Longitudinal Case Study

A Case Study of a Rural Alaskan Online Social-Educational Portal:
Combining 21st Century Learning and Traditional Native Ways of Knowing

1.     Introduction

2.     Literature Review

3.     Methods

4.     Findings

5.     Discussion and Conclusion


This case study examines the start-up phase and the first year of operation of how a rural Alaska school district created a dynamic Web-based social and educational portal (see Figure 1).  This portal, named “Connecting Our People,” was designed as a multifunctional, virtual learning community where educators can collaborate on curriculum development, communicate with students in a variety of ways both synchronously and asynchronously. This portal gives students the ability to share knowledge and ideas with each other.  “Connecting Our People” serves as a digital bridge between schools, connecting students and teachers in isolated villages.

Connecting our people web portal
Connecting Our People

Figure 1: Connecting Our People banner

A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy.  It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members among them the need to need one another (Berry, 2003, p. 63).

This school district, located in the expansive Northeastern region of Alaska, consists of seven K-12 schools located in 54,000 square miles of territory.  This one school district is larger than 23 of the 50 states in America and is the approximate size of the State of New York (http://enchantedlearning.com/usa/states/area.shtml).  The total student enrollment for the district is 273 and, respectively, in the seven individual schools was 12, 15, 22, 24, 27, 58 and 115 (AY 2011-2012 figures).  Geographically, 60 to 100 miles separates the individual schools with the greatest distance between two schools being 250 miles (Personal Communication, 2012).  The school communities have a strong cultural base in subsistence activities and traditions connected to their elders and Native languages.

Bonds among people, and between people and place, run deep in small rural communities.  In rural Alaska, their bonds are intensified by dynamic cultural, climatic, and geographic features that can make life both rewarding and challenging at times (Barnhardt, R. & Kushman, J.W., 2001, p.12).

The population this school district serves is primarily Gwich’in Athabascan.  The Gwitch’in language is endangered of extinction with only 800 Native speakers worldwide (http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/2441).

1.1.   Purpose of the Study

In this exploratory and naturalistic research we examine the use of collaborative online technologies that have been implemented for synchronous and asynchronous communications between and within schools in arguably the most technologically challenging and vast geographic location in North America.

This research has three interrelated purposes.  The first is to understand how educators used the Connecting Our People Portal to create content, exchange ideas, and share resources.  The second is to identify learning challenges that arise when creating an educational portal that allows students, teachers, and administrators to communicate, learn collaboratively, and assist in the sharing of Native Alaskan knowledge and traditions.  The third purpose is to stimulate research on the use of Web-based portals as a viable learning and community strengthening tool.

1.2.    Design 

Connecting Our People was initially designed over a six week period in the summer of 2011.  It has three central capacities.  The first capacity is an open source social platform called JomSocial.  This provides synchronous chat, status updates, shared photos, and video.  Similar to the more ubiquitous Facebook design, JomSocial provides a safe environment without advertisements and invasive third-party influences which seek to monetize through the collection of proprietary demographic data.  The free flow and exchange of ideas promotes the collective and cohesive commonality shared by members in the school district.

The second capacity is the Discussion Forums component, a place for creating asynchronous dialogue, group communication, posting of ideas, work, and cultural resources.  An example of a shared cultural resource is a student submission titled “How to set your Beaver Trap.”

The third capacity is the Moodle Course Management System (CMS or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for course development.  Moodle, an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, is an open source, structured interface used by thousands worldwide to provide a virtual classroom.  Students can, for example, take online quizzes, work on assignments, and see a calendar of events.  

The content management system, Moodle (Multiple Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), (see Moodle.org) and the social networking platform are supported by a Structured Query Language (SQL) database.  Groups at each school are arranged by class, grade, age, subject, and activity and can be shared with other schools in the district for collaborative learning on a similar topic.

The “Activity Stream” highlights recent additions to the portal across all schools.  This includes public discussions (private discussions are an option too), and the sharing of content such as photos, videos, and lessons.  Learners have the option of adding “friends” and sending instant messages (IM’s) across schools as well as sharing upcoming events on a collective district wide calendar.

Historically, there has been limited parental and community support of schools in rural Alaska for numerous reasons.  The strained relationship between Native Alaskans and schools resides in a complex set of factors - - cultural, social, political and economic, all  growing from the Alaska Native experiences since contact with European (Alaska Natives Commission, 2006; Barnhardt, R., & Kushman, J.W., 2001).

The three design elements of Connecting our People; (1) JomSocial a collective and cohesive social platform, (2) a discussion forums component, and (3) a Moodle Course Management System (CMS) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This structure offers new and dynamic possibilities for collaboration, communication, and construction of knowledge beyond the traditional school day.

Literature Review

There is limited research on how complex and dynamic social networks can be used by rural educators and students separated geographically but sharing common values, beliefs, and culture. The review of literature review is organized around online learning communities and collaboration enriched through emerging technology.

 2.1     Online Learning Communities

While e-Learning has been historically asynchronous, the shift to incorporate Web 2.0 technologies (blogs, wikis, chat, video conferencing, etc.) has led to vibrant online communities where collaboration thrives and validates tacit knowledge.  Structuring communication to flow synchronously and asynchronously provides a multi-modal means for interaction, collaboration, project-based learning, problem-based learning, adventure learning and fosters a climate of teamwork when appropriately structured (Brown & Adler, 2008).

2.2     Collaboration Enriched Through Technology

Research relating to collaboration through technology has focused on cohort projects which have beginning and endings such as summer institutes that offer participants several weeks of intensive training (see e.g., Chen, Benton, Cjecatelli, & Yee (2004).  Research focusing on specific grades such as elementary schools (Koch & Burghardt, 2002) or high schools (Hill & Smith, 1998) was located but there was little research on an entire school district’s use of a social-educational-informational network.

In addition, online learning communities are being designed to enhance the quality of learning experiences and outcomes.  One common theme in the literature is that learning a complex body of knowledge effectively requires a community of learners (Garrison, 2007; Perry & Edwards, 2005; 2006; Riel & Polin, 2004; Schwen & Hara 2004) that can use the technologies to interact, learn, and dialogue in a variety of formats.  Online communities can take many forms, from structured courses in higher and continuing education to informal ad hoc communities mobilized for a particular cause.  Siemens (2004) provided a broad definition: “A community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together” (para 23).  The diffusion of the online community has been supported through the use of emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) which allow for a variety of synchronous and asynchronous mediums for interaction (e.g., forums, blogs, chats, Skype conferencing).

Jonassen, Lee, Yang, and Laffey (2005) found that collaborative structures promote the transfer of knowledge and problem solving when clear procedures and accountability factor into the guidance for learning with clear objectives.  They stated “More is unknown about the practice than is known…it’s one of the pivotal research issues of the next decade” (p.264).  Similarly, Clark and Mayer (2008) noted “We do have evidence that under optimal conditions, learning collaboratively can result in better outcomes than learning alone” (p.283).  Brown and Adler (2008) made an important paradigm shift and distinction between education in the past and today.  There has been an evolution from “I think, therefore I am” to “We participate, therefore, we are.”

The emphasis on social learning stands in sharp contrast to the traditional Cartesian view that knowledge and learning…the {new} perspective shifts the focus of our attention from the content of a subject to the learning activities and human interactions around which that content is situated (p.18).

Recent advances in social-educational, community oriented building has resulted in some creative approaches.  Taylor and Cheverst (2010) examined how an electronic photo displayed in a rural community led to an interactive and participatory social dynamic that supplemented, rather than replaced existing community activities.  Using participatory techniques such as iterative design and co-design through various probes and prototypes that emphasized community involvement and redesign, allowed for modifications that addressed the concerns of adopting this technology and increased the overall trust, enthusiasm, and interaction from the local participants.  “Our approach of utilizing long-term, functional prototypes deployments as a focal point of an iterative cycle of observing, discussing, and deploying has proved successful in generating meaningful feedback”(p.226).  The importance of understanding the social context and establishing trust cannot be overemphasized.

In the insightful compilation entitled “Emerging Technologies in Distance Education” Anderson, (2010) examined the factors for successful online communities which necessitate a “genuine, appropriate, authentic, interaction that results in substantive discussion, debate.  Furthermore, social learning, both formally and informally, has widespread implications for all levels of education.”  Anderson (2010) noted: “The recent emergence of social software sites affords learners the opportunity to seek and share questions, understandings, and resources, thus creating learner-organized tutoring and support communities” (p.30).  Garrison (2007) provided a thoughtful and extensive review of the online community of inquiry dynamic Likewise, Perry and Edwards (2009) examined this social learning through technology and the interactive dynamic in a class setting, and they have coined the phrase “culture of community.” They have also explored the development and facilitation of online communities of inquiry in various venues (e.g. Perry & Edwards, 2005, 2006).

The theory of Connectivism (Siemens, 2004) recognizes the influences that emerging technologies have on human cognition, and theorizes that technology is reshaping the ways that humans create, store, and distribute knowledge.  Learning and knowledge rest in diversity.  Dynamic learning is a process of connecting “specialized nodes” (people, groups, ideas, information, and digital interfaces).  This is the “substantive” content noted by Anderson (2010).

Siemens (2005, para 25) offered the following guiding principles of Connectivism which provides a theoretical framework for this project (Table 1). .

Table 1

Principles of Connectivism 

·       Learning and knowledge rests in the diversity of opinions
·       Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
·       Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
·       Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
·       Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
·       Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
·       Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all Connectivist learning activities.

These principles of Connectivism reposition decision-making and learning.

Decision-making itself is a learning process.  Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.  While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision (Siemens, 2005, para 24).

Participation, involvement, and substantive content are all key factors for strengthening and sustaining any community of learners.  This is especially true in a virtual community separated by vast space.  The next section provides the methods used in gaining insight into the research questions.


A naturalistic, qualitative case study methodology was employed for this research.  It is the preferred strategy when a commemoratory phenomenon is being studied in a real-life context (Yin, 2002).  Robert Stake (1995) noted that a qualitative case study design provides the researchers with the opportunity to examine both complexity and contextuality of the subject (i.e.  rural social context, cultural dynamics).The constant-comparative analyses of the data came from six sources: interviews, emails, social posts), documents, learning objects posted in topics forum sections of the portal, and posting counts (analytics) from the hosting web site.  Through multiple reading, initial patterns, insights, and ideas emerged.  These were validated through the triangulation of the data. Triangulation and member checks were employed to guard against subjective bias and to provide a robust analysis of the data.

There are limitations to any case study qualitative research design.  One is that it will be difficult to generalize the findings to other educational settings given the unique social context.  The second concern is subjectivity.  In a qualitative study the researcher becomes the “instrument” who “collects sorts and analyses and interprets” data (Winograd, 1990, p. 12).  Even with these limitations, case studies have a history of making important contributions to the field of education (Stake, 1995).


The results are organized from the student and teacher activity in 3 distinct ways: as an electronic bulletin board, as learning forums, and as a social network.

4.1     Electronic Bulletin Board

The school district has posted its monthly school district newsletter on the Connecting Our People portal.  This posting represents a repositioning of a traditional media document in an electronic forum.  The newsletter did not use any of the built in interactive capacities of portal design.  The newsletter had only 4 viewings and has implications related to the “push” and “pull” of communication technologies.  Instead of a one-dimensional “push” of communication via email, and more interactive and multi-directional network of communication was conceived. This limited viewing raises several questions.  What percentages of participants have home Internet access?  To what extent was the availability of an electronic version of the newsletter publicized?   Is the low viewing a reflection of awareness, access, or a lack of perceived value in the information being provided to students, parents, community members, and village elders?

4.2    Learning Forums

The Learning Forums were designed to focus on two goals, (1) create a place where teachers can collaborate on curriculum development, and (2) create a digital bridge between schools connecting students in isolated villages with other students of their grade level.  Nine discussion sections were created in the Learning Forum Section.  These sections (e.g., Mathematics) were divided into categories (e.g., General Math Discussion.   The categories were then divided in topic areas (e.g., grades K-2, 3-5).  Participants’ submitted 71 contributions to the learning forums (see Appendix 1 and 2).  The technology enabled participants to respond to the postings with feedback (messages).  During the first year of Connecting Our People, 131 messages were generated.  The average response to postings was 2.4 messages.  The vision of having teachers and students robustly respond to postings in the Learning Form was not strongly encouraged.

The district scheduled two half-day training opportunities for teachers and administrators.  It did not provide any time for community member training.  The need to create ongoing learning opportunities for students and adults to support moving new knowledge into new behavior is not a new idea for educators.  This limited use raises several questions.  What were the central office underlying assumptions about staff development that lead to their decision not to create ongoing training opportunities for staff during the first year of Connecting Our People portal?  Does the limited use of learning forums reflect a classic slow adoption rate at the start of innovation adoption curve?  What learning support structures would increase the participation in the learning forums? These are areas for future research.

4.3    Social Network

JomSocial is the social network component of the Connecting Our People portal.  After one year JomSocial has a total of 1,550 entries.  It is designed and patterned after Facebook.  Participants share thoughts, photos, links, and provide feedback with a “like” button.  This portal component was actively used, and provided students and teachers a contained community network that is safe from intrusive ads and nonaffiliated patrons.   The disparity of usage between the learning forums (71) and the social network (1,150) raises some interesting question. Was this disparity and indication of students’ uncertainty or self-efficacy of using technology oriented purpose? The second iteration of the Connecting Our People will seamlessly connect to Learning Forum through JomSocial. This addition will increase capacity through an interface which promotes ease of navigation and should increase the overall interaction between participants.

Discussion and Conclusions

What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously.  But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.  (Vonnegut, 1974)

The goal of the Connecting Our People portal was to create a virtual place where teachers could collaborate on curriculum development, create a digital bridge between schools connecting students in isolated villages with other students of their grade level, and create access to coursesfrom the District’s Language Learning Institute.  Movement toward the goals of curriculum collaboration and creating a digital bridge for students in common grade levels was like the movement of a glacier – extremely slow.  The goal to create community access to the Language Learning Institute courses never occurred because of technical issues.

Three learning challenges are drawn from this case study.  The first learning theme is the challenge of translating an educational vision into a technical hardware solution.  The Director of Curriculum and Instruction, who was leading this effort, came to the design discussions with a firmly held belief that Moodle platform was the solution.  The requirement to use Moodle limited the robustness of the design solution and increased the complexity for participants to use the portal.  Technologists can understand the capacity of software on a level that many educators or administrators do not grasp.  Educators hold wisdom about learning that programmers do not possess.  How does one facilitate robust and productive design dialogues for social education web portals, when educators and technologists hold knowledge that is not known to each other?  The second year of the portal will provide an opportunity for redesign strategies to promote a mindset of local ownership (Taylor & Chevest, 2010).

The second learning theme is the challenge of building the capacity of participants to use a dynamic social learning service portal.  One of the assumptions that proved costly was the belief that students (digital natives) could passionately transfer their personal technology skills to a school district learning initiative.  What factors do or do not contribute to transfer of personal student technological expertise to an institutional district learning initiative? This is an area for future research.

The third learning theme is the journey of innovation: the creation of a new initiative that seeks to create a learning partnership between western technology and “Native Ways of Knowing”.  The vision of creating a social learning service that fosters communication, collaborative learning, andthe sharing of traditional knowledge and traditions, is now a reality.  After one year in operation, Connecting Our People is at the birthing stage, with potential as large as the district’s geographic size -- 54,000 square miles.  The seeds of its potential are slowly growing.  The portal’s limited use should not overshadow the value of its emerging holdings:How to Set Your Beaver Trap; My First Caribou; The Life of a Bush Teacher; and Jacob’s Artic Village Tour made using GPS, The Digital Camera, and Google Earth.  Sustained careful observation, patience, and sustained deep learning are values that help sustain living in the harsh conditions of the bush villages in Alaska.  These native Alaskan values of on-going careful observation, patience, and deep learning will become assessment lenses for this social-educational portal in future years.

This cross-village sharing of knowledge and ideas in the form of curricula, photos, videos, instant messages, blog posts, discussion forum posts, status updates, and writing by students about informal and formal learning experiences has begun to increase the meaning and significance of students’ sense identity and removing their sense of isolation.  These are new literacies for any culture in the Digital Age.   Accessing, aggregating, constructing, organizing, and sharing this knowledge has changed the rural learning landscape through modern information and communication technologies.  The flow and context of the learning is not meant to replace the traditional “Talking Circles” but to embrace them with greater frequency through digital collaboration that supports the wisdom of the past and a cultural heritage that deepens the notion of knowledge, the values, and customs.  Senge (1990) argues “learning organizations are where people continually expand their capacity to create results they truly desire” (p.3).  This has been a centuries old mission of each village.  Native Alaskans have not only survived but excelled in adapting to the harsh climate and conditions of the Arctic.  The numerous forms of intelligence evident in this lifestyle now have even greater potential to be shared as the transfer of knowledge transcends rural living and becomes more distributed in various dynamic digital formats.

The web-based community of practice has also resulted in structural and functional changes in an e-Learning environment which now has the essential infrastructure for greater interactivity and engagement between students and faculty.  By building the social-educational infrastructure that promotes a safe and supportive environment, the enhanced peer-to-peer interaction broadens the overall knowledge base because it transcends the barrier of isolation.  Creating systems such as the Connecting Our People community of practice enriches not only the learning environment but, through the interactive connectivity, has substantial and meaningful implications for the identity of each participating individual.  Kozol argues:

. . . we have to find the courage to bring radical options into the consciousness of children—options which our supervisors, principals and school boards seldom have even dreamed about in years gone by and cannot be expected to approve (Kozol, 1981, p.86).

The Yukon Flats School District Director of Curriculum and Instruction expanded on the social context and rationale for this online community of learners:

"The importance in fulfilling the high aims I [Director of Instruction and Curriculum] have established for the endeavor is emerging and showing signs of affect in the lives of our students.  This natural "window" between Village sites, as though they are just reaching to someone in the next room and conversing as a natural extension of their desire to share 'who they are and receive input, is having a subtle influence upon their burgeoning identities and truly causing the effect of the removing of the sense of isolation, the latter such a wall forcing the unwarranted retreat of identity back within itself for lack of responsiveness from the greater realm of the region of their people, that, leading to a kind of frustration to how they see themselves, because isolation is so limiting (sic).

Diversities of personalities are more open to them, now, to find a kindred spirit, and thus the joy of a new kind of friendship.  Sharing of positive endeavors they are doing in school, across schools, efforts like that directed by Teachers, is a more overt, but equally important part of the vision, which will go hand-in-hand with the more subtle aspects I have mentioned.  Hopefully, this will flower as well in this way for our Teachers as they too begin to experience through the Web Portal a removing of their sense of isolation to their work and efforts"  (Personal Communication, 2011).

These comments from the Director of Curriculum and Instruction speak to the growing sense of student and teacher and empowerment as the remote rural school district becomes more connected through the Connecting our People portal.  The scope and profoundness of this journey from isolation to connectedness is captured in the words of Davis & Freire (1981).

Education for freedom implies constantly, permanently, the exercise consciousness turning in on itself to discover itself in the relationships with the world, trying to explain the reasons which can make clear the concrete situation people have in the world (p.59).

  5.1     Future Research

This research provides a baseline to capture the beginnings of a collaborative online community to engage and inspire students, teachers, and central office to communicate  learn collaboratively, and share Native knowledge and traditions across the physical limitations of the arctic tundra and mountains.  The learning journey for Connecting Our People has just begun.  Deeper understandings of this rural online social-educational portal will come from future research that examines the accumulative and growing history of new data.

Future research questions for study might include:

1.    What planned district strategies are most effective in increasing participation in the network?

2.     What impact if any, would an increase in teacher collaboration through a web portal have on student achievement in rural school districts in Alaska?

3.   How does one facilitate robust and productive design dialogues for social education web portals, when educators and technologists hold knowledge that is not known to each other?

4.     What factors do or do not contribute to transfer of personal student technological expertise to an institutional district learning initiative?

5.     What were the Central Office underlying assumptions about staff development that lead to their decision not to create ongoing training opportunities for staff during the first year of Connecting our People portal?

About the Authors

Dr. Micah Fierstein is an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership Studies at West Virginia University. He has been helping transform the learning cultures of schools and classrooms for 37 years.  He founded the Change Institute in 1994 to provide educators coaching and access to leading edge organizational learning tools. Micah is a contributor to: Schools that Learn: Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education.  He has presented at national and international conferences such as the Society of Organizatonal Learning's Global Forum in Austria and Finland, The National Council on Staff Development, The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, The International Systems Dynamics Society and The Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership.  Micah’s background includes elementary school teaching, elementary and secondary administration, and University teaching.

Email: Micah {dot} fierstein {at} mail {dot} wvu {dot} edu

Website: http://cils.wvu.edu/home/faculty_staff

G. Andrew Page holds a doctorate in Adult Education with cognate minors in Research Methods and Instructional Technology from the University of Georgia. He has been working in education for the past 23 years promoting and sustaining effective educational improvement via e-Learning and leadership which has helped him to develop expertise in leading edge change through the transformational use of emerging technologies in physical and virtual learning communities.  Research interests include the diffusion of emerging, augmented, mobile, virtual, and assistive technologies especially to rural and disenfranchised populations and leveraging technology as a cognitive tool for empowering learners through Open Source content. He is currently a partner with the technology-start-up, Dionysius Technologies which builds and supports social-educational networks for school districts, higher education, and nonprofits.

Email: andy {at} gandrewpage. {dot} net


We would like to thank Tim Stathis the former Director of Instruction and Curriculum for his inspiring vision to educate.  We would also like to thank Seth Schumacher for his technological expertise on this project.


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Appendix 1

Connecting Our People Usage Statistics – First 11 Months

Discussion Sections


Topic Areas

Number of Topics

Example of Topics

Student/Teacher Discussion Area

Teacher Practice:



“Jack” a poem about dog, A photo montage of an administrator’s children, Spring break with trap line with dad., A day in the life of a bush teacher


Class to Class



Winds in the Forest: student writing assignments on hunting


How to set your beaver trap, My first caribou.


Words on the Wind: student writing  assignments


Water droplet story, Winter ponies, Drive to Central, My sonnet


Two Roads Diverged: visual tours of their villages using GPS, digital camera and Google Earth.


Google Earth Tour of Arctic Village, Netts’aii Gwindaii


Educational Opportunities




Buy Sell Trade Free




Hobby Discussion



Cold Snow,





Fantastic Trapping Resource


GPS Map Files to Share


Topo for GE

Appendix 2

Connecting Our People Usage Statistics (First 11 months)

Discussion Sections


Topic Areas

Number of Topics

Example of Topics

Social Studies

Social Studies

Social Studies General


Social studies government standards,

Sample US Government Curriculum.

Alaska social studies Framework


General Language Discussion



Gwich’in Spelling Bee– Words to Study





Languages Arts


Grades K-2



Grades 3-5



Grades 6-8


Two old women- novel activities


Grades 9-12




General Math Discussion

Grades K-2



Grades 3-5



Grades 6-8



Grades 9-12




General Science Discussion



Summer Opportunity for Professional Development, Key Science Vocabulary, Assessment Resources for Properties of Matter


Integrated Science

Grades K-2


Aquatic Puzzles Missing from Lesson,

Too Many Lessons for Biodiversity


Grades 3-5


Teaching 3-5 Life Science, This Year’s Life Science Lessons.

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