Bridging the Digital Divide at Maskwacis Cultural College

David Brown, Dean of The Indigenous School of Business at Maskwacis Cultural College

April 19, 2019

For most indigenous communities, bridging the digital divide is not an easy task, especially in post-secondary education delivery.  Canadian indigenous colleges and universities are significantly and consistently underfunded relative to their non-indigenous peers. I’m proud to inform you however, that we pulled it off at Maskwacis Cultural College (MCC).  We went from a manual process and basic IT shop to an integrated software platform based on a centralized high performance and highly scalable database with modules that span a spectrum of Post-Secondary Education (PSE) management functions.  The College Information Centre (CIC) includes functional modules for the registrar’s office, instructors, administrative staff, maintenance personnel, the students’ portal access, and others.  Specifically, the core modules of the CIC leverage a master data control centre for the management of global changes required by the functional modules within the system. There is a program design centre for instructors and faculty heads to easily create programs and associated courses, schedule classes, and reserve classrooms.  The registration and enrollment centre enables the registrar’s office to manage student registrations and enrollment in collaboration with instructors and department heads.  The education delivery centre supports instructors’ management of their classes including attendance records and assignments.  There is also a reports centre for scheduled and ad hoc report requirements.  As the Dean of the Indigenous Business school and the IT Director at the college, I’m on a mission to model and measure the impact of information technology investment partnerships in Canadian Indigenous communities in a way that is commensurate with the Government of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action. 

 The Birth of an Indigenous Information Management System

During my brief academic career at the college, I have had the unexpected opportunity to see how far behind Indigenous PSE institutions are in their information technology infrastructures and capacities to serve their students, staff, and partner institutions.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to apply my IT and entrepreneurial experiences toward solving some of the critical information technology gaps at the college.  Thus, we took action and developed the College Information Centre™ for MCC in collaboration with fellow administrators.  This solution was rolled out for the 2018 summer semester and provided a robust, highly scalable, and centralized scholastic administration information management platform that, in addition to all the internal information exchange requirements of the registrar and administrators, enabled connectivity with external agencies and stakeholders such as Alberta Advanced Education (ACAT), indigenous band funding offices, and others.  The college’s administrators and instructors were empowered to provide prompt and accurate service to students, and positioned to mine intelligence from the information captured in the system to support important decision-making requirements by our President and Board of Governors.  This also put the college in a position to help another non-profit indigenous organization, namely Mamawapowin Technology Society (MTS), to access the college’s internet fibre backhaul and provide very low-cost high bandwidth WiFi service to the Maskwacis reservation.  This also allowed MCC’s students to access cultural content on its servers, as well as important research and open education resources from their homes. 

 Rolling Up the Sleeves

When I joined MCC three years ago, I found that the staff were preoccupied with completing work processes around information management manually which could have been accomplished more efficiently and effectively with the right information management technologies – applied in a manner commensurate with their business rules and objectives.  During lunches and at the end of the school day, I began interviewing my fellow staff members to gather information for a comprehensive set of business analysis reports I was compiling.  A few months later, we received a grant from Alberta Advanced Education that allowed us to hire an experienced software engineer who I worked with to develop the CIC platform.  With the business analyses completed, and with the help of a very co-operative staff, our project management of the CIC platform was regarded highly efficient with concept to roll-out taking just two years rather than the typical five-year time frame.  The platform featured a Microsoft Access user interface front-end with the data repositories leveraging a SQL Server relational database management system.

A Dream to Bridge the Digital Divide

First Nations Communities and Post-Secondary Education (PSE) institutions across Canada have been at a disadvantage for generations in their capacity to catch up and keep abreast of non-indigenous communities and PSEs in social support systems, economic development, education standards, and technical innovation to name a few.  In almost every measurable category – from housing, education funding, access to comparable healthcare, and sanitation services to telecommunications, and transportation infrastructure – First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities lag persistently (to varying degrees) behind non-indigenous urban and rural communities.  While there already exists a wealth of research and developed government policies that seek to address the causes of these systemic inequities, there is relatively little research into how indigenous innovation and “know-how” from within indigenous communities could be identified, incubated, and developed into optimized solutions to address these inequities.  The relocation of non-indigenous social and intellectual capital, along with monetary capital, into indigenous communities – in ways that are aligned to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – to enable the incubation of indigenous innovation that are attuned to the challenges of indigenous communities are areas that need further investigation and resolution.  When individuals and groups are involved in the creation of the solution to particular problems affecting them, the rate of success of the created solution is greatly enhanced versus a solution created and introduced from outside the affected groups.  As nations trade with each other, primarily because no single nation can produce all the goods and services its citizens need, indigenous and non-indigenous communities need to come together to respectfully share ideas and develop uniquely harmonized solutions that combine the social and intellectual capital of both communities.

It is time to bridge the digital divide between rural indigenous PSEs and reservations and their non-indigenous counterparts.  Computer networks, software applications, broad-band internet access, and artificial intelligence systems are the great “enablers” for every category of service mentioned earlier.  Many indigenous communities lag far behind in the access to and the implementation of these digital solutions.  This problem can be solved by modelling and replicating tried and true models of business and technology partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous entrepreneurs that are solution driven.  We need to collectively explore and measure the impact of these information technology solution models in Canadian Indigenous communities.

Mr. David Brown is the Dean of The Indigenous School of Business at Maskwacis Cultural College. Before embarking on an academic career, David was the founding partner and former Chief Technology Officer at Teilhard Technologies Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, where he engaged IT Architects on large-scale government projects.  IT Architects ( is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, David can be reached at [email protected] or 403-680-9831.

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