Educating the World’s Indigenous Populations: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Education Through Technology


Education is recognized as a fundamental human right (UNESCO, 2014).  The world’s indigenous populations are among some of the most vulnerable, and none more so than indigenous children. According to the United Nations (2016a), “the right to education has not been fully realized for most indigenous peoples, and a critical education gap exists between indigenous peoples and the general population” (p.1). Educating the children of indigenous peoples raises challenges of language, culture, and access (Castagno & McKinley Jones Brayboy, 2008). There have been a number of studies conducted to examine education issues facing the indigenous peoples of various regions of the world (Bishop, Ladwig, & Berryman, 2014; Castagno & McKinley Jones Brayboy 2008).

One of the major barriers to the education of indigenous peoples is that most formal education is conducted in either the language of the nation, or an imposed language, such as English (Khan, Hasan, & Clement, 2012). These practices serve to further marginalize indigenous peoples (International Working group for Indigenous Affairs, 2016). This language barrier is further exacerbated by the fact that many indigenous languages either have no written component, or have high rates of illiteracy (United Nations, 2009). In addition to multiple efforts to preserve indigenous languages around the world, and to create written version of oral languages, technology offers the opportunity to bridge this language gap in multiple ways (Adam, 2007; Kim, Miranda, & Olaciregui, 2008).

Mobile devices can provide information and communication technology (ICT) to developed and remote regions alike, while emerging technologies such as text-to-speech can help to overcome literacy disadvantages that would otherwise prevent the dissemination of knowledge. The growth in open educational resources (OER) promise to make low- or no-cost materials available for use and customization anywhere in the world. Efforts to create a universal system to accommodate the world’s languages with a unified coding system will continue to advance the capabilities of these technologies  (Friesen, 2013).

Quality education is vital to the health and development of all of the world’s peoples, and is highlighted as one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (United Nations, 2016b). In order to achieve these goals, education must be accessible to populations, regardless of their language and literacy levels. Educational technology and ICT infrastructure can help to deliver knowledge to the world’s indigenous peoples, who would otherwise be marginalized by the isolation of geography or the exclusion of more traditional educational models. This paper will explore some of the technologies and practices available, as well as current and past efforts to apply these technologies in similar circumstances.


Indigenous Peoples

According to statistics from the United Nations (2009), indigenous peoples from around the world face higher rates of dropping out, less years of schooling completed, and are more likely to work at a young age. All of these factors lead to an increased likelihood of living in poverty and poor health outcomes. Improving education is one way in which the cycle of poverty and lower quality of life can be mitigated. Unfortunately, for many indigenous peoples, they have been marginalized by society, and in many cases are isolated geographically as well. These issues are further exacerbated by high rates of illiteracy and a lack of educational materials that are produced in indigenous languages, some of which do not include a written component.The majority of the research discussed in this paper focuses on school-aged, children who are members of indigenous groups in Australia and the Americas. However, the technologies and practices discussed here could also be applied to adults and lifelong learning.


Technology for Learning

There is no question that technology has and will continue to have an impact on education. However, for many of the world’s indigenous populations, there are challenges involved in bringing that technology to the children. These barriers include cost, infrastructure, and social and cultural issues. Armenta, Serrano, Cabrera, and Conte (2012) proposed a framework for creating the best opportunities for technology adoption to be successful in these remote and rural regions. Among the factors highlighted by Armenta et al. (2012) are the need to consider socioeconomic status, a careful assessment of the needs of the population, and the development of implementation and training programs in the communities being served. Additionally, Khan, Hasan, and Clement (2012) point out that vision and planning at the government and school levels are important to the success of efforts to implement educational technologies in underserved populations. They further highlight the need to assess cultural barriers, such as perceived gender roles, and the importance of addressing these issues in planning for implementation of educational technology. Without these considerations, even if the technology is available, it may not yield the desired results.

There is no simple solution to the issues facing the indigenous peoples of the world with regard to education, and circumstances in different regions may prevent initiatives from being broadly generalized to all regions. However, there are several technologies that, in some combination, have the potential to reduce some of the most common barriers to access.


Mobile learning

Armenta et al. (2012) pointed out that many of the world’s most less-privileged populations live in remote or rural areas, where broadband, Internet, and computers have not penetrated to the extent that they have in more urban areas. However, the proliferation and increasing capabilities of mobile devices have the potential to bridge some of that technology divide (Armenta et al., 2012).  Pearce and Rice (2013) studied Internet usage among individuals with access to mobile devices and personal computers, and found that mobile devices were more likely to be used by individuals of lower socioeconomic status and education. The authors point out that while these devices have limitations, the fact that these underserved populations use the devices in large numbers suggests that they may offer opportunities for narrowing the digital divide. Is this because mobile devices are easier to use/access?  Would this section flow better if you followed this paragraph with your “Iqbal and Qureshi (2012)…” paragraph where it addresses this issue? The United Nations (2015) points out that the availability of content accessible on mobile devices represents a significant opportunity for teachers and students to access educational content that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Mobile devices also offer opportunities for teachers and students in isolated regions or communities to interact with others and form personal learning networks (United Nations, 2015).

Iqbal and Qureshi (2012) examined the adoption of mobile devices for learning among university students in Pakistan. While this study did not focus on indigenous or isolated populations, the purpose of the study was to identify factors that influence adoption for mobile learning in developing countries. Many of the factors investigated, and the barriers identified, would also apply to many of the world’s indigenous peoples. One of the key factors that had a positive effect on adoption was ease of use. This would certainly be important in indigenous populations, who may have had little or no prior experience with mobile or other computing technologies. It is also important in cases where children face literacy challenges. Kim’s (2009) work also supports the importance of devices that are easy to use, and this is noteworthy for both device and instructional designers. Another area that was found to be important to adopting mobile technologies for learning was the perceived support structure that was in place (Iqbal & Qureshi, 2012). This structure ranges from factors such as connectivity and bandwidth to the availability of technical support. These facilitating conditions will represent a significant challenge in cases where the indigenous population is geographically isolated.

A number of studies have examined the benefits of mobile devices on learning and literacy (Iqbal & Qureshi, 2012; Kim, 2009). In Latin America the introduction of mobile devices for learning resulted in increased literacy rates (Kim, 2009). The study demonstrated that a simple mobile device, loaded with literacy content, could be used by children in even the most remote villages. Further, since many of the children’s parents were themselves illiterate, and the children did not have access to formal schooling, these simple devices provided access to learning opportunities that would not have been possible otherwise. It is worth noting that these studies were conducted prior to the widespread availability of smartphones, and other more robust handheld computing devices. There are far more options for learning content available with these more sophisticated portable devices. A study by Vazquez-Cano (2014) showed that smartphones and subject-specific applications are perceived as being useful by students. The author noted that there are a number of tools that allow instructors to create specific applications that are tailored to their own courses. This would be particularly useful in settings with indigenous peoples, where the ability to create customized applications would allow educators to offer content that is relevant to specific populations (Vazquez-Cano, 2014).


Text-to-Speech and Speech Recognition

Many indigenous languages can be classified as under-resourced, or low-resourced (Kumar et al., 2010; Somers, 2005). This means that the existing bodies of data and examples of sound for these languages are either scarce or nonexistent. As text-to-speech technologies advance and are enhanced by artificial intelligence, these resources may develop the ability to perform translations based on recordings of native speakers (Somers, 2005). In cases where students are illiterate, or in which the indigenous language has no written component, the use of text-to-speech technology could help to bridge the gap between quality education and indigenous peoples. Mobile devices equipped with text-to-speech and containing a library of printed material would allow children to make connections between the spoken word and the text on the device.

Burnett (2010) conducted a review of the literature on the application of technology to improve literature for children between the ages of 0 and 8 years. While there were a wide range of methodologies and measures found in the review, one relevant aspect discussed was a study that used digital text to record and playback stories told by indigenous peoples in their own languages (Auld, 2007). These stories could then be experienced by children in their homes, and this concept could be applied to the development of literacy skills for indigenous children.

A study by Kumar et al. (2010) demonstrated that speech recognition software has the potential to improve literacy skill for children who would not otherwise have access to literacy training. These technologies can also be designed to work in cases where there is not an existing database of language syntax and pronunciation, which is critical in the case of many indigenous languages. By using speech recognition, rather than relying on the user to read text or grasp the meanings of icons on the screen, these technologies eliminate the need for users to be literate when they start using the devices. In the case of Kumar et al. (2010), the authors tested the effectiveness of literacy games in improving children’s ability to learn a new language and to read text on the screen. Similar games could create opportunities for indigenous children to gain literacy skills, both in their own language, and potentially in a second language. In either case, the application of speech recognition technology would provide greater access to education and learning opportunities.


Open Educational Resources

Another emerging technology with the potential of improving indigenous peoples’ access to education is the growing repository of open educational resources (OER). According to Geith and Vignare (2008), two of the key components of OER are accessibility and adaptability. While accessibility includes the logistical ability to access the information, the component of accessibility that makes OER important to education in disadvantaged parts of the world is that the resources are available without legal or financial barriers (Geith & Vignare, 2008). Having content that is freely available eliminates the cost of purchasing rights to educational materials. Reusing this content also eliminates any cost of developing the content locally. The other key factor that makes OER important to this effort is its adaptability. The OER content may be altered and adapted to meet the needs of the local users, including, but not limited to altering the language used in the materials. The ability to adapt the materials also means that content relevant to specific groups of indigenous peoples may be added or inserted without the need to secure permissions or create entirely new materials.



According to a report by the United Nations (2015) the Internet currently represents only 5% of the world’s languages. Everything from website content to domain names and uniform resource locators (URLs) are dominated by the Latin alphabet and Western languages. This means that a vast majority of the world’s population does not have access to the content and information on the Internet. The Unicode Consortium is an organization that is working to enable computers and computing technology to be used by anyone in any language in the world (Unicode Consortium, 2016). The focus of the effort is to create a single code set that incorporates all characters for every written language in the world. This allows for applications to be designed once, and have the text translated into any of the world’s languages by manipulation of the code sets, rather than writing separate versions of the code for each language. The project includes characters sets the use versions of the Latin alphabet, as well as pictographic languages, as well as punctuation, diacritic marks, and other special characters (Unicode Consortium, 2016).

With the continuing growth of the Unicode data sets, there are opportunities for developers to localize educational content in indigenous languages. These applications can be combined with OER to create low-cost content that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world. If these technologies can be further combined with text-to-speech technologies, then even those populations without a written language component could benefit from the educational materials available to them. The standardization of tools such as Unicode makes the creation and distribution of such materials much more feasible.



Access to quality education is one of the most powerful tools against the challenges faced by the world’s most vulnerable populations. The United Nations declares education is a human right, and places such an emphasis on this effort that it is one of the major components of the UN’s long-term goals for sustainability (United Nations, 2016b). The social and physical isolation of many indigenous peoples, combined with the lack of cultural competency in many traditional education models makes quality education difficult for indigenous peoples to access. Even in cases where the children have physical access to schools, language and literacy issues prevent them from receiving the full benefits of education.

In this paper, several potential technologies to reduce barriers to access have been outlined. There is evidence that these technologies have the ability to succeed in improving literacy and learning for indigenous peoples.  Mobile learning offers the promise of access to more than 90% of the world’s population (United Nations, 2015). Text-to-speech technology can be applied to improving literacy and making content available to populations who do not have a written language. More recent developments, such as open educational resources, have the potential to improve access by offering low-cost, freely adaptable resources to indigenous peoples.

Initiatives such as Unicode can allow for translation of resources into local languages by layering code on top of the original languages used. However, Unicode relies on written language, and so would need additional technology to be effective for populations that do not have a written language. In the future, virtual reality technologies could provide a common space for isolated groups of indigenous peoples to meet and interact, and could present opportunities for cultural exchange between indigenous peoples and people anywhere in the world. These technologies can be combined to produce a powerful network of learning that is available to all peoples of the world, in their native languages, regardless of their physical location or direct access to instruction.



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