture and equally unengaged with his western schooling. “The teacher’s answer came in a request on the electronic network of the Bread Loaf School of English from student in the Laguna (Pueblo) Middle School in New Mexico, requesting responses to their stories about their elders. An electronic exchange of student writing developed between the two classrooms. Roppel concludes, ‘I didn’t know it at the time, but the Laguna students would turn out to be the audience that would motivate some of my students to do their best work’”(Cazden, 2003).

This paper is dated; however, it is prescient in identifying online learning communities and reverse mentoring as important elements for creating online learning communities for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The reverse mentoring in this case is across cultures but it occurs nonetheless between the Tlingit youth and his teacher Rosie Roppel.


Page, G. A., & Hill, M. (2008). Information, Communication, and Educational Technologies in Rural Alaska. New Directions for Adult and Continueing Education(no. 117), 59-70.


The authors define their project, saying: “This chapter provides insight into the issues surrounding the diffusion of information and communication technologies into rural Alaskan communities. A contemporary analysis of the impediments that challenge rural Alaskans and the implications of change from the adoption of innovation is provided” (Page & Hill, 2008). This article appeared in the journal “New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education.” Closer reading of the journal shows that the editors select themes for issues; “rural education” was the theme for this one. In that context the work of the article becomes clearer. A striking shortcoming is that method and methodology is left implicit; the parameters of the literature review are not stated explicitly. The interviews and interview processes are minimally described. “To gain insight into the context of technology and rural Alaska, interviews were conducted with three rural Alaska educators and technology coordinators from different geographical locations” (Page & Hill). “The four areas shown in the figure – content, social context, connectivity, and capability – are reflected in the interviews with rural Alaska educators that are described in the next section. First, the responses to specific questions are reported; next the four framework areas are connected to themes that emerged from the interviews” (Page & Hill, 2008). Abruptly “Gary, Joe, and Bob” suddenly have voice in the article and, equally abruptly, they disappear. How were these three selected and why? Why are only men interviewed? Are any of the respondents Alaska Natives? It is also unclear whether the categories came out of the interviews or out of the literature review and informed the interviews. A note on the mentioned graphic “Source: Based on research by Page (2004). This is a mention of the main author’s dissertation, “Exploring the Digital Divide: Poverty and Progress in a Rural County” a study focused on “impoverished areas in the Southern United States.” This begins to explain the mention of data about internet use by rural African Americans and rural whites (Page & Hill, 2008), alas, both demographics remain largely unconnected to Alaska’s situation. The authors touch on interesting topics, such as appropriate technology, cultural difference, and values alas; they never take ahold of any of these issues to explore more deeply. They do not explore the literature generated by Alaska Natives on education, technology, culture, or values. Indeed, only two sources cited are specific to Alaska. Given the shallowness of the literature on the topic of online learning, and Alaska Natives, in the end this article is a disappointment.

This literature review showed excellent recent research being done on Alaska’s North Slope. However, it seems little has been published recently on other social/geographic regions. Eisner et al., and Wexler et al., engage in action research and a mixed methods approach and both collect interviews or digital self-representations. These are utilized in very different ways in each study. Eisner’s group added the challenge of matching the social facts with scientific facts; “We were expected to carry out two modes of verification: examination of aerial photography or satellite imagery, and direct field observation…. We then cross-verified the information with other verbal accounts and finally, visited a subset of sites for validation and data collection” (Eisner et al., 2012). Subramony employs an ethnographic approach but also gathers a document data from the schools. Taken together, ethnography, interview collection, and creation of digital artifacts and the qualitative analysis of these various data in service of a participant-action project offers rich returns on effort. Another important element for a project’s success particularly one with online aspects is to involve both elders and youth from the outset. If Eisner’s group had done this, I wonder if the user interface and the community adoption would have been more enthusiastic with youth buy-in and participation from the outset. Cazden’s presentation surfaces the importance of reverse and cross-cultural mentoring. Member checking is likewise an important aspect of participant-action research and this is seen explicitly in (Eisner et al., 2012; Wexler et al., 2014) and implicitly in (Subramony, 2007).  In the end, this review has helped to sketch both methodology and methods for future research. It also shows how wide open the field is for additional research.

Works Cited

Cazden, C. B. (2003). Sustaining Indigenous Languages in Cyberspace. Paper presented at the Nurturing Native Languages, Bozeman, MT.

Eisner, W. R., Cuomo, C. J., Hinkel, K. M., Jelacic, J., Kim, C., & Alba, D. D. (2012). Producing an Indigeounous Knowledge WebGIS fo Arctic Alaska Communities: Challenges, Successes,and Lessons Learned. Transactions in GIS, 16(1), 17-37.

Page, G. A., & Hill, M. (2008). Information, Communication, and Educational Technologies in Rural Alaska. New Directions for Adult and Continueing Education(no. 117), 59-70.

Subramony, D. P. (2007). Understanding the Complex Dimensions of the Digital Divide: Lessons Learned in the Alaskan Arctic. The Journal of Negro Edutaion, 76(1), 57-68.

Wexler, L., Eglinton, K., & Gubrium, A. (2014). Using Digital Stories to Understand the Lives of Alaska Native Young People. Youth & Society, 46(4), 478-504.