Aboriginal higher learner success factors at vancouver community college

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Research Methods and Tools

The research inquiry methods used were focus groups with learners and interviews with key college stakeholders from senior leadership. The findings from the focus groups and interviews were informed by the literature review. The intent of using mixed methods was to include more than one source of information. This use of more than one source of information is called triangulation, which, according to Glesne (2006), contributes to the trustworthiness of the data. In addition, Glesne has stated,

Although multiple data-collection methods is the most common form of triangulation in qualitative research, triangulation in order to increase confidence in research findings may also involve the incorporation of multiple kinds of data sources (i.e., not just teachers, but students and parents as well), multiple investigators, and multiple theoretical perspectives. (p. 36)

Combined, these research tools and multiple data sources provided a greater understanding of how to support the success of Aboriginal higher learners. This included the feedback from senior leaders who contributed to the recommendations that consider “the complexities of the democratic decision making process, the allocation of power and authority, the development of coalitions the trade-offs with interest groups, profession guilds and salient publics” (Weiss, as cited in Palys & Atchison, 2008, p. 302).

In order to ensure the validity and trustworthiness of the data, verification procedures were inherent in the research process and included: prolonged engagement and persistent observation, triangulation, peer review and debriefing, clarification of researcher bias, member checking, and rich, thick description (Palys & Atchison, 2008, pp. 37–38). Participants who contributed to these validity measures included: (a) the research participants to ensure that they and their ideas were represented accurately (p. 38); (b) peer review, including the Manager of Operations of the Consortium; and (c) my research team. Subjectivity that contributed to the validity and trustworthiness of the data was monitored through a field journal, with reflections on my own personal education path, the significant challenges I have faced, the success I am now realizing, and how my understandings may contribute to improving others’ lives. Ultimately, however, the goal of the research conduct was

from an Indigenous paradigm [is] to be authentic or credible. By that I mean that the research must accurately reflect and build upon the relationships between the ideas and the participants. The analysis must be true to the voices of all the participants and reflect and understandings of the topic that is shared by researcher and participants alike. In other words it has to hold to relational accountability. . . .. It has to benefit the community. (Wilson, 2008, pp. 101102)


Focus Groups

The first phase of research was conducting four focus groups with fifteen Aboriginal learners. Focus groups have an advantage over interviews to place “opinions ‘on the table’ where differences between perspectives can be highlighted and negotiated. This process allows participants to embellish upon positions, discuss related dynamics, and articulate the rationale(s) underlying their perspective” (Morgan, as cited in Palys & Atchison, 2008, p. 159). This process also enables participants to express their experience and perspective in their own terms, without the constraints of interpretive frameworks derived from researcher perspectives, professional or technical language, or theoretical constructs (Stringer, 2007, pp. 73–74). The second major advantage Morgan identified is “the opportunity to ‘witness’ (as opposed to influence) extensive interaction on a topic within a relatively limited time frame” (p. 159). Focus groups also support indigenous methodology “because when you’re relating a personal narrative, then you’re getting into a relationship with someone” (Wilson, 2008, p. 115) and minimize any power imbalances. My role was “more facilitative and less directive” (p. 160) than in interview settings, which further protected participants from undue influence.

There are, however, limitations to focus groups, where power dynamics inherent within individual participants can limit open communication. This was mitigated by establishing common demographic groups where learners had a shared understanding or perspective and where safety was more likely achieved, resulting in approximately five focus groups. A sharing circle was used as a method to establish trust and to ensure all participants had a shared voice in the group. This provided an additional advantage to the research by minimizing “[the] common mistake in interviewing, [which] is to ask questions about a topic before promoting a level of trust that allows respondents to be open and expansive” (Glesne, 2006, p. 84). Using a sharing circle format also satisfied Morgan’s recommendations (as cited in Palys & Atchison, 2008) to begin with an experiential question that “allows everyone to take turns in answering and thus gets everyone feeling comfortable talking” (p. 103).


Three interview participants from VCC senior leadership were invited by email, at which time they were provided the interview questions (see Appendix E) and consent form (see Appendix F), which they were asked to sign and return at the time of the interview. Interview questions were designed using an appreciative inquiry discovery method. Interview participants were also provided a review of focus group feedback and themes. They discussed the focus group findings that informed finalizing data themes and explored an emergent collaborative path for how the college could commit to supporting Aboriginal learner success. The process for these meetings included “presenting research, possible futures, gain acceptance, and flesh out propositions” (N. Agger-Gupta, personal communication, February 23, 2010). Finally, these interviews included a discussion on recommendations and areas for further research that may arise from the iterative cycles of action research.

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