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Smoke signals now travel the Web

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PABLO, Mont. - Don't have time for college, or the school's too far away from home? Then the distance education program at Salish Kootenai College might be the ticket for you.

"We're aiming for tribal members who don't have a tribal college or community college within their driving range," system technician Michelle Mitchell says of the program which provides an extensive array of coursework over the Internet. "It's anywhere, anytime. Folks can work all day, put their kids to bed, and start taking classes."

Established three years ago with an $800,000 grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and bolstered with another $200,000 award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the college's online offerings have expanded dramatically.

Assistant Director Lori Colomeda says more than 630 students have taken distance learning classes from SKC since the program opened. About 130 students are enrolled this quarter.

"It's just like a big mushroom," Colomeda says. "We can't keep up with it. We can't produce the classes fast enough. The rate of growth is just phenomenal."

More than 25 online courses are offered - anatomy, English composition, Native American history, developmental psychology, computer literacy and even basic Salish and Kootenai, where words and sounds are transmitted to a student's home computer from the college. Trouble with pronunciation? Words and phrases can be repeated until the student gets them right.

"It's empowering," Colomeda says of distance education. "The students are not only learning content, they're learning technology."

Many SKC cyber students never set foot in a classroom, may never meet their instructor and won't likely mingle with classmates during a break. Schedules, for the most part, revolve around the student's life, not on a class grid that must be rigidly constructed.

"We have some really happy students," Mitchell says, adding that her mother is taking online business classes through the school. "It saves so much time and effort for a lot of students, even if they live around here."

SKC's distance learning program, the most extensive of any tribally run program in the nation, has been used by students all over Montana, in Washington state and in Alaska and California.

One tribal member, Erma McNulty, takes classes from her home in Medicine Hat, Alberta. She figured she'd have to quit college after a family emergency prompted her to return to Canada last year. She's been able to keep up with many classes via computer and she's still enrolled in school.

"I would recommend this type of learning to others if they're self-motivated enough to do it. I think the biggest problem is when there are glitches in the system somewhere that keep students from accessing their course rooms," she said. "They spend so much time trying to figure everything out before they ever get to the actual course that they get discouraged and frustrated."

"Stuff like that happens," Mitchell says, and glitches are part of the game, especially with a system that's new. Staff members are putting in a lot of effort to ensure that students, and instructors, are fully satisfied. One unique aspect to courses is that all online offerings include culturally relevant material.

"There are ways to tie in your culture to whatever is being taught," Mitchell observes. "No one is doing it like we are. We're targeting Indian students who want to stay within their communities and stay within their culture."

Unlike other schools that charge more for taking distance classes, SKC assesses the same $214 per three-credit class for any enrolled member of any tribe taking onsite and offsite course work. Administrators say they expect the online program to become financially self-sustaining this academic year. A new grant is enabling the school to connect online with 10 other Western tribes, which will boost enrollment numbers even more. A $60,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is helping to improve the program's registration system.

"Financially, this if the best way for me, but there are some different expenses involved," McNulty says. "Books being mailed, long distance phone calls to instructors and the college, and, of course, keeping the computer up to date and tons of paper and ink in my printer. (But) it would be a financial strain for me to take courses at my local college. ... "

Students logging on can inspect photos of instructors and read short biographies. So-called "learning spaces" include descriptions of courses, assignments, related readings, connections to related Web sites, videos, graphics and other presentations.

"Petroglyphs, trail markers, they're all types of distance learning," Colomeda says. "We've always had runners to tell us news and educate us. It's not just smoke signals anymore. The technology is different."

But Colomeda, who has a master's degree in environmental education and a doctorate in medical ecology, points out that online education is not for everyone.

"It takes a lot of discipline, a self-directed learner, to do this. Some folks just need to go to class."

"It's amazing for a small college to do this," Colomeda says. "We couldn't do it without our faculty, though. We depend on them heavily."

As an enticement, instructors are paid up to $2,500 extra to prepare and teach an online course, and they can get continuing education credit. Training sessions for faculty and staff are offered three times a year so skills can be sharpened. Most classes are limited to 20 students to keep them less hectic.

"The instructors can do the teaching at home in their pajamas if they want to," Mitchell says.

A main goal is to provide upper-level college course work for those who have completed two years of classes at a tribal or other community-level school, Colomeda explains. But, she adds, it's a fine line between not treading on programs at other tribal institutions while offering classes to students who otherwise might not be attending college at all.

"We continue to evolve," Colomeda says. "We continue to listen to what our students have to say. It's just been a wonderful experience."