Teaching Computer Science at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana

Published on September 27th, 2019

Written by Tara Hite, instructor of computing and information technology at Blackfeet Community College.

In August 2018 I started a full-time position at Blackfeet Community College (BCC) in Browning, Montana as the computer science and information technology instructor. Upon starting this role, it was made very clear to me that the computer science program was to be laid to rest by the time of graduation. I was hired to finish teaching the current IT students and ensure they could take courses they needed to graduate. The courses covered a mix of higher level IT topics and included base level 101, or Intro to Computers.  

When the term started I found some BCC students struggling with skills such as typing, reading and writing. Asking students to check their email, or log into the college’s classroom portal seemed to mystify some of the students.  Seeing them struggle with basic computer operations concerned me greatly and shook me to my core. As their instructor I found myself trying to cram as much as possible into each session. I wanted these students to enter the work place with strong skills, knowledge, and confidence. I wanted to know when they walked out the door the computerized world would not swallow them whole. 

Throughout my first year at BCC I also had the pleasure of teaching computer literacy to a class of about 10-15 community elders, depending on the weather. We started with typing, and I tried to get them comfortable logging onto the computer and internet. I found that asking them to sit still and be quiet so they could focus was the hardest thing about teaching that class. They all loved to visit with one another; there was much laughter in the room during this class. While we could have possibly covered more material, just getting elders feeling comfortable in a room filled with computers was a crucial step.

This is a picture of the class of elders I taught at BCC. Photo by Author.

Another enjoyable aspect of this class was the “ding of completion.” Whenever a student would complete or achieve a goal in the software program it would send off a congratulatory sound that everyone in the room could hear. When my students would get discouraged I would remind them of all the sounds we heard, and the progress they’ve made.

 

Class of elders at BCC. Photo by Author.

The second half of the class focused on operating the computer, key terms, hardware, online safety, and email practices and etiquette. Of all the students I have had the opportunity to teach over the years I would have to say this group of elders was by far my favorite. Their commitment to learning IT and getting through the material was inspiring and impressive. 

Through these two semesters at BCC I’ve found that I love teaching computing, talking, and trying to connect with the students in an impactful way. It is rewarding to know that I played some role in their newfound confidence and knowledge of the computer and its functions.

As the year progressed the need for further computer literacy among some of the students and community members became clear. Many students and staff felt baffled to hear that BCC’s computer science program was being shut down. They fear the Blackfeet reservation will be left in the technology dust and that the world will move on without them. 

Now, months later, I’m realizing that the elimination of the computer science degree at BCC is still very hard for me to understand. Even though my time as an instructor was brief, it felt deeply meaningful to me and I still treasure that experience. With a renewed outlook and recent opportunities I have come to realize that the closure of the computer science program at BCC doesn’t have to mean the end of computer literacy or computer-related education for Blackfeet communities.

Working at BCC resulted in a “right place, right time” situation for me. During the past few months I have had the opportunity to partner with a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a project concerning network sovereignty for the Blackfeet tribe. The project explores the Blackfeet tribe’s principles and actions for governing and controlling internet access and authorizing service providers in their territorial boundaries. It also considers the extent to which Blackfeet community members feel informed about, empowered by, or ownership over internet infrastructure on their lands.

Working on this project during the summer months has provided me with opportunities to visit the smaller surrounding communities of the reservation, such as Babb or Heart Butte, and to meet with and interview individuals who live there. Through these interviews I learned that most tribal members I spoke with have regular access to major utilities such as electricity, water, sewer, and heat. Most also have internet access, which was good to find out. The one recurring drawback that most informants mentioned is the relatively high price of internet services given the slow data speeds provided to them. They found this to be very unfair when they compared it to the average internet speed and price of other larger non-reservation communities around the state of Montana.

Beyond the issue of internet services, I questioned informants about their use of social media platforms. I found that people mainly use social media for connecting with friends and family. Facebook has become a staple in the community, and is used by everyone for everything from hocking wood, to circulating news and public service announcements for reservation communities to posting job openings. In June 2019 BCC and MIT worked together to hold two public forums on social media use in the Blackfeet community and heard community members bring up a plethora of concerns ranging from high internet costs to cyber-bulling (see Alan Zhang’s blog post). 

Though our research on networks sovereignty is still ongoing, the interviews I conducted this summer revealed two topics of concern that recurred the most. The first is price: people feel taken advantage of based on how much they pay for internet services. They perceive the quality to be poor and slow, which adversely impacts peoples’ feelings of connectedness. The second is interest in using Facebook as a common tool for not only staying in touch with friends and family but also for self- promotion and to enable newsfeeds of local events and happenings. Informants indicated they don’t want to be left behind in an ever changing digital society. 

Coming full circle, when conducting these interviews I became aware that most of the people I interviewed didn’t even realize that BCC used to have a computer science degree and computer literacy classes. Given the interest they expressed in these issues, I hope to help be a driving force for bringing back computing education opportunities in the Blackfeet community. I will continue to make efforts so that future students, young and old, have a chance to learn about computing technologies in the core curriculum at Blackfeet Community College. In the meantime, our research on network sovereignty in the community continues… Stay tuned. 

Bio: Tara Hite was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and studied computer programming at the International Business College in Indianapolis. She has worked as a computing and information technology instructor at Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana. Also known as Tea, she lives with her three children and husband in the Blackfeet community in Montana. She is interested in computer literacy, dog rescue, and anything to do with plants.