Adapting to the Era of Information: While Some Tribal Colleges Are Working to Give Students Access to the Internet, a Digital Divide Persists

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When professors at Northwest Indian College began giving more and more assignments requiring the use of the Internet for study and research, a harsh reality began to set in: More than a few students at the tribal college couldn't make good use of this increasingly important electronic path to knowledge of the world.

Despite having wireless connectivity to the Internet on campus, the students could not afford a laptop computer of their own to access the Internet. Using the school's three computer labs was also problematic, as many students were working parents who traveled long distances and had little time to stay on campus after classes to use school computers to go online. There was also the problem of not being able to afford increasingly expensive Internet access at home.

Rather than write the students off or risk seeing them lose interest in a college education for lack of the modern tools, the Bellingham, Wash.-based college that serves students throughout the state and in Idaho came up with a simple solution: use funds from a small federal grant to purchase 15 laptop computers and have a laptop loan program for students, one that runs much like borrowing a book from a library.

"It makes things a lot easier," says Amber Forslund, a 25-year-old single mom studying Native environmental science. With no computer of her own and no Internet access at home, Forslund says the laptop loan program has made the Internet far more accessible to her and has made a tremendous difference in helping her pursue career goals.

"I had to cram everything in" between classes, work and parenting responsibilities, Forslund says, describing her juggling act before she got a laptop from the loan program.

Now, there's "less stress" in nearly every aspect of her life, she says, echoing the sentiments of other students in the program. Forslund is using less energy scrambling for time and access to computers in the school computer lab. She's got more time to use the Internet for study and research, an especially important asset now that she is focusing on her major courses.

"When I don't understand things, I can go on the Internet for help in understanding some of my textbooks. If you get on the Web, there is so much more that's available to you." An added benefit, Forslund says, is the ability the Internet affords her to search for badly needed scholarship money.

Like Forslund, qualifying students are allowed to borrow a laptop for up to two weeks at a time, with loan renewals based on academic performance, how many people are on the wait list to borrow a computer and other similar measures. Student participants also get a thumb drive at the start of the school year on which to store their work.

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"We can't afford to buy everyone laptops, but it's a moderately effective way to help them access the Internet," says Chris Flack, director of student support services at Northwest Indian College, where the average student is a 29-year-old female with at least one dependent, according to the school's Web site. "If we are asking students to participate in Internet activities, that it's a requirement, it can be problematic," says Flack.

A small gesture in the larger world of the Internet and higher education, for sure. Yet a giant step for tribal colleges seeking to help their students become competitive in a rapidly changing world.

As illustrated by Northwest's experience, bringing the Internet to tribal college students is no easy task, tribal college officials have learned. In an era where some colleges across the nation have poured millions of dollars into cutting edge computer and Internet technology as a drawing card for teachers, staff and students, tribal colleges are finding myriad hurdles--financial, technological, geographical and cultural--in their quests to become technologically relevant and thus appealing to increasingly tech-smart, if not savvy, students. …